Skip to main content

Magic Johnson didn’t earn Rookie of the Year. He accomplished something much better in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 6-foot-9 point guard led his team to a championship and was named the 1980 NBA Finals MVP.

Johnson dominated a series-clinching Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers as the Lakers played without star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (ankle). He finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists in a 123-107 victory. As high as Magic was after that game, he was completely humbled early the following season.

Magic Johnson stepped up big time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s absence

Guard Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers in action during a game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. | Stephen Dunn /Allsport.

Even today, Magic Johnson is still bothered by the way the Rookie of the Year turned out in 1980. Boston Celtics star Larry Bird beat out Johnson, but that’s not what gets him.

“It was 60-something (votes) to like two,” Johnson told Shannon Sharpe on the Club Shay Shay podcast in October. “I hate to say that on TV. I was pissed. Two votes? Became the first rookie in NBA history to be named Finals MVP. I was only the third dude ever in NBA history to go from the college championship to the NBA Finals championship. I got two votes, and they were two LA dudes.

“I’m like, he’s not that much better than me. Not 63 to 2, but I took it.”

While Bird was voted the top rookie, he gladly would have changed places with Johnson that year. Johnson did everything in that Game 6 victory. He played center, guard, and forward. He took complete control of the game.

“What position did I play?” Johnson asked after the game, per Sports Illustrated. “Well, I played center, a little forward, some guard. I tried to think up a name for it, but the best I came up with was C-F-G Rover.”

Johnson was quickly humbled the following season

Johnson’s celebration was short-lived. He quickly realized how fast things can turn in the NBA.

Johnson and the Lakers were off to a 15-5 start to the 1980-81 season. He was putting up 21.4 points and led the league in assists and steals. Then his season came to a crashing halt.

After a collision with Atlanta Hawks center Tom Burleson, Johnson tore cartilage in his left knee and only played 37 games that year. The Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

“It made me see that, just as fast as you can rise to the top, you can come tumbling down,” he told Sports Illustrated in March 1981. “First, they take your ball away. That’s bad. And then, not being around the guys, that really hurts. I mean, you’re alone now, you see.

“That’s my life, being around the fellas, talking jive, singing on the bus, that’s the whole thing. All of a sudden that’s all taken away. I don’t think missing the ball was that important. Missing the fellas was badder than missing the ball.”

Making matters worse for Johnson and the Lakers was that the rival Celtics went on to win the first of their three championships of the decade.

Johnson and the Lakers bounced back in 1982, winning the championship against the Sixers.


Larry Bird or Magic Johnson: Who Had the Better Supporting Cast?