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The Day in Sports | Countdown to 2000 / A day-by-day
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April 19, 1979

The Day the Lakers Made a Little Magic


Considering their track record in previous coin flips for top draft choices, (0 or 1, when David Thompson was up for grabs in 1975) the headline writer couldn't help himself:

"Lakers Suddenly Get

Lucky; Is It Magic?"

Yes, it was Magic.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson, 19-year-old Michigan State sophomore, became a Laker because of a telephonic coin flip, and it happened 20 years ago today.

The Lakers made it to a flip-off with the Chicago Bulls for the NBA's first draft pick as compensation from New Orleans when the Jazz signed free agent Gail Goodrich before the 1976-77 season. Luckily for the Lakers, the Jazz finished the 1979 season with the league's worst record.

The Bulls had the worst record in the Eastern Conference. From 1966 to 1984, the NBA conducted a coin flip between the worst teams in its conferences for the first pick.

The flipper, in a three-way phone hookup, was Commissioner Larry O'Brien in New York. He asked Chicago General Manager Rod Thorn if he wanted to make the call.

"We'd love to," Thorn said.

O'Brien: "Is that OK with you, Los Angeles?"

"Fine," said Chick Hearn, speaking for General Manager Bill Sharman, rendered silent by strained vocal cords.

"We call heads," Thorn said.

"Tails it is," said O'Brien, and the Lakers had the first draft pick for the first time in their 19 Los Angeles seasons.

At first, they didn't indicate they'd take Johnson, and in fact said they were taking a long look at Arkansas guard Sidney Moncrief.

"It's very close between he [Moncrief] and Magic," Sharman said. "Moncrief might be a little ahead at this point as a player. I'm not sure who we'll take. It hasn't been decided."

Sudden thought: What if Chicago had won the flip and taken Johnson? And five years later, where would Michael Jordan have wound up in the 1984 draft?

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