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Greatest sports figures in L.A. history No. 2: Magic Johnson

November 7, 2011 | 11:04 am


Continuing our countdown of the 20 greatest figures in L.A. sports history, as chosen in voting by our online readers, with No. 2, Magic Johnson.

No. 2 Magic Johnson (230 first-place votes, 8,389 points)

When Magic Johnson sold his 4.5% share of the Lakers in October of 2010, he called it a "bittersweet business decision."

Now free to pursue another sports franchise, maybe even help bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles, Johnson wanted to make one thing clear.

"I am and will always be," he said, "a Laker for life."

Perhaps the greatest Laker ever. At the very least, the most popular Laker ever.

For few people have had more impact on the Lakers and the NBA than Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who along with the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, is widely credited with reviving the league and setting the stage for Michael Jordan to take the game to unprecedented heights.

Not that Johnson didn't scale some pretty big mountains himself.

Using his 6-foot-9 frame and superior passing skills, Johnson directed the Lakers' "Showtime" era that dominated the NBA in the 1980s. From his rookie season in 1979-80 to his final full season (1990-91), Johnson helped the Lakers win five NBA championships and nine conference titles. The Lakers won at least 54 games in each season in that span.

After helping Michigan State win the 1979 NCAA title (against Bird's Indiana State team), Johnson, the top pick in the draft, immediately transformed the Lakers into contenders. The Lakers won 60 games his rookie season, and when league most valuable player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was hurt and couldn’t play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against Philadelphia, Johnson filled in at center and had one of the greatest games in history. He scored 42 points and had 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers won their first championship since 1972. Johnson was voted MVP of the Finals, his first of three such awards.

That game showed how Johnson could control a game by scoring, but it was ability to get teammates involved that made him the best point guard in history.

The Lakers won titles in 1982 and 1985 with Abdul-Jabbar as the No. 1 option on offense, but with Johnson as the team's leader.

It was after the 1985-86 season (which ended with the Lakers losing in the conference finals), that Coach Pat Riley asked Johnson to become the focal point of the offense. Johnson responded with a career-high scoring average of 23.9 points while still averaging 12.2 assists. He earned his first regular-season MVP award and the Lakers, after winning 65 games, cruised to their fourth championship of the 1980s.

They made it five championships the following season, becoming the first team in 19 years to repeat. It was the last title for Johnson as a player, although he won MVP honors for the 1989 and 1990 seasons.

It was five months after a loss in the 1991 Finals to Jordan's Chicago Bulls that Johnson's life forever changed.

Upon learning that he had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, Johnson retired, jolting the sports world.

In the book "Laker Girl," executive Jeanie Buss described the impact Johnson's announcement had on Jerry Buss, her father and the Lakers' owner: "I’ve only seen my dad cry twice. Once was when his mother passed away. The other was the day of that press conference. It was distressing to see him that way, but it wasn’t surprising because of his relationship with Earvin, who is like a son to him."

Even though he didn't play that season, Johnson was voted as a starter for the All-Star game. In true form, he won the MVP award for the game.

In 1992, he was part of the original Dream Team, the U.S. men's basketball team that easily won a gold medal in Barcelona, Spain.

He attempted a comeback with the Lakers for the 1992-93 season, but called it off after several preseason games because of a growing controversy. Some players were concerned about Johnson's HIV-positive status and whether they could become infected by playing against him.

With the Lakers struggling late in the 1993-94 season, Jerry Buss asked Johnson to try his hand at coaching, but the experiment didn’t work. Johnson was 5-11 in his short tenure, which at the time looked as if it would be his final hurrah in the game.

But he came back one more time, playing in the final 32 games of the 1995-96 season. Johnson played as much power forward as he did point guard because he weighed about 250 pounds, 30 more than during his prime. He was hardly the same player and the Lakers were hardly the same team, losing in the first round of the playoffs to Houston. It was only the second time in Johnson's career that his team failed to win at least one playoff series.

Johnson retired for good after the season, ending one of the most remarkable careers of any athlete in Los Angeles history.


No. 3: Vin Scully

No. 4: John Wooden

No. 5: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

No. 6: Jerry West

No. 7: Chick Hearn

No. 8: Kobe Bryant

No. 9: Fernando Valenzuela

No. 10: Jackie Robinson

No. 11: Tommy Lasorda

No. 12: Wayne Gretzky

No. 13: Walter O'Malley

No. 14: Don Drysdale

No. 15: Merlin Olsen

No. 16: Jerry Buss

No. 17: Elgin Baylor

No. 18: Marcus Allen

No. 19: Jim Murray

No. 20: Wilt Chamberlain

Your votes are in: The 20 greatest sports figures in L.A. history

— Hans Tesselaar
Photo: Magic Johnson celebrating the Lakers' NBA title on the steps of City Hall in 1988. Credit: Associated Press.