Earvin “Magic” Johnson is the greatest player of all time? He is the best team player of all time and Basketball in a team sport? He changed the sport from the Wild World of Sports motto “thrill of victory to the agony of defeat” into two plus hours of entertainment. It changed from an 11:30PM playoff telecast to primetime. He understood the game better than any coach or player before he entered the NBA. I had been watching and playing basketball for 15 years before I saw Magic play. In that very first game when Kareem won it with a Skyhook I watched, jaw dropped for the entire game. Why, I never saw anyone play the game where everything he did took advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses. Magic getting a rebound, running ahead of opponents on the court, and making no-look passes created mismatches and advantages. Still not done today by anyone, I hoped someone could have learned from him. Jason Kidd was the closest.
My second best NBA player of all time is Larry Bird. After these it is your call. Many might say Michael Jordan is the best player. I will tell you why not. When Michael Jordan came into the NBA he definitely showed he was a great player. In his second season after coming back from injury I watched his 63 point playoff game against the Celtics, Wow! Yet he still did not win anything.
He had a nemesis in the 80’s. No it was not Magic Johnson. No it was not Larry Bird, although his Celtics kept him from advancing in the East. His nemesis was that he did not know how to win. He had to learn how to win. Magic and Bird knew how to win as rookies. Michael did not. M.J. meandered in his first six NBA years without a championship. He was a great one-on-one player but not a team player.
Of course, it did not help either that the two greatest teams in NBA history also played in the 80’s. Yes the 80’s Lakers or Celtics teams would have beat the 60’s
Celtics. Further it did not help that the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons also were great teams. If the great Boston or Lakers team did not play the other three they would have had at least 8 championship paling Jordan’s six.
On Michael Jordan’s team an assistant coach got promoted to head coach, Phil Jackson. Phil implements a new way of playing the game using Tex Winter’s “The Triangle.” Michael Jordan did not like it and even asked Phil to scrap it. He did not understand the discipline it forced upon the players to stay in position. Position, spacing is everything in basketball to insure an easy shot, increasing your teams shooting percentage, and maximizing winning opportunities. Jordan got it and they won.
Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in NBA history taught Michael and teammates how to win a championship. If Phil never came to the Bulls and went to some other team Jordan would be lucky to get one.
It is very clear to me today that LeBron James is the most gifted basketball player of all-time yet he will not win anything without the proper coach to guide him, and the most important factor behind the scenes is the organization to put all the pieces in place. LeBron James is often compared to the previously most gifted player of the sixties who did not win a championship until his retirement year, Oscar Robertson.
Besides having the best coach in the NBA, Michael Jordan also had the luxury of no great competition. Probably the best competition the Houston Rockets they did not
meet. The next best team the Utah Jazz is not in the conversation for great teams. Magic and Bird also had it more difficult in the 80’s because of the competition. Not one team the Bulls faced in the 90’s was the caliber of the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, or Pistons. These teams were together for years and were perennial conference and finals contenders.
If Michael did not take the years off he did, he may have won 8 or 9 championships in the 90’s. Again, Phil Jackson made them clearly the best in the 90’s. Phil taught Michael how to win and he had excellent team mates, especially Scottie Pippen.
It is a team sport and no one does it alone so TEAM players are at a premium. The statement that Kobe has not won a championship without Shaq, or now Gasol is non-sense. You need 5 guys or forget it. Karl Malone got injured so the Lakers championship went poof against the Pistons in 2004, among other factors. You need five plus to win, Magic, Russell, Bird and Jordan won nothing alone. No player in NBA history won it alone!
When Phil Jackson came to the Lakers there were two pretty great players lumbering along leaving fans wondering if they would win. Shaq and Kobe had 3 years together and nothing. We don’t know as Kobe’s exponential learning curve climbed that a championship may have been on the horizon especially with two such great players. Phil Jackson showed up, taught them the triangle, and won a championship in his first year and 2 more. Phil taught Kobe and Shaq how to win as he did MJ and Scottie. Watching the Bulls win championships in the 90’s I thought they had the talent so they won. I did not give Phil Jackson any credit. I now know after seeing how he turned around the Lakers that Phil is the best. Talent is not enough. The 1977 76er’s probably had more talent then any team in NBA history yet lost to Portland.
Magic and Bird came into the game understanding it at a micro level bringing enthusiasm to their team mates. It was most beautiful to watch. They made the big play regardless of the form it took: shots, assists, steals, blocks and their defense. It was amazing how well Magic saw the court on the defensive end having a hand in deflecting passes because he saw the lanes so well and how Bird made the great passes before landing on the ground from a rebound. When they played it was always about team. It did not matter who scored so long as it was an easy score. It was all about being in the best possible condition and the best preparation so the victory required the least amount of effort. One NBA season in many games Magic did not need to play in the fourth quarter because the opponent was soundly beaten at third quarters end. Magic and Bird understood the game at a level beyond Phil Jackson. There play forced teammates to be in position.
Magic played the game with a passion and joy unlike any other player ever. The best smile in all sports. He worked harder on every play during the game than any other player in NBA history. He rebounded, fast-breaked down court, and each opponent he moved ahead of increased the offensive advantage. The effort in doing this every play amazed me. His three-quarter-court over-the-shoulder behind-his-back no-look pass in the NCAA Championship game was a taste of things to come. He invented the “no-look” pass. Do not listen to these foolish announcers around the league calling a “look-away” pass a “no-look.”
In the eighties the Forum was filled with celebrities because it was the best show in town. The game was not only about winning or loosing it was seeing the passes that made the crowd go WOW! Jordan and Kobe amaze me with the insane physical feats they can perform and when they did you said wow. Jordan’s great playoff shots over a falling down defensive opponent paled in comparison to Magic’s hook shot over the outstretched arms of McHale and Parish. The anticipation with Magic occurred every time he ran down court. Pay attention, oh you missed it.
The eighties was the best era in NBA basketball. It had the best competition. It had the greatest NBA Finals of all time. Magic and Bird brought a complete package to the NBA and raised the level of their teams play and raised the level of NBA play. How many championships would Magic or Bird have won if uncontested like the Bull’s if they played in the 90’s, probably 10 for either? Magic and his team mates’ even exorcised the Leprechauns from the Old Boston Garden’s slaughtering the Celtic mystique. It is not so much that the most physically gifted player is the best but who is the biggest gift to a team. Earvin “Magic” Johnson was that gift to the NBA who no longer plays pro-ball but every Magic basketball fan yearns for a second coming. There are many great players since Magic but none makes the game two plus hours of entertainment, SHOWTIME!