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Column: The First Dance: The night Magic launched the ‘Showtime’ dynasty

Magic Johnson, center, is embraced by trainer Jack Curran and teammate Butch Lee after the Lakers defeated the 76ers to win the 1980 NBA title.
Magic Johnson, center, is embraced by trainer Jack Curran and teammate Butch Lee after the Lakers defeated the 76ers 123-107 to clinch the 1980 NBA title.
(Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re looking for a new home and have a thing for nostalgia, boy, do I have the listing for you. This 4,400-square-foot Bel-Air estate sits on a double lot and comes with a fireplace in the master bedroom, tennis court, pool and a piano nook walled in glass. The four-bedroom Georgian style home is the perfect spot for either a growing family or a power broker who lives to entertain. Trust me, treasures like this are rare. In fact, this particular home is on the market for the first time since 1984.

That’s the year Jerry Buss sold it.

“I thought about (buying it) but it is a lot of house for one person,” said Jeanie Buss, who stopped by her old home to reminisce after learning it went on the market this spring. “A lot of great memories happened there.”

At the time of the sale, the Lakers had appeared in the NBA Finals four times in the five years since the Buss family had bought the franchise from Jack Kent Cooke, winning the championship twice. The L.A. Strings, the family’s first sports franchise, won the TeamTennis title in 1981. The Kings, which were acquired along with the Lakers, had yet to make a deep playoff run but they did have the 1982 Miracle on Manchester. Against Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, who built a 1980s dynasty, the Kings fought back from a 5-0 deficit in Game 3 of their first-round matchup to win in overtime 6-5. The Kings, the team with the fewest points in the playoffs, eliminated the Oilers before falling in the next round.

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Great memories indeed.

The first time 18-year-old Jeanie Buss met 20-year-old rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson was in this house. It was also the spot where young Jeanie and her friends watched the Lakers clinch the 1980 NBA Finals with a 123-107 defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers. It was also where Jerry Buss told his daughter not to bother flying to Philadelphia for the game.

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Magic Johnson leads the Lakers to victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

“He didn’t want a bunch of people to go there to watch us lose,” she said. “We were thinking about Game 7 back at the Forum.

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“Knowing what we know now, of course I would have gone. But Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) was injured and not going to play and we knew they had a great team… Who knew Magic was going to do what he did?”

‘Never fear, Magic is here.’

Magic knew.

“When I got to the airport, I could see all the guys and their heads were down,” Johnson told me last month. “When we found out that Kareem was not going and was not going to be able to play in Game 6, I said, ‘Man, I got to figure out a way to help these guys to understand that we can still win the game.’ And so I was sitting there thinking, ‘They have to understand that we got to have a winning attitude and mindset going on this five-hour plane ride. And if we don’t, they’re just going to blow us out.’

“The first thing I thought of is Cap always sat in the first seat. So I went up and asked the stewardess, ‘Could I go on first?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to fill this seat.’ And as every Laker went by, I said, ‘Never fear. Magic is here.’ So they started laughing. And so that kind of got them going. So as we closed the door and got up in the air, I just went around to each guy and told them, ‘Listen, man, we can beat this team without Kareem.’”

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At LAX, on the eve of the clincher, Magic Johnson assured Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his teammates that all would be fine in the absence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
(For the Times)

Few things can penetrate our loud, cluttered culture quite like the moment when the exceptional announces its arrival. Think Michael Jackson’s moonwalk during the “Motown 25" special or Tom Cruise lip-syncing Bob Seger in “Risky Business.”

“I learned how effective Earvin could be when he was free to do all the different things that win a game,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Run the offense, rebound at both ends of the court, and run the fast break with quickness and efficiency. All this as a relatively inexperienced 20-year-old. It was like seeing a race horse freed of weights, saddle, and rider just run for the love of speed.”

To fully grasp how unexpected his 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance was in Game 6, there are a few things you need to remember.

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First, Johnson was not a scorer; he averaged a shade under 18 points a game his rookie year, with a high of 31. Second, he was not the league’s best rookie. That was his rival Larry Bird, who not only won Rookie of the Year but was also named to the All-NBA first team while Magic settled for first-team All-Rookie. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this wasn’t his team.

“It was like seeing a race horse freed of weights, saddle, and rider just run for the love of speed.”

-Kareem Abdul Jabbar on Magic Johnson

The Boston Celtics, who had the league’s best record, had clearly handed the deed to Bird. But the Lakers still belonged to Abdul-Jabbar, who was named the season’s MVP. If anyone was expected to turn in a transcendent performance in a close-out game on the road , it would have been the Cap, who in Game 5 scored 40 points and pulled down 15 rebounds despite turning an ankle in the second half of a 108-103 win.

“I made a shot moving to my right and landed on Lionel Hollins’ foot,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled. “I was told after they taped me that I couldn’t afford to hurt it any more. But by the fourth quarter, I realized I could still make a difference in the outcome and decided I would go back in. Every professional athlete plays hurt from time to time but it’s hard to remember the pain when you’re fighting for a championship. We all know that the pain will pass, but the ring is forever.”

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42-15-7

It’s been 40 years since that franchise-altering night in Philadelphia and nearly everyone I spoke with for this story — Magic, Cap, the Logo, Silk, Coop and half a dozen others—could recite Johnson’s stat line from memory.

42-15-7.

“It catapulted him into the upper echelon,” said Hollins, now a Lakers assistant coach. “When he left Michigan State there was nothing left for him to do in college. He was ready in every sense of the word mentally, physically, and emotionally. When he came in from the start he showed how good he really was.”

Jerry West, then the Lakers’ GM, called the game Johnson’s coronation.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals.
Even after turning his ankle in the third quarter of Game 5, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 14 of his 40 points in the final 12 minutes. The league MVP would miss Game 6.
(Associated Press)

“I felt we had a better team going in, so it didn’t surprise me that we won the championship,” he said. “But it surprised me that we won with Kareem out. That’s what makes that win so special. It was a coming-out party for (Johnson) and the success that followed was a testament to his greatness and his drive to get better every year.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s injury forced the Lakers to play small ball in Game 6. Not 2020 small ball, with its reliance on the three— the Lakers were 0-2 from downtown — but by ramping up the pace. Not only did the speed of play negate the 76ers size advantage inside, it left Philadelphia scrambling defensively, especially in the second half when the Lakers outscored the 76ers by 16, and 20 at the foul line.

“Who in their right mind would have a good feeling with Kareem not playing?” Lakers coach Paul Westhead joked. “Without him we wouldn’t have gotten that far. To try to continue on without him. . . if you were a thoughtful basketball person, you didn’t see much of a chance.

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“Looking back the most important decision I made was on the flight, I decided to have Magic jump center. I said ‘Can you play center?’ and he said ‘yeah, I can play center, played some center in high school’ which sounds crazy now but you have to remember, at the time that wasn’t that long ago.”

“Even though it looked bleak because we didn’t know if Kareem could play in Game 7, we wanted to believe we had a chance,” said Jamaal Wilkes, whose 37-point, 10–rebound game has been overlooked. “To be honest, after the game I believe we were all shocked.”

They were shocked but some of the 76ers , who had 59 wins that year, were reduced to tears, according to 76ers guard Henry Bibby.

“I remember walking the hallway of the Spectrum and all of the bright lights on the Lakers and Magic’s big smile all over the place and we were just dejected,” he said. “We thought we had a shot.

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‘I said ‘Can you play center’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I can play center, played some center in high school’

-Lakers coach Paul Westhead

“It was relatively quiet in the locker room afterwards. No one said a lot … that was the game for us to win. We were at home, we had a chance to make some things happen. It just takes the air out of you when a team comes in and beats you on your home floor without their best player. . . But the way Magic was playing, he was just unstoppable.. He was down there shooting the hook shot as well as Kareem.”

Yes, the baby sky hook. It wasn’t something Magic planned.

“I had shot a couple of hook shots at Michigan State but it was in the moment,” he said. “When you’re playing against a guy that can jump like Dr. J, you got to get that shot up (because) he had great leaping ability. So I said, ‘OK. The one thing that I can do is turn to that baseline and take that hook.’ ”

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Magic Johnson was the MVP of the 1980 NBA Finals.
(Associated Press)

Though it’s true that Johnson played all five positions in that game, the grunt work in the blocks still went to a traditional big man, the 6-foot-11 Jim Chones, who chipped in with a double-double and successfully harassed the formidable Darryl Dawkins.

Contributions came in all sizes. Westhead said the beauty of the victory was that it was a team effort. Not only were the Lakers without Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon had a severely injured ring finger on his off-hand, hampering his ability to shoot and putting him in jeopardy of missing Game 7. Reserve guard Brad Holland, who played four minutes in the first five games, picked up the slack with eight points in nine minutes.

“What Magic said in the locker room before going out on the court, that will always stick with me,” Holland said. “He reminded us that all of the pressure was on them. He said we could afford to lose because we had Game 7 in our back pocket. All the pressure was on them because they didn’t have that luxury. That just made so much sense to everybody and we just played loose.”

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Outside of the Lakers’ locker room, a return west for Game 7 was considered a virtual certainty.

“We were coming in two hours before the game and a guard was ushering us into the locker room,” Westhead said. “ I hear these loud noises like hammering and there are three or four carpenters, drilling and pounding wood.

“The NBA office had to remind them to build a stage just in case a miracle actually happened. They had made no preparation and afterwards I can remember the stage being very small and compact. I also remember reporters not flying to Philadelphia for Game 6 because they assumed we were going to lose, so they stayed in L.A. to wait for Game 7. I wondered what they did for their stories.”

A new era in sports history

Magic Johnson wipes the face of Lakers owner Jerry Buss after he poured champagne on him following the Lakers' 1980 NBA championship victory over the 76ers.
(Bettmann / CORBIS)
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As life would have it, May 16, 1980 was also the national release date for “Fame” the cult classic flick about a Manhattan high school for the performing arts. In it Debbie Allen delivers a classic line: “You’ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying… in sweat.”

I’m fairly certain none of the Lakers was able to catch the movie before the win that would launch the Showtime dynasty, but isn’t it apropos for the team that few thought had a chance would go out and kick-start a new era in sports history?

“It’s definitely top five, if not the No. 1 game I was involved in,” said Nixon, who married Allen four years later. ”The pressure, the significance, now that I think about it, I would have to rank that game as the most memorable. We felt we had a chance and we just went out there and took it. All of us. Magic had a great game. Jamaal too. But basketball is a team sport and it took a team to get it done.”

The arrivals of Magic and Bird are rightly described as the NBA’s pivot toward the cultural Colossus it is today. But on this night, 40 years ago, a Finals clincher was relegated to tape delay on CBS, which preferred to broadcast reruns of “Dallas” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” in prime time. Only the L.A., Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland markets showed the game live.

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Just another example as to how much things have changed: Michael Cooper said when the Lakers boarded the flight out east, “we had a boom box playing Frankie Beverly and Maze”— can’t do that anymore. Lon Rosen, Johnson’s longtime agent and current Dodgers executive, was an intern for the Lakers at the time. He drove Wilkes in a convertible for the championship parade. “People could just walk right up to the car back then,” Rosen said. “There was so little security, imagine trying to do that now, it would never happen.”

Laker fans mobbed Johnson during the downtown parade in a way that is unthinkable today.
(Los Angeles Public Library)

Those same fans were able to walk right up to the convertible that carried Johnson, who had not only set in motion the Showtime Lakers’ dynasty, but a city’s decade of sports dominance: five NBA titles, two World Series championships, a Super Bowl trophy, a highly successful Olympics Games before it was all over.

A franchise revived, a dynasty at its dawn, the beginning of that L.A. Magic.


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