On this date in 1980, rookie guard Magic Johnson filled in at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and came up with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title by beating Philadelphia 123-107 in Game 6 of the Finals.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the league’s MVP, but midway through Game 5, the Lakers center suffered a severely sprained ankle. Abdul-Jabbar was listed as out of Game 6, although 76ers coach Billy Cunningham was quoted as saying “I won’t believe he’s not playing until their plane lands and he’s not on it.” As it turned out, Kareem did not make the trip and was listed as doubtful if Game 7 had been needed.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar home in Los Angeles resting a sprained ankle suffered the game before, rookie Magic Johnson jumped in as a center, but also played every position on the court.
In game 6, Magic Johnson played what may have been the greatest game of his career. Playing on the road, Johnson (a 6’9″ rookie point guard) started the game at center and eventually played all five positions in a dominating performance. Scoring a game-high 42 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds—and handing out seven assists— Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA crown.
While Jamaal Wilkes delivered his own performance for the ages by scoring 25 points in the second half and 37 in all, Magic and the spotlight had an unbreakable bond.
Magic Johnson’s performance in Game 6 and the series earned him the 1980 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP). Johnson sank all 14 of his free throw attempts to set a Finals record and his 42 points were the most scored by a rookie in an NBA Finals game.
After the game, Kareem was asked if there is even a tinge of regret that the championship he had worked so hard for was won while he was absent?
“Not at all,” said Kareem. “In Islamic culture, we call that Kismet. Something that is fate. I was meant to be here, and Earvin was meant to have that game. It reminded me of the kind of game Oscar Robertson used to play in college, when he would score 56, get 18 assists, 15 rebounds when he used to do it all. Just one man playing against boys. Except that Earvin was just one boy playing against men.”
What made Johnson’s performance even more remarkable was that he was an NBA rookie—and, indeed, one who had left college after only two years, and was only 20 years old.