November 8, 2011

Still Magical

Retrace your memory back to the time when you first heard about the NBA. Not the time that you became a fan, the time that you first experienced anything NBA-related. It may have been a game you caught on TV flipping channels years ago; it may have been Ahmad Rashad and Summer Sanders bringing you the 'Inside Stuff'; an news item in the paper (and for really young fans, the internet); a jersey worn by an older cousin; or a cocky mention on the basketball court ("I'm gonna break your ankles like Iverson did to Tyrone Lue").

For those of us who grew up in India, especially in the 80s or the 90s, one had to be really alternative to know much details about any other sport apart from cricket, which had the advantage of mainstream overdose that constantly poked at us. (No, WWF does NOT count as a sport, sorry!). Sure, there were some other names I heard about before hitting the age of 10 here and there: Mike Tyson, Michael Johnson, Pete Sampras, Diego Maradona... But there was little that my young mind understood about them. My attention was too transfixed with the Sachin Tendulkars and the Sanjay Manjrekars (and The Undertakers) of the world.

And years before I became the NBA-addict that I am today, I only knew two names which had any sort of relevance to me when the word 'basketball' was mentioned. The first one, of course, was Michael Jordan. Not only the greatest player of all time, MJ was also the first one to make the NBA and the game of basketball truly international. Those who didn't know what a basketball was had heard of Jordan. Between the multiple rings, scoring titles, MVPs, highlight plays, Nike ads, and Space Jam, MJ was almost bigger than the game itself.

The other name was also an MJ - but that's not what we ever called him - we called him by just 1 effervescent nickname, a nickname so popular that many casual fans don't even remember his real name. A nickname that suits him so perfectly that, even if you didn't know he was called by that name, you would remark with that one word whenever you watched him play, gliding and dominating and controlling the basketball court like a wizard. This other name, was Magic.

In the following years, a lot more names came into my consciousness as a growing NBA fan. I heard about a Shaq, heard about a Scottie Pippen and a Dennis Rodman. Heard the names Karl Malone, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Allen Iverson. And then the floodgates opened.

But before anyone else, there were Michael and Magic. Even in today's NBA, the biggest names like Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Dwight, and Durant never achieved fame the way Michael and Magic did.

Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, in my eyes the second greatest basketball player of all time, and the best point guard - by a long shot. You all know about the accolades already. Between an incredible period of 1979-1991 with the Lakers, Magic won five NBA championships, three MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, was an All Star 11 times, reached the NBA Finals eight times, and was named in the All-NBA first team 9 times, for every year from 1983-91. He averaged an incredible 19.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg, and 7.3 apg in this period.

But with Magic, it would be insulting to his legacy if we allowed numbers to tell the full story. On the court, Magic was the orchestrator of the most eye-catching offense in NBA history. A 6 foot 9 point guard with the ability to play every single position on the court (which he did) and to score, rebound, and create with equal ease, he embodied the phrase 'Showtime'. No disrespect to his greatest challenger (Larry Bird) or his successor (Michael Jordan), but Magic simply owned the 80s.

But I was far too young to be aware of these accomplishments during the glory years. Nevertheless, as I grew up, and even as Magic begun the slow decline after the apex of his glittering career, his influence on the court, and thus his worldwide fame, remained.

20 years ago, Magic gained fame - or notoriety - for a very different, tragic reason.

It was November 1991, and the 91-92 NBA season was ready to gear off. Magic was coming off yet another Finals appearance where his Lakers lost to the Michael Jordan and the Bulls (officially beginning MJ's reign of awesomeness). He had been incredible as usual in the 90-91 season, averaging 19.4 ppg and 12.5 apg as he led his squad to the Finals. He had been named in the All-NBA first team and an All Star once more. Business as usual.

But on November 7th, Magic Johnson called perhaps the saddest press conference in the history of NBA basketball: He had contracted the HIV virus and, after just 12 years in the league, he was going to retire from the Lakers and from the NBA. A wizard had suddenly been exposed, the magic tricks seemed to be over, the smile that the whole world was charmed by seemed to be tainted. Magic Johnson wasn't just the most popular NBA player anymore, he was the most popular person in the world with HIV.

I remember hearing about this, very vaguely , a few years later, when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. At that point, I didn't care enough about basketball legacy to realise how big a loss it would be for an NBA sans Magic. To me, he was a famous person who was about to die; that didn't make me happy.

But of course, he didn't die. Magic lived on, year after year after year. Our morbid expectations soon ended, too: We weren't waiting for him to die anymore, he lived on, and is still alive, still kicking, 20 years later. HIV may have paused his basketball-playing career, but thankfully, it didn't halt his life.

And the reason I say that his contraction of the HIV virus only 'paused' his basketball career is because he came back to play. His brief comeback into the mainstream as a basketball star after the announcement was perhaps as amazing as his great career before it.

I read a fantastic article by Jack McCallum for Sports Illustrated today that detailed those days after Magic's announcement, and then, reminded me of some of his achievements. Magic retired in November 1991, but even a great player with HIV is still a great player: despite not playing against the world's best basketball players on a regular basis that season, Magic returned to play in the NBA All Star Game in Orlando three months later. He was, well, still an All Star, still a Superstar. Starting for the Western Conference team, Magic played 29 minutes, scored 25 points, dished out 9 assists and grabbed 5 rebounds. Like he had done so many times before, he led his team to a comfortable victory (153-113) and walked away with the All Star MVP award. It was the first and only time that a retired player was an All Star, and the first, only, and perhaps the last time that a retired player was an All Star MVP.

And you know what happened less than six months later? Magic Johnson was back playing basketball at the biggest stage in the world, as the floor general leading the world's greatest ever assembly of superstars - the Dream Team, Team USA - which descended upon Barcelona, Spain, at the 1992 Olympics. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and more were on the same side, eating apart every opponent on the world stage. And their point guard was a retired Magic Johnson, back to show the world that he still had it.

Three years later, Magic attempted a comeback to the NBA. He played 32 games, starting 9 of them, for the Lakers in the 1995-96 season. Now over 36 years old, he was a step slower, sure, but there was still a little bit of wizardry left. Trying to play as a point-power-forward (he's 6 foot 9, remember!) Magic averaged 14.6, 6.9, and 5.7 in just under 30 minutes per game. He also notched his 138th, and last, tripled double of his career in this season, going out as second only to Oscar Robertson in triple doubles, and with the most of anyone in the modern, post-expansion era.

A year ago, I borrowed five DVDs from a Laker-obsessed special friend of mine. Each of these DVDs celebrated a different era of the Lakers several championship runs, starting from George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, right through the Jerry West/Baylor/Chamberlain era in LA, to the Kareem/Magic years, and up till Shaq/Kobe. Nothing amazed me more than the Magic part: Never before had I seen something quiet so... mesmerising... on a basketball court. (Watch these 6:07 worth of highlights if you don't believe me.) I had always considered him to be the second greatest ever - behind Michael - and watching some of his games, extended highlights, and reactions to his brilliance at the time made me fall in love with his game all over again.

I wish I was old enough to enjoy his brilliance in his prime as it was played out: I wish all basketball fans had been lucky enough to watch him play; so that we could watch the greatest magician pull his most amazing trick - mesmerising an opponent with breathtaking ability, and then crushing him with his killer instinct.

In May 1996, The Lakers got swept by the Rockets in the first round, and with that, Magic Johnson had played his last professional basketball game. It came nearly five years after his shocking HIV announcement. He was still alive, still thriving. It's been 20 years now since that announcement, and 15 years since that last game, and one of the most exciting players to run on a basketball court is still amongst us. If his career was magical, than his life has been even more so.

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