As the famous television intro explained, sports force everyone to encounter both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The latter part of that equation, no matter how inescapable, can still be pretty miserable. Just ask Magic Johnson about that.
While the Los Angeles Lakers legend won five championships over the course of his NBA carer, Magic and his teammates fell at the final hurdle in 1984. In the hours after that defeat, the guard found himself staring head-on into the eye of the storm, intentionally making himself suffer.
Magic Johnson and his Lakers couldn’t close the deal during the 1984 NBA Finals
In 1979, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird famously faced off on college basketball’s biggest stage, with the Michigan State guard claiming the championship. A little over five years later, the two men rekindled their rivalry at the top of the professional ranks.
During the 1983-84 regular season, both the Celtics and Lakers dominated their respective conferences. Boston went 62-20, earning the top seed in the East; Los Angeles won 54 games, sitting atop the West. The clubs then cruised through the playoff bracket, setting the stage for a famous NBA Finals.
The Lakers easily won Game 1 and seemed poised to take a commanding 2-0 lead, but an ill-timed timeout and costly turnover helped Boston level the series. LA then reclaimed the lead in Hollywood, winning Game 3, only to see Johnson fail to seal the deal during the following contest. At that point, the series returned to the east coast knotted at two games apiece.
In a reality befitting a series between two star-studded teams, the Lakers and the Celtics split the next two games and sent the 1984 NBA Finals to a seventh frame. During the deciding contest, Cedric Maxwell stepped up and brought the championship back to Boston. Larry Legend had gotten his revenge over Magic Johnson at last.
Suffering through a miserable night in Boston
One of the most painful parts of losing a championship is watching the other team celebrate their victory. For Magic Johnson, though, there was still more suffering on the cards after he left the arena.
“He could have shut the curtains and cranked up the volume on the television. Instead, Magic Johnson acted on his perverse need to witness the revelry that was unfolding around him, staring blankly out of the window of his hotel, fixated on the sea of green below,” explained an excerpt of When the Game Was Ours, which ran on Boston.com. “Thousands of fans clogged the streets, many wearing shamrock-colored T-shirts, creating a gleeful gridlock of traffic in the already historically congested city. Car horns honked, fireworks crackled, and grown men danced Irish jigs in celebration of the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Lakers to capture the 1984 NBA Championship.”
That experience obviously stung, but the Lakers star viewed the experience almost as a form of penance.
“It was bedlam,” Magic explained. “I made myself watch it. It made me feel worse, but I deserved to be miserable.”
According to the write-up, Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas kept the guard company. They ordered food, turned off the TV, and tried to talk about everything except basketball, but Magic couldn’t move on. “We should have won that series,” Johnson mused. “I’ve always prided myself on getting it done in crunch time. What happened?”
Eventually, the other two men decided to leave. At that moment, Johnson was finally able to release all the pain that had been bottled up inside.
“When they finally left, I cried like a baby,” Magic admitted.
In the end, Magic Johnson managed to recover from that crushing defeat
While Magic Johnson had already won NBA championships in 1980 and 1982, that didn’t make his 1984 defeat any easier. In the end, though, it’s safe to say that the Lakers star bounced back.
At the conclusion of the following campaign, Los Angeles and Boston returned to the championship. Once again, the back-and-forth series extend to seven games, but, this time, the Lakers came out on top. The two teams would meet again in the 1987 NBA Finals, with Johnson and company claiming another title.
Magic earned another ring in 1988, giving him five championships for his career. Although his HIV diagnosis forced the guard into a premature retirement, he still left the hardwood with one of basketball’s great resumes. In addition to his five titles and three NBA Finals MVP Awards, Johnson won three regular-season MVP Awards and averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 11.2 assists across 13 campaigns.
If you ask most professional athletes, they’ll tell you that it’s nearly impossible to completely forget a crushing defeat. Winning four additional championships, however, is probably a pretty good way to turn the page.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.