Magic Johnson came into the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with an NCAA championship under his belt, and he immediately transformed an underachieving, disappointing Los Angeles Lakers franchise into world champions.
Even with talent like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Adrian Dantley, the Lakers floundered. Until Magic arrived. As the tallest point guard in NBA history, Magic guided them to the NBA title in his first season, capping it off by filling in for the injured Abdul-Jabbar at center and scoring 42 points to shock the 76ers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
In Magic's first eight seasons, the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals six times, winning three times, and when they met the Boston Celtics in the 1986-87 title showdown, it was once again Magic who delivered, again in a most unorthodox way.
Game 4, NBA Finals, Boston Garden, June 9, 1987. The Lakers and Celtics are wrapped up in one of their epic encounters. Boston Garden is a madhouse, a deafening roar rolling down from the rafters as Larry Bird drills a heart-stopping three-point shot from the left corner with 12 seconds left, giving the Celtics a 106-104 edge, and moving the series closer to a 2-2 deadlock.
The seconds tick away as the Lakers, who have rallied from eight points down in the last 3½ minutes, move the ball inside to Abdul-Jabbar, who's fouled. He makes his first free throw, cutting the deficit to 106-105, but misses the second. Boston forward Kevin McHale seizes the rebound as the crowd goes berserk, sensing that the game is over. But somehow, McHale fumbles the ball out of bounds, enabling Los Angeles to retain possession with seven seconds left.
The Garden crowd is stunned. McHale later claims he was pushed by the Lakers' Mychal Thompson, prompting him to lose control of the ball. No matter. The Lakers' Michael Cooper looks to inbound the ball, the Celtics up by a point.
Johnson sets a pick for James Worthy and quickly pops out of the corner. Cooper passes in to Johnson, who turns and expects to see the eyeballs of Celtics guard Dennis Johnson. Instead, Magic is face to face with the long-armed, 6-foot-11 McHale, who was caught in a switch when Magic set the pick.
The clock is down to three seconds as Magic dribbles toward the middle of the lane, about 12 feet from the basket. The moment is his. He is not looking for Abdul-Jabber or Worthy or Cooper. "I wanted the ball in my hands," he would say later. "Guys like me and Larry Bird want the ball in our hands for the last shot. That's what we thrive on."
Johnson is about to take a jumper, then, as the eyes of the world glare in at him, he goes to the middle. Then, to the amazement of everyone in the Garden, including his own teammates, Johnson steals a page from Abdul-Jabbar's book and takes a graceful, sweeping, arching sky hook, a shot he would later refer to, laughingly, as "my junior, junior sky hook," the little brother of Abdul-Jabbar's famous sky hook, that unblockable shot that defined his career.
The ball passes over McHale's outstretched fingernails, by the distance of strand of hair, and floats toward the basket. With two seconds on the clock, the ball swishes through the net. There is total disbelief in the arena. "I started to take the jumper and when a big guy comes out at you, like Kevin did, I knew my best chance was to drive on him," Magic would say later. "I needed one step to get the shot off, and that's what I got."
Magic had gone to Kareem during the season to ask for pointers on shooting a hook shot. He always wanted to learn something new to keep his opponents off-balance. To keep them guessing. He asked Abdul-Jabbar about the mechanics of the shot. He didn't understand how to turn his body correctly on the shot. But he practiced it continuously, often by himself.
Magic's hook gives L.A. a 107-106 lead with two ticks left on the clock. Boston calls timeout to set up a final shot. Dennis Johnson inbounds the ball to Bird, who beats Worthy on the dribble and launches a three-point shot from the left corner. It bounces long off the opposite rim, and a hush descends upon New England. Final score: Lakers 107, Celtics 106. Los Angeles leads the series, 3-1.
"You expect to lose on a skyhook," Bird would say later, managing a slight grin. "You just don't expect it to be Magic."