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Michael Cooper shares how a 20-year-old Magic Johnson became the Lakers' leader in the 1980 NBA Finals

Michael Cooper shares the story of how Magic Johnson rescued them in the 1980 NBA Finals.
Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson during the 1980-81 season

Magic Johnson

A lot of 20-year-olds have entered the NBA harboring big dreams amid bigger expectations. Safe to say that Los Angeles Lakers icon Magic Johnson is the one who surpassed the hype around him with flying colors when he led his team to an NBA Championship in 1980. Michael Cooper, a fellow Lakers legend himself, shared the exact moment when a rookie Magic became the team’s leader — an important step in every budding star’s development.

How Magic set the tone

Speaking with Terrell Owens and Matthew Hatchette, Cooper looked back on his days donning the legendary Purple and Gold jerseys. In particular, he narrated his experience in the 1980 NBA Finals against the mighty Philadelphia 76ers squad led by Julius Irving and Darryl Dawkins.

They were just a win away from claiming the NBA Championship. However, an injury prevented their leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, from playing in Game 6. Not wanting to get ahead of themselves and underestimate the 76ers, a good amount of apprehension filled the Lakers’ circle. However, things changed when a 20-year-old Magic Johnson suddenly entered the picture and formally announced his arrival.

"One was in 1980, our first one. We're just having fun. Magic just got on the team. We were all playing. That sixth game, Kareem twisted his ankle, so we went to Philadelphia to play the great Dr. J, the whole group there. Chocolate Thunder, the late great Darryl Dawkins, was on the team. And that's when Magic had that phenomenal game, 42 points, 15 rebounds, 15 assists. But before that game, we were all kind of nervous about heading to Philly.”

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“Magic gets on the bus with a big boom box and is playing Frankie Beverly, 'That's The Golden Time Of Day.' Magic gets on and says, 'Have no fear, f---ing Magic Johnson is here.' And man, when he said that, that changed the whole tone. We went to Philadelphia and I say that one was a special one because we were just playing and we lucked out. Well, don't wanna say lucked out, but we won a championship that game,"

Michael Cooper, Fubo Sports

Lightyears ahead of his time

It’s a story that’s been told over and over again. Apparently, Johnson winked at Lakers coach Paul Westhead before making the bold declaration. From the looks of it, even Westhead was mesmerized by the rookie’s confidence that he made a daring roster tweak for the game. Magic was going to start at center. 

To recall, commentators during that time were buzzing with excitement when Magic was assigned to jump for the ball at center court. Positionless ball was not in fashion during those days. And so analysts were amazed at how Johnson, a natural point guard, could stand his ground against the Sixers’ big men. Interestingly, it would take several decades before the teams, and their respective coaches would discover the potency of small-ball lineups.

A good example would be LeBron James’ second stint in Cleveland. While they had a guard in Kyrie Irving, LeBron James — a 6-foot-8, 260-pound freight train — orchestrated the offense. His center was Kevin Love, who is listed at 6-foot-10 but maybe actually as tall as or even smaller than James. 

This enabled the Cavaliers to abuse certain mismatches whenever they saw fit. Looking at the league today, this has been one of the prime strategies of most teams. It is pretty astonishing that a 20-year-old Magic Johnson made us realize the infinite potentials of the sport.

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