At long last we've settled the NBA world championship—like well-trained lab mice, we don't lapse into that inadequate appellation of yore, NBA playoffs—and we're about ready to consign to the archival microfiche the seven-game drama that the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics acted out for us last spring. But first, take a last look at one thing the series settled: Earvin (Magic) Johnson, L.A.'s superstar guard, simply is not a clutch player.
A cover story in the June 4, 1984 issue of SI didn't exactly make the claim that he was a clutch player, saying only that, compared with the Celtics' Larry Bird, Magic is the better "money" player. But it's important to bear in mind there are two kinds of money players: those who produce over the course of a big game and those who produce in those rare, demanding moments we call the clutch. That distinction is critical.
Give Magic the ball, a few fleet teammates, a little adrenaline, and he's off, running. He's a self-styled hoops hedonist, pro basketball's Cyndi Lauper. He "just wants to have fun." That's all well and good, and for most of the NBA season it's a productive attitude, one that pleases fans. He has his fun and seems to run the break and run up his statistical totals almost effortlessly. He has bushels of "triple doubles"—games in which he reaches double figures in points, rebounds and assists.
Magic refers to what he does as "Showtime." Presumably, the bigger the game, the bigger the production. But you can't have fun in the clutch; Lordy, you can't crack a smile in the clutch. The clutch is a crucible. Calling on Magic then is like asking Busby Berkeley to step in and direct the climactic scene in an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Late in games during the championship series, the CBS announcing team would make the obligatory comments about how players like Magic love such moments. Yet, time and time again, we saw evidence of Magic's distaste for them.
Game Two: Magic becomes catatonic with the ball on the wing, dribbling out the last 10 seconds of regulation while ostensibly looking for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the low post. L.A. doesn't even get off a final shot in a game it will lose in overtime.
Game Four: The Lakers bollix up a chance to win on their last possession in regulation when Robert Parish intercepts Magic's pass to James Worthy. L.A. loses in OT again—thanks largely to Magic's two missed free throws with :35 left and the score tied at 123.
Game Seven: What has been a Celtic rout suddenly becomes a three-point Celtic lead in the final 1:14, with the Lakers moving upcourt. But Magic is stripped of the ball by Boston's Dennis Johnson. Just seconds later, after L.A. regains possession with another chance to pull within one, Magic throws the ball away. He's playing with some pain from tendinitis in his knees, but even he will admit that weak knees have nothing to do with being weak-kneed.
It has become fashionable to cite as evidence of Magic's ability to rise to big occasions his 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance in Game Six of the '80 NBA finals, when the Lakers, without Abdul-Jabbar, who was injured and not even at the game, routed the 76ers in Philadelphia to win the title. Magic partisans also point out Michigan State's 75-64 defeat of Bird and Indiana State to win the NCAA crown in 1979. But since neither game was close, there weren't any true clutch moments.
A more telling test: the final game in the 1981 L.A.-Houston best-of-three miniseries, when the Rockets threatened to oust the defending champion Lakers in L.A. First, with the score tied at 85, :30 left. Magic blew two of three free throws. After the Rockets scored to go up 87-86, the Lakers looked to Magic once more. With :03 left, he didn't just miss; his driving jumper in the lane didn't even draw iron. Exit L.A.
Certainly anyone can be excused for turning the ball over at crunch time—once. Maybe twice. And anyone can miss an occasional shot or blow a couple of free throws (though, increasingly, such failings are tolerated more often than they should be). But when this happens repeatedly, we can't help but wonder: When the very biggest games get to be their very closest, is Magic's unreliability chronic?
Show us it ain't so, Earvin.