The Step Back: Magic’s Moment

Take a look through the ‘This Date in the NBA’ archive and you’ll find no end of memorable moments from the league’s remarkable past. In this series, Sean Guest revisits key events from NBA history, evaluating their impact on the players and teams involved, as well as the league and the sport more broadly.

This time around, we travel back to 1996; the year the Nintendo 64 was launched; Independence Day hit cinemas; and Google first began as a research project.

The 47-win Houston Rockets were the NBA’s reigning champs, having swept the 57-win Orlando Magic in the 1995 Finals. It wasn’t the first time they’d upset the odds that postseason, having overcome the 62-win San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, the 48-win Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semis and the 60-win Utah Jazz in the first round.

The Jazz were in their prime at that point, while the Spurs were building towards something great. The Lakers, meanwhile, were something of a wounded giant, having last tasted victory in 1988.

During the 1980s, the Lakers had been an NBA powerhouse. ‘Showtime’ resulted in eight Finals appearances and five titles over the course of the decade, while defining the era and making stars of its two main proponents, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson.

By today’s standards, the team’s run and gun style seems commonplace. But at the time, it was revolutionary and played such a huge part in building the Boston Celtics-LA Lakers rivalry that inspired a generation. It looked set to power the team into the 1990s too, where a new foe loomed in the shape of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

But then tragedy struck. Magic Johnson tested positive for the HIV virus and, flanked by Commissioner David Stern, Jabbar and Michael Cooper, announced his retirement from the game live on television:

Just like that, his career appeared to be over. And the basketball world was stunned. Johnson was, after all, the NBA’s all-time assists leader at the time, a three-time MVP and Finals MVP, not to mention an 11-time NBA All-Star.

The game had seemingly lost its brightest star.

But Magic was determined to ensure that the illness didn’t define him and he returned to the court in 1992, after fans had selected him to start that season’s All-Star game. In Orlando, the home of the Magic, he scored 25 points and dropped nine assists, while leading the Western Conference to a 153-113 victory and claiming MVP honours. 

After the game, Magic went back into retirement, becoming a prominent spokesman for HIV/AIDS awareness. But within two years he’d agreed to become an interim coach for the Lakers, appearing on the sidelines for a handful of games towards the end of the 1993-94 season.

His presence had a positive impact, as the team, who were 28-38 when he joined, won five of his first six games in the role. They then went on to lose five straight, prompting Magic to announce that he would once again be stepping away from the Lakers at the end of the season.

If Lakers fans thought they’d seen the last of him they were wrong. A season and a half later, Johnson announced that he would be returning to the NBA again, this time as a player.

The first appearance of his second stint in purple and gold came on this day in 1996. Johnson came off the bench to post 19 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in a Lakers win over the Golden State Warriors.

Much to the delight of the Lakers fanbase and NBA fans everywhere, Magic was well and truly back, exhibiting the same craft and guile that had made him such a handful in the 1980s.

Over the remainder of the season he averaged 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds in 32 games, while helping the Lakers secure a 53-29 record. Unfortunately, the Magic ran out in the postseason though, as the team lost in the first round, once again at the hands of the Houston Rockets.

Johnson allegedly planned to return for the Lakers in the 1996-97 season, but it was a step too far. During the summer, he held another press conference and explained: “The final chapter wasn’t written in my book in terms of ‘Magic Johnson ending his career’. I finally ended it the way I wanted to end it.”

Johnson retired on his terms, while that summer the Lakers signed superstar center Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year, $121 million deal in free agency. They also acquired a rookie shooting guard by the name of Kobe Bryant via a trade with the Charlotte Hornets.

The torch had officially been passed and the next era of Lakers dominance was just around the corner. Magic enjoyed the ‘Three-Peat’ from the stands, making regular appearances at the team’s new arena as the trophies stacked up. He eventually went on to become the franchise’s president of basketball operations, a role that he held until last spring.

In his 13 NBA seasons, Johnson logged 17,707 points (19.5 ppg), 6,559 rebounds (7.2 rpg) and 10,141 assists (11.2 apg) in addition to 1,724 steals. He was a five-time NBA champion, a three-time MVP, a three-time Finals MVP, a 12-time All-Star, and a two-time All-Star Game MVP. He made nine All-NBA First Team appearances, an All-NBA Second Team appearance and an NBA All-Rookie First Team appearance. He also led the league in assists four times and steals twice.

His number 32 jersey was retired by the Lakers in 1992 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.