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The night Magic was Tragic Johnson


1984 was a big year for the NBA. After both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league, the Celtics and the Lakers were finally meeting in the NBA Finals. The rivalry that brewed for five years got its first Finals known as the ‘84 Showdown. Magic already had two rings, Bird had one, but this was something else. Winning against your arch-rival brings out the very best in a player.

As it turned out, the series is best known as the series where Magic Johnson became Tragic Johnson. As tragic as JR Smith’s Game 1 reaction was, he isn’t the first player to lose sight of the game clock.

It was Game 2, and the Lakers were up 1-0. The score was 113-113, 7 seconds on the clock, and Magic had the ball. Did he dribble and attack the paint? A behind the back pass? An alley-oop for Kareem? None of the above. Magic dribbled the clock away.

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As Lakers coach Pat Riley explained, “From that point on, things began to crumble.” The “streak” continued in Game 4 with two mistakes at the end of the game. There were 8 seconds to go when Magic threw a bad pass that led to a steal and the game to overtime. Then in overtime, he missed two pivotal free throws. The Celtics won the game and tied the series 2-2.

Magic’s teammate Michael Cooper later described Magic crying in the shower for 30 minutes. As Cooper said it “Not only did we lose to the Boston Celtics, but he had lost to his nemesis Larry Bird. Magic himself said “. . . (the Lakers) I learned a valuable lesson. Only the strong survive. Talent just doesn’t get it. That’s the first time the (80’s) Lakers ever encountered that, someone stronger minded.”

P.S. The series had one other peculiar moment. Game 5 is known as the “Heat Game” since it was played under 97 °F heat at Boston Garden, without any air conditioning. It got so bad that an oxygen tank was provided to give air to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At one point in the first half, referee Hugh Evans became dehydrated and fainted.

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