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Magic Mamba

2013 March 19

• dEDGE Post Scriptum •

Magic Johnson was a warrior who wore his heart on his sleeve. Win or lose, you knew he bled purple and gold. It is the main reason why Laker fans continue to love him so dearly. Kobe Bryant is a fire-breathing beast who will cut out your heart, then feed on your still warm, lifeless carcass. It’s why he’s called the Black Mamba and why NBA players continue to fear him. Two highly evolved players with two highly different personalities, yet with identical accomplishments that forever bond them; both are life-long Lakers and both are 5-time NBA champions.

Magic Johnson made the "no-look" pass an absolute artform. Here he completely fools Rodney McCray of the Sacramento Kings as he dishes the ball to a wide open teammate on the fast break. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Unlike the well-prepped and extremely mature teenage sensation Kobe Bryant, 19-yr. old Earvin “Magic” Johnson arrived on the doorstep of the NBA via the more traditional route, having just completed two full years at Michigan State University. In his second season at MSU, Johnson had led a high-flying Spartan squad to an NCAA crown against Larry Bird and the “at-the-time,” undefeated, Indiana State Sycamores. Having accomplished his goal in college competition, Johnson immediately made himself available and declared for the NBA draft.

Magic was 100% showman, but the NBA remained a man’s game that had little regard for a brash, flashy 6’9″ forward who thought he was a point guard. Although highly talented, GM’s and critics alike were not completely sold on Johnson, saying that the safer pick in that year’s draft was 6’4″ Sidney Moncrief, the potent shooting guard hailing from Arkansas, or 6’10″ UCLA forward, David Greenwood. Neither was as electric as Magic, but both came from fundamentally sound programs and were also mature, graduating seniors.

Much like Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson had a dominant figure on the team in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Although Abdul-Jabbar felt he deserved the 1980 NBA Finals MVP Award, the two superstars would go on to win 5-titles together. All rights reserved.

Johnson did not play the game with the traditional point guard sensibilities of simply bringing the ball upcourt and feeding his big man. Instead, he choreographed the court like a wizard, passing the ball with the deftness of an NFL quarterback. He constantly scanned the floor, searching for pinholes of opportunity and quickly delivered passes precisely in tune with a teammate’s foot speed. If you didn’t keep your eyes open, you were bound to be zinged by one of his no-look passes. Magic was capable of making his opponents look absolutely befuddled, or even worse, foolish, without ever scoring a point.

With a new owner taking over the reins in Los Angeles, the Lakers selected Earvin Johnson as the #1 pick of the 1979 NBA Draft. Dr. Jerry Buss, real estate mogul with a vision for an exciting blend of basketball and entertainment, immediately bonded with Johnson. Both yearned for an uptempo offense with Magic leading the way on the fast break. And with veterans, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes solidifying the half court offense, the Lakers skyrocketed under their new conductor. Magic revitalized excitement in the league, and along with Larry Bird on the East Coast, the NBA began to transform into the megabrand it is today.

Earvin Magic Johnson celebrates another Lakers championship, this one over the hated Boston Celtics. The Lakers would go on to win the first back-to-back titles in 20-years the next season by beating the Detroit Pistons in an epic 7-game series. Photo by Michael Edwards/LA Times. All rights reserved.

Magic possessed a charismatic smile, a reassuring charm, and the disarming vernacular of one of the fellas. These attributes translated well to the general public and before long, the Los Angeles Lakers were everybody’s media darlings. Even the aloof, distant Abdul-Jabbar began to soften and open-up, revealing an affable side never seen before. Playing basketball had become fun again. The grind of the regular season was erased into a dazzling, brillant dash to the post-season. Fans flocked to arenas to get a glimpse of Showtime and the man called Magic.

But for all of the fun and games Magic Johnson portrayed on the outside, he was an equally fierce competitor that hated to lose. He was a winner at all costs, willing to sacrifice anything to remain at the top. He pushed his teammates in practice and challenged anyone who stood in his way. Magic wasn’t just a spectacular passer, but he was a bona-fide scorer as well. His size allowed him to post smaller guards while his speed and quickness nullified any forward who attempted to defend him. He continually refined his game, mastering a new weapon each off-season. Whether it was free throw shooting, 3-pointers, post-up moves, or his famous junior skyhook, Magic reinvented himself annually to stay at the top of his game.

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Kobe Bryant is the son of former NBA forward, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. The elder Bryant spent seven years in the NBA with Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston. Joe would then play professional ball in Italy where his young son would hone his basketball mind as an eager student of the game. The Bryant family would eventually move back to Joe’s native Philadelphia after his playing days were over. There, Kobe further developed his skills and often plied his craft against much older, college-level competition. Kobe would accompany his father to LaSalle University and play in pick-up games to prepare himself for stiffer competition.

"Facilitator" Kobe has seen a rise in the number of assists this season. Here, Kobe passes around Boston's Paul Pierce leading to an easy basket. Photo by Mark Terrill/AP All rights reserved.

Kobe was groomed to play in the NBA and was given the leniency to master his alpha-role from a young age. Soon, Kobe was dominating play at little known, Lower Merion High School and gaining national recognition as well as holding his own against professional players such as Jerry Stackhouse and Eddie Jones, both Philly area superstars. In an era when the “next best thing” was now a high school senior applying for the NBA, Kobe did not simply live up to his billing but easily outdistanced them altogether. In his senior year, Kobe was considered the top prospect across the country. Bypassing any college of his choice, Kobe was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft.

Unbeknownst to others, Charlotte was only a stop-over. Kobe was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran center Vlade Divac in a deal agreed upon the day before the draft. It was shortly derailed when Divac balked at the trade and contemplated retirement. Magic Johnson spoke privately with Divac and convinced him that he wasn’t being shown the door but rather given a new opportunity to shine elsewhere.

The newest and youngest member of the NBA was about to join forces with Shaquille O’Neal, the dominant center acquired through free agency, a coming-of-age Nick Van Exel, veteran Elden Campbell, and a familiar sparring partner, Eddie Jones. Under head coach Del Harris, Kobe saw limited minutes early on, although he saw increased playing time as the season progressed. Kobe was eager to display his skills but was held in check by the conservative Harris, who favored divvying-up minutes to his veterans.

Kobe Bryant's ability to consistently nail the improbable shot has led many to believe he is the best closer of his era. Here, Kobe drains a hotly contested jumper from distance over the outstretched hand of Phoenix Suns defender, Grant Hill. Photo by Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic. All rights reserved.

The high-flying Bryant was an immediate fan-favorite and exciting finisher. Kobe won the 1997 Slam Dunk contest with the bravado and showmanship of a tenured veteran. Yet while his more celebrated teammates were playing in the real All-Star game, Kobe squirmed in his own skin wondering what it would take to get more minutes from Harris. Eddie Jones, a first-time All-Star that season, now found himself fending off the uber-talented Kobe in practice on a daily basis. It may not have been apparent then, but the Los Angeles Lakers would soon need to make a decision on which budding star to keep.

Kobe developed in leaps and bounds, honing his game into the wee hours of the morning. His work ethic made the biggest gym rats look like overweight rodents. He knew he should be playing and had the talent to be out there playing longer than the 10-14-minutes per game he was getting from Harris. What he lacked in game time, he made up in output, sometimes alienating his elder teammates. The “ball-hog” moniker would follow him for the rest of his career, but as Kobe saw it, why pass the ball when you know you have a better chance to score?

Kobe Bryant was finally able to get out from under Shaq's "huge" shadow by winning two more titles on his own. In 2009, Kobe boxes out Shaq and the rest of the league as the Los Angeles Lakers went on to defeat the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Photo by Reuters. All rights reserved.

The teenage Mamba would average 7.6-points his rookie season, garnering Second Team All-Rookie honors. Kobe’s skill really began to shine and by the end of the season, he had become an integral part of the rotation, albeit still off the bench. Facing the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, Kobe came up short in crunch time, air-balling a pair of jumpers down the stretch. The Lakers would eventually lose the series to the Jazz who would go on to face Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Most players would be devastated by those ill-fated shots, but not Kobe. It fueled him to work even harder in the off-season for a chance at redemption.

Kobe’s second season would see a jump in his production as his playing time increased to 26-minutes per game. He would average 15.4-ppg, 3.1-rpg and 2.5-apg. He often found himself playing alongside both Jones and Van Exel when the Lakers went “small” with Kobe at small forward. He was runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year Award and became the youngest starter ever voted into the All-Star Game. Kobe didn’t even start on his own Lakers squad, yet fans clamored for the young phenomenon. It was here that young Kobe Bean Bryant was able to match-up against his childhood idol, Michael Jordan, on national television on the biggest stage in the world.

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The 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers had steamrolled their competition all the way to the NBA Finals, where they now faced Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. Leading the series 3-2, the Lakers had just positioned themselves on the verge of an NBA championship only to learn that they had lost leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a badly sprained ankle for Game 6. With little chance of beating the Sixers on the road without Kareem, everyone looked forward to a Game 7 showdown back at the Fabulous Forum. Everyone that is, except for Earvin Magic Johnson. Magic had boldly predicted to his teammates that he was going to lead them to the promised land, and promptly plopped himself in row A1 of their chartered flight, the seat usually reserved for Abdul-Jabbar himself.

Magic Johnson celebrates as the Los Angeles Lakers go on to win the 1980 NBA Finals over the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. Magic would score 42-points to go along with 15-rebounds and 7-assists. Photo by Manny Millan/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Not only was Magic convinced they were going to win it all, he convinced all of his teammates as well. No one expected much from the Lakers minus Abdul-Jabbar, but from the opening tip on, it was readily apparent that these Lakers meant business. It was 11-4 before a shocked Sixers squad realized that their title aspirations were in jeopardy. Magic was either too quick for Philly’s big men Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins, or too big for guards Lionel Hollins and Maurice Cheeks. Even Julius Erving took a stab at guarding Magic, perhaps in part to escape his own man Jamaal Wilkes, (37-points, 10-rebounds), who was totally outplaying the Dr.

Magic went on to record perhaps the single, most impressive statistics in an NBA Finals game in history. The rookie scored 42-points, hauled down 15-rebounds, dished 7-assists, recorded 3-steals and even had a blocked shot. He converted all 14 of his free throw attempts and was named Finals MVP after the Lakers drubbed the stunned Sixers, 123-107. Johnson jumped ball at center, played both guard and forward positions and had Philadelphia shaking their heads in disbelief. In a little over 4-years, Magic had won at the high school, college and now professional levels. His star would continue to soar to zenith proportions as the Los Angeles Lakers would record 5-NBA titles in 8-appearances during the 1980s, winning Team of the Decade accolades.

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Fast forward to 2000 and the Los Angeles Lakers are enjoying a 2-1 NBA Finals lead over the Indiana Pacers when center Shaquille O’Neal fouls out midway through overtime of Game 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Kobe Bryant, still recovering from a badly sprained ankle that sidelined him for most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 is visibly hobbling on a throbbing ankle. But Kobe and the Lakers would not be denied. Bryant would score on three consecutive possessions to ice the game and cement his legacy as one of the league’s premier closers. He calmly drained two, long jumpers, then capped it with a reverse lay-up off a Brian Shaw miss, good for the 3-1 stranglehold.

Kobe Bryant scores over Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the 2000 NBA Finals. Bryant's heroics late in overtime helped propel the Los Angeles Lakers to their first of three, consecutive titles under head coach Phil Jackson. Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

“That was big-time tonight,” Lakers teammate Glen Rice said. “That had to be the biggest performance since I’ve been watching and playing with him, of his career. He stepped up like a veteran. That just goes to show how much he’s matured.” Even through the injury, Kobe dialed out the pain and simply “…relaxed like I was playing in the backyard.” The Lakers would eventually win the series, the first of their 3-championships in-a-row, 4-2 with Kobe establishing himself alongside Shaq as the most potent one-two punch since Jordan-Pippen. That their new head coach was Phil Jackson was not lost on Bryant, who was seen sporting Jordan’s famed #23 jersey after one of their games.

An observant O’Neal declared that the young Bryant should start wearing his own jersey, instead of that of others. Kobe recorded 28-points to go along with Shaq’s 36-points/21-rebounds, but his late heroics sans the Most Dominant of All-Time on the floor would begin to shape how Kobe was viewed around the league. Kobe would eventually emerge out of Shaq’s enormous, dwarfing shadow by winning his own back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, tying him with Laker legend Magic Johnson at 5-titles apiece.

With the amount of hardware he has collected, one would think that Kobe is near the end of his game. But he continues to defy the odds and remains firmly attached at the top of the league. Now a 17-season grizzled veteran, Kobe has found the Fountain of Youth and has secretly kept his good fortune to himself. Still able to amaze, dazzle and deliver, the Black Mamba or more affectionately, “Vino,” is still capable of carrying the heavy load while filling arenas from coast-to-coast. He’s mellower now, more affable with the media and more accessible to his private life. But don’t forget for a second that he will beat you at all-costs, leaving you with your life or limb hanging in the balance.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Lake_Show permalink
    March 19, 2013

    Magic Johnson’s career was cut short by his HIV announcement. He would have given Michael Jordan a run for the money and probably would have won a couple more titles. He had lost and beaten all of the greats but never got another shot at MJ.

  2. Lakers4Life permalink
    March 19, 2013

    Magic Bryant or Kobe Johnson. What two better Lakers to morph into one?

  3. Mike_R permalink
    March 19, 2013

    Kobe’s facilitator role this season proves that he is all about winning and not at all about personal gain or leading the league in scoring. He’s sacrificed the most to accommodate his new teammates and has been the consummate professional.

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