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The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics stole the show in the NBA during the 1980s. In each year of the decade, at least one of the two teams took part in the NBA Finals. Led by Magic Johnson, the Lakers won five championships. The Larry Bird-led Celtics captured three titles.

While Bird’s Celtics were the more physical bunch, Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers were the more flashy, entertaining group. Johnson recently admitted those Lakers teams of the ’80s had it all, but he singled out Michael Cooper as the unselfish key to success.

Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers were fun to watch

Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers slaps hands with Michael Cooper during an NBA game at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California in 1987. | Rick Stewart/Getty Images.

As a rookie during the 1979-80 season, Magic turned the Lakers into an immediate title contender. The 6-foot-9 point guard from Michigan State guided the Lakers to a championship in his first year in the NBA. Teaming with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Norm Nixon, Johnson gave the Lakers a talented, athletic group that entertained as much as it dominated.

As the Lakers moved through the ’80s, they added more talent in players like James Worthy and Byron Scott. The only times LA wasn’t in the championship round in that decade were 1981 and 1986.

“We had everything we needed,” Johnson said recently on the All the Smoke podcast. “We had Norm Nixon, the other guard. Jamaal Wilkes was the small forward. My first year, Jim Chones was the power forward, with Kareem at center.

“That unit was, man, just fantastic. When we won that second one, here comes James Worthy. We all played our role.”

The Lakers won titles in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. Their run-and-gun style was fun to watch, but they could also win a half-court game with Abdul-Jabbar taking control inside. Magic ran the show and was a three-time MVP and a three-time Finals MVP.

Magic singled out Michael Cooper as being a key to LA’s success

While Kareem and Magic got much of the well-deserved credit for the success of the Lakers, Johnson was quick to point out that Cooper had plenty to do with LA’s ’80s dominance. The Lakers selected Cooper in the third round of the 1978 NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-7 guard played all of his 12 NBA seasons with the Lakers but never quite fit the “Showtime” mold because he wasn’t so fancy on the offensive side of the ball. He averaged 8.7 points in his career, but he made his living playing tenacious defense. He did the dirty work, guarding the opposing team’s best player. That never got lost with Magic.

“Michael Cooper played a big role in us winning,” Johnson said. “Coop could’ve started for any team in the league. He decided the sixth-man role was great for him. Whoever the highest scorer was on the opponent’s team, he would take him and really shut him down.”

Bird even gave credit to Cooper for his defensive work on him, but Cooper always insisted his teammates were there to play help defense.

“What I always tell people is you guys — you, Magic (Johnson), (James) Worthy, Kareem. I was only as good as you guys were giving me my help,” Cooper said on Scott’s Off the Dribble podcast. “I knew if I went out there, and Larry got by me several times, but you were always there. Magic was always there.

“When Larry says something like that, it kind of puts the — cross the T’s and dot the I’s — and kind of like puts all that together for me. He was a handful. That’s one that kind of makes me pat myself on the back and know it’s a job well done. But the job I did wouldn’t have been great without you guys, my teammates.”


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