When Earvin “Magic” Johnson boarded the Los Angeles Lakers’ team plane to Philadelphia, he decided to make a bold move and take Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s seat in the first row. Abdul-Jabbar had suffered a sprained left ankle in Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals and wouldn’t be available for Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Questions swirled about who would play center. So when Johnson, a 20-year-old rookie, sat in Abdul-Jabbar’s seat, winked at coach Paul Westhead and announced to the team, “Never fear, E.J. is here,” he was alluding to what was to come in the upcoming Finals clincher.
A year after leading Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State and being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 1 overall pick, Johnson stepped into the starting center role. On May 16, 1980, Johnson went off for 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading Los Angeles to its first championship since 1972. He averaged 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists for the six-game series and was named Finals MVP.
“I’m just stunned,” Johnson said. “I can’t even talk. I feel good about it, it’s unreal. It was just a great team effort.
“I strive under pressure.”
At Philadelphia’s Spectrum, 18,276 fans watched as Johnson wreaked havoc on their 76ers. Philadelphia had no answer for Johnson until the final five minutes of the game. When the 76ers finally figured it out, they pulled to within two, 103-101.
Johnson then proceeded to rip the heart out of the 76ers’ fan base, as Los Angeles went on a 20-6 run toward the final score of 123-107. The rookie scored 11 of the 20 points. Jamaal Wilkes scored 37 points, including a dunk with 50 seconds left that gave Los Angeles a 12-point lead. Even without Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers outrebounded Philadelphia, 52-36.
It was a great present for the Lakers franchise, as the team was celebrating its 20th season in Los Angeles.
“Big fella,” Johnson said into the TV microphone, “I did it for you. I know your ankle hurts, but I want you to get up and dance.”
From the starting tip when Johnson walked to center court, he had a big grin on his face. While he’d end up losing the opening jump ball, he tied up Darryl Dawkins almost immediately.
The visitors got out to a seven-point lead with Johnson playing center, forward and guard. He used 3-point plays, skyhooks and any other shots in his arsenal to finish with 13 points in the first quarter. Without the threat of Abdul-Jabbar blocking their shots, the 76ers began to attack the rim, hitting 13 layups in the first half.
After going into halftime with the score tied at 60, Los Angeles opened the third quarter with 14 unanswered points and finished the quarter ahead, 93-83. Wilkes scored 16 of his 37 points in that frame.
But Julius Erving and crew wouldn’t let the Sixers go out like that on their home floor, getting within two points of the Lakers on three occasions. But that 103-101 score was the last time Philadelphia was within striking distance.
“The trouble for the 76ers tonight was Magic,” Westhead told The New York Times. “Our Magical Man, our Houdini. Who would have thought we could win in Philadelphia without Kareem and with Magic playing center? Everybody thought the guy who thought that was some demented coach, the kind who reads too many books. But the move to center really wasn’t as strange as it seemed. We knew Magic would present problems for them, and he did.”
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