Saturday afternoon, Earvin Johnson was relaxing in a Phoenix hotel room, watching some TV hoops.
The Hawks were playing the Mavericks, and during a lull in the action, CBS analyst Billy Cunningham was chatting about the league. He mentioned the new, improved Houston Rockets, shorn of Ralph Sampson, and said something like, “Better watch out for the Rockets, Riles (Laker coach Pat Riley).”
Magic Johnson was stunned.
“I just shook my head,” Johnson said Monday, shaking his head.
A fairly innocuous remark to the rest of the world, those words from Cunningham ruined Magic’s day. He simmered. He simmered some more Sunday. Monday he caught fire.
Monday, Billy C’s words ruined the Houston Rockets’ day.
Magic Johnson, playing with a chip the size of Billy Cunningham on his shoulder, destroyed the Rockets at the Forum.
He scored 39 points, a Laker individual high for the season. Magic’s high had been 31. He made 15 of 20 shots and dished off the ball so fast he looked like a guy in the park speed-feeding the pigeons. Seventeen assists.
In the first quarter alone, Johnson had 15 points and 9 assists.
It was this kind of quarter: If you somehow get a video cassette of this 12 minutes, file it away. Twenty years from now, when your kid or grandkid asks you, “What were the Lakers and Magic like, Pops?” you just slip this one into the old VCR and go back to your whittling.
The quarter ended with Michael Cooper somehow breaking up a three-on-Coop Houston fast break, then Magic busting a junior-junior-junior skyhook.
In the quarter, the Lakers had a string of 18 shots without a miss. That’s impressive in pregame layup drills, let alone serious game time against a big conference rival.
What happened, Magic? Did Billy C’s comments fire you up?
“Yeah, definitely,” Johnson said. “Ever since I’ve been here (in Los Angeles), we really haven’t gotten the recognition we deserve. We’re always second or third fiddle to someone, usually teams back East, even when we win the championship.”
That’s debatable. But if paranoia be the food of motivation, feast on, Lakers. Who am I do de-inspire a team bound for glory by telling them that the rest of the league fears, respects and loathes them above all others?
“One day before I leave this planet, or before I leave this game, maybe the Lakers will get what they deserve,” Magic said.
Magic seemed to leave the planet Monday, at least temporarily. The Rockets put 6-foot 2-inch Allen Leavell on Magic. He posted up Leavell and ran him to death. So the Rockets tried quick, 6-7 Purvis Short. Magic went around Short so many times, Purvis thought he was a Maypole.
They gave 6-3 guard World B. Free a shot at Magic, with double-team and triple-team help, and--surprise!--Johnson kept finding open Lakers to pass to.
He pushed the ball relentlessly, worked the Rocket defense like a 6-9 Bo Jackson. Magic’s teammates, playing harmony, picked and rolled and cut and moved and kept getting passes for open shots.
“There was nothing nobody could do,” Free said. “Magic is playing the game the way the game is meant to be played.”
The Rockets, a team still in the getting-to-know-you stage of post-Sampson development, could only stand and watch.
“Strictly awesome,” Laker sub Wes Matthews said. “Whenever (Magic) tunes in like that, turns on the jets, he finds everyone . The options and the weapons on this team are so awesome. We’re lethal.”
It was an uncharacteristically fast start for the Lakers, and an unusually big offensive game for Johnson. He was 10th in league scoring last season, but has slipped three points this season, to 20.1, 20th in the league.
“I’ve been running up against so many defenses,” Johnson said. “I get double-teamed, triple-teamed. For the first time (in his career), they’re not letting me get into it. They double me from way outside to inside.
“I hadn’t really been in the offensive flow lately, because Byron (Scott) has been carrying it. But I knew the Rockets would probably try to stop Byron, and I would have to be the focus of the offense. I had to get into it.”
When he did, he seemed to take the Forum fans by surprise. When Riley took Johnson out of the game at the end of the amazing first quarter, Magic got a standing ovation--from about 3 of the 17,505 fans. Same thing happened late in the fourth quarter. A pitter-patter of polite applause. It was like yawning when a friend shows you his Picasso.
But even the quiet house didn’t bother Johnson.
“The fans have been great all year,” he said. “They love us. I can’t knock ‘em.”
What’s not to love? If you can’t get behind this team, you might as well go home and wait for spring training. Hoops ain’t your sport, sport.
As for you, Billy C., thanks for a memorable Monday afternoon at the Forum.