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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

A Lifetime Hall Pass

Magic's Hall of Fame induction was a slam dunk from Day 1, but that won't make it any less fun

September 27, 2002|MARK HEISLER

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The one, the only, the unforgettable and irreplaceable Magic Johnson is going into the Hall of Fame.

Gee, no kidding.

This one has been on the schedule since that night in 1980 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out and Johnson jumped center in the Finals, getting 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists against the 76ers and leading the Showtime Lakers to the first of five titles.

He was a 20-year-old rookie. Forget the old line about waiving the five-year rule. After that, they could have waived the rest of his career.

Johnson says it showed him he was as good as he hoped. It settled everyone else's doubts too, making this night inevitable, a pleasant (yawn) formality ... except for the fact this is Magic we're talking about.

He's having his friend and arch-foe Larry Bird present him tonight and gets goose pimples talking about it. Magic's family is thrilled at the honor being bestowed upon him. Magic is thrilled. In this life, even the inevitable is fun.

That was the secret of his success, immense as it would be. He was a discipline-transcending genius: at basketball, with people, most of all in life, a never-ending joy for him that he communicated to everyone around him.

He wasn't perfect. He could fire a coach and dribble out the clock in the Finals in Boston. In retirement, he lost his Teflon protection altogether and suffered embarrassments, for revelations about his sex life in his autobiography, for his awkward comebacks, for his brief career as a late-night TV talk show host. Once the world couldn't get enough of him; now he seemed overexposed.

Yet, unsinkable he was and is. Nothing ever kept him down, not even becoming HIV positive, which may be one reason he could surmount the death sentence that seemed to await him.

"When you think about it, it's not like he wasn't going to get elected," said Memphis Grizzly General Manager Jerry West. "He knew he was going to get elected.... [But] knowing him, he would be terribly excited, even though he knew he was going to be in there.

"It's a wonderful honor for one of the handful of great players that ever played the game. And he's one of the handful. And you could probably take one of those fingers off and he'd be one of four, five guys that left an indelible mark on this league."

West understands the implications of his math. He left his own indelible mark, but it's his place that Johnson took on the mythical all-time team.

Once, the Dream Backcourt was West and Oscar Robertson; now it's Magic and Michael Jordan. With Shaquille O'Neal emerging as the game's best center, and Bird, there's your five fingers, minus one.

All are/were not merely great, but transcendent, and none more than Johnson, who was such a brilliant point guard at his impossible height of 6 feet 9, he rendered the old concept of "position" meaningless, while additionally suffusing every team he was on with his will and enthusiasm, even when he was 20 and the guys he was ordering around were way older.

He came, he saw, he took over. No one could resist, even if veterans like Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes flipped out at the overt favoritism--like a $25-million "lifetime contract"--lavished on Johnson by the new owner, Jerry Buss.

Norm Nixon, the incumbent point guard who'd had to give up the ball, had famously mixed feelings, leading to a blowup in the first round of the '81 playoffs--a shocking loss to Houston, the last game ending after Magic, who was supposed to throw the ball to Kareem, drove into the lane and put up an airball.

Nevertheless, Nixon and Johnson also were tight, with Michael Cooper as Third Musketeer. They were so close that when Nixon was traded for Byron Scott, the remaining musketeers beat up Scott in practice for a week or two before finding out he could take it and becoming best friends with him too.

"There was a uniqueness about that whole [first] year and that started in the summer pro league," said Michael Cooper, who broke in alongside Johnson in 1980.

"They were playing that summer pro league at Cal State L.A. And all of a sudden they said, 'Hey, Magic's going to come play with us on a Friday night.' ... They opened up the top [deck]. And that had never been open the whole summer.

"And you could see the magicalness of it all. The place was full, it was hot. I remember that game so well. That was the time when we got our first Coop-a-Loop. We went over the top and I got a dunk. You could tell there was going to be something special, not only that young man but what he was bringing to the game of basketball....

"We're in our first game and Kareem hits that [game-winning] sky hook down in San Diego and Magic is wrapped around his neck. He's jumping up and down like we've just won a championship. And I know everybody has heard this, Kareem says, 'Hey, what you doing guy, we still got 81 more games to play.'

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