The importance of being Ervin “Magic” Johnson relies heavily on the ability to make the players around you play to the most efficient and effective level of their talents and abilities.
Your job is to make everyone better.
Game 6 of the 1980 Finals echoes in the halls of NBA history as one of the most complete performances by an individual player. On this extreme occasion, Magic had to make a single player better than the rest. He had to dominate the game. He had to make himself the best.
Kareem dominated the scoring column, averaging 33 points a game so far in the Finals. Out of the game with a twisted ankle, Cap could not provide his patented skyhook to help the Lakers close out the series against Dr.J’s Sixers at home. It was up to the rookie, Magic Johnson, to will his team to victory out of position. Magic jumped center and leapt over, passed, and around the competition with a mystical performance. He scored 42 points, collected 15 rebounds, dished out 7 assists, stole the ball three times, and even added a block. He did everything, played every position. He even poured in nine points down the stretch as Philly closed within two in the 4th. His legendary performance earned him an O’Brien trophy, an MVP trophy, and a place in the trophy case of Laker legends for all eternity. Although he still incorporated his teammates, he controlled the action.
In the beginning, the Lakers believed Steve Nash to assume this role, to make Kobe, Dwight, Pau, and everyone else the willing recipients of his pinpoint precision passing. Steve would sacrifice his scoring to make the Lakers’ all-star lineup better. He would set them up. They would become finishers. With the fluke injury to Nash, Kobe was pressed into this role, to run the show until the conductor returned. Kobe experienced a renaissance, surging into the lead of the scoring race, but the Lakers couldn’t find any consistency. It didn’t work.
Upon Nash’s return from a lengthier than expected absence, amidst expectations for his triumphant ascension into the realm of Magic, he would, with the wave of his bounce passes, immediately transform the Lakers into Showtime2. Nash, however, found himself the target of hounding defenders, collapsing defenses, and stampeding point guards charging to beat him back down the court. Presto, change-o, it didn’t work. The Lakers faltered and piled up losses.
Kobe, as the star power and principal scorer, must bear the burden of each loss personally. He is the focus of all of the questions. Why didn’t they win? Well, Kobe didn’t score enough. Kobe took too many shots. In order to escape this intense and inane Hollywood societal pressure to forever win, Kobe assumed a new role, a different persona. He didn’t exactly have to saw himself in half, but he did need to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Enter “Magic” Bryant, “Magic Mamba,” or Kobe Johnson, an ideal blend of prolific scorer and confounding playmaker. This was the vision, what Jerry West imagined when he traded for Kobe in the ’96 draft. He saw a bit of himself passing to Wilt. He saw a little bit of Magic diming Big Game James. He must have jumped inside when he saw Kobe make the signature lob in Game 7 at Portland to Shaq to cap the 15-point comeback and catapult the Lakers into another dynasty. Kobe only had 7 assists in that game, but the possibilities were endless for the young pro if he ever embraced a more philanthropic role. His idol was MJ, not Magic. But, even Michael realized that stalling out Bill Cartwright might have worked early in his career, but as age paced along side him, he chose to rely more on the team concept.
With Kobe on the tail end of the career spectrum, he knows he must make sacrifices to win. He is close to walking off into the LAL sunset, disappearing from playing in the purple and gold forever. He didn’t have the playmaker responsibilities thrust upon him like Magic in his first season. His role differed. He was the scorer. He deferred to Shaq and found Fox, Fish, and Horry from time to time. Yet, if he were to initiate the offense, it would be with the ball in his hands. He is not all too different from Magic in that regard. Magic initiated offense from the perimeter and, later in his career, from the post, backing defenders down like Kobe did in the 2nd half against the Thunder. Magic became the scorer his team needed after Cap retired. Kobe never shied away from putting the team on his back and weathering the scoring load, except for the past two games. In situations that Kobe would usually toss up a shot as he attacked from the wing or pivot, he finds a cutter or kicks it out to a shooter with purpose. He does this both out of necessity, and out of choice. He chooses to find the better shot, like Magic did. Kobe has plenty of finishers around him, even Steve Nash and his career mark of 49% shooting. This was evident as the Thunder crowded the lane, waiting for Kobe to make his move. Kobe floated, waited for Steve to hit his spot on the wing, and fed him like Dirk would in Dallas, wide open for three.
This is the Magic Effect. When the best player shares, the team responds exponentially. The ball flew around the Lakers’ O like a game of hot potato. A level of comfort washed over the Lakers as they continued to catch and move the rock. Open shots materialized and the ball arrived just in time to take advantage. The Thunder responded and led, but the Lakers never looked rattled or out of place. They knew that the defense had to react to them now. They knew that the ball would find them. As the team gained confidence, then the fans, many preparing to jump ship to the adjacent locker room at Staples, could relax and breathe.
Following two straight contests of Kobe messing around and almost getting a triple-double, the Magic-Kobe comparisons run as rampant as the Showtime Lakers would to the lanes as the fast break began. When the ball moves, players respond in kind, both on offense and, especially, defense. When the ball goes through the net, a sense of excitement and accomplishment flows through the mind and soul of a player. They want that feeling again and again. Ask Kob. How many shots does he put up to score, despite defenses shifting to him, defenders grabbing, clawing, and hanging off of him, and crowds marinating him with cascades of boos and other pejoratives. The combustible nature of a fan base, flammable when you lose, equally explosive when you win, derives its energy from the performance on the court. They want to share in the success, too.
Laker fans are used to a certain style of play – winning. In the final seconds of the Lakers’ 105-96 victory over the Thunder, as Staples rose to its feet, the roars of the crowd, the echoes of clapped hands, rattled the rafters. They have been waiting, impatiently wanting, to erupt. They did. They should have. Even Jay-Z, complimenting Kobe after the game from the sideline, was juiced. He knows the power of a wild crowd, and the sharing Lakers have genuinely swayed them back home.