Column: Magic vs. Vin, the smile vs. the voice, as L.A.’s greatest sports icon

Magic Johnson, left, and Vin Scully are the two finalists in the Los Angeles Times’ month-long tournament to determine “The Biggest Icon In L.A. Sports History”
Magic Johnson, left, and Vin Scully are the two finalists in the Los Angeles Times’ month-long tournament to determine “The Biggest Icon In L.A. Sports History
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Magic versus Vin.

It’s a duel of such familiarity, only first names are required.

It’s the creator of Showtime versus the bard of Chavez Ravine; the most impactful Laker versus the most enduring Dodger; the smile versus the voice.

You could have guessed that the Los Angeles Times’ monthlong tournament to determine “The Biggest Icon In L.A. Sports History” would eventually come down to this, right? After more than 275,000 votes covering six rounds that whittled 128 entrants to two, the finals are what anyone Angeleno might have thought they would be.

It is Magic Johnson versus Vin Scully in a compelling contest that spans Los Angeles’ two greatest sports franchises, covers much of its greatest sports eras, and settles on what is clearly its two greatest legends.

The final online voting begins today at (or you can click here to vote) and lasts all week, with the final results to be announced on the morning of May 26 by Houston Mitchell, The Times’ assistant sports editor, who ran the tournament.

The final matches men who perfectly match the definition of the tournament name. Both revered. Both idolized. Both very much Los Angeles.

And they both dominated most of the competition on the way to the finals. The four brackets featured many stars, but few came close to matching the wattage of the most glamorous Laker and the most trusted Dodger.

Johnson blew past Paul Westphal, Cheryl Miller, Chick Hearn and even Kobe Bryant in the first four rounds, earning at least 63% of the vote in each matchup. He then squeaked past John Wooden in the fifth round with 53% before dominating Jackie Robinson with 68% of the vote in the semifinals.

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

It was surprising that Bryant and Robinson didn’t advance further in the contest. Both men could have won the tournament with few eyebrows raised, but, it turns out, neither possessed the overwhelming local magic of Magic.


That Bryant only received 37% against Johnson is likely a testament to the polarizing nature of Bryant’s personality. Even though each won five titles, and even though Johnson has called Bryant the greatest Laker, Bryant ruled with a swagger while Johnson reigned with a hug. The voters may not have voted for the bigger icon as much as for the more embraceable one.

As for Robinson, it is crazy to think that arguably the most influential icon in sports history couldn’t even win that title in his own hometown. But the thing is, most folks don’t really associate Robinson with Los Angeles. Even though he grew up in Pasadena and played at Pasadena College and UCLA, he broke baseball’s color barrier and spent his entire career in Brooklyn, later retiring in Connecticut. This is why probably why he collected only 32% of the vote in the semifinals against Johnson, who grew up in Lansing, Mich., but spent the rest of his life in Hollywood.

‘Never fear, Magic is here’: On May 16, 1980, with the Cap sidelined with an ankle injury, Magic Johnson launched a decade of Lakers ‘Showtime’ dominance.

Scully was more dominant than Johnson in his run to the finals, garnering more than 90% of the vote in five of the six rounds, wiping out fellow Dodgers Orel Hershiser, Tommy Lasorda and Sandy Koufax. He collected 93% of the vote in the semifinals against the Fearsome Foursome, who had advanced by edging Marcus Allen by one percentage point earlier in the tournament, before also defeating Pete Carroll.

The fact that Carroll failed to reach the finals likely aligns with the reason Wooden also fell short. Only in Los Angeles, it seems, could one of the best coaches in college football history and the absolute best coach in college basketball history not win a biggest-icon poll. That’s because, when you’re asking anyone in town to vote on anybody associated strictly with USC or UCLA, half the city immediately turns its back.

So now it’s Magic versus Vin, and who ya got?

If it boils down to Lakers fans versus Dodgers fans, Magic will win, because the Lakers own this town. Yet, if those fans put aside their partisanship and focus on this city’s sport tradition, Vin will win, because he was announcing Dodgers games before Magic was born.

So do you go with the great basketball player and civic leader, or with the great baseball broadcaster and civic institution? Do you pick the guy who looks like Los Angeles, or the guy who sounds like Los Angeles?

Vin Scully
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Scully is clearly the sentimental choice. He broadcast Dodgers games for 67 years, the longest tenure of any announcer for any sports team in history. For the entirety of his career, he was a city’s very public role model for honesty and integrity.

He bonded Dodger Stadium’s wide-ranging fan base with his warmth, wit and inclusiveness. As baseball became more populated with African American and Latino players, he was a verbal champion of both.

He didn’t just narrate Dodgers culture, he became that culture. His opening phrase, “It’s time for Dodger baseball,” is recited on the field before every Dodgers home game. Generations of fans considered him a family member, and he loved them back. After his final home broadcast in 2016, he serenaded the Dodger Stadium crowd with “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Vin Scully would be a perfect selection for “Biggest Icon in L.A. Sports History.”

Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully says the coronavirus outbreak is unlike anything he’s ever seen, but he finds hope in a time of despair.

But, based on breadth of impact and diversity of influence, my vote would go to Magic Johnson.

Consider the unreal truth that Magic Johnson’s five NBA titles as the leader of the most beloved era in Los Angeles sports might not be his greatest achievement.

After his premature retirement in 1991, having announced he was HIV positive — a diagnosis he publicly acknowledged even in those intolerant times — he became a tireless advocate in the fight to cure AIDS. He also became a fearless inner-city entrepreneur whose many businesses operated in underserved communities.

His reputation took a hit in recent years when he tried to run the Lakers in 2017, and it was damaged even more when he suddenly quit two years later. But by then, his widespread positive influence on this city’s social, economic and sports landscapes had already been cemented.

There was no warning. There were no rumors.

Both men are worthy of recognition as L.A.'s biggest sports icon, but you can only pick one. You’ve heard one opinion, now is the time to voice yours.

Magic versus Vin, who ya got?

Scully vs. Magic

How Vin Scully and Magic Johnson made it to the finals:

Scully’s trail (seeded second in baseball regional):

Defeated No. 31 John Roseboro, 98%-2%

Defeated No. 18 Nolan Ryan, 93%-7%

Defeated No. 7 Orel Hershiser, 95%-5%

Defeated No. 3 Tommy Lasorda, 92%-8%

Defeated No. 1 Sandy Koufax, 75%-25%

Defeated No. 5 (in football regional) Fearsome Foursome, 93%-7%

Magic’s trail (seeded first in basketball regional):

Defeated No. 32 Paul Westphal, 98%-2%

Defeated No. 16 Cheryl Miller, 97%-3%

Defeated No. 9 Chick Hearn, 75%-25%

Defeated No. 3 Kobe Bryant, 63%-37%

Defeated No. 2 John Wooden, 53%-47%

Defeated No. 1 (in wild-card regional) Jackie Robinson, 68%-32%