Magic Johnson may have started player empowerment in the NBA back in the ‘80s. The young point guard, who just led the LA Lakers to the 1980 championship, shockingly wanted out of Hollywood the following year.
In November 1981, Johnson had this to say in an interview with the New York Times:
“I can’t play here anymore. I want to leave. I want to be traded. I can’t deal with it no more. I’ve got to go in and ask [Buss] to trade me.”
Magic Johnson’s frustrations came from then-coach Paul Westhead’s strategy to execute a methodical style of play anchored around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Johnson wanted the coach to use an offense that was built on the team’s speed and athleticism. With him running the break, he already envisioned a juggernaut that would terrorize the NBA.
Johnson had already proven in Game 7 of the 1980 NBA Finals that he could carry the Lakers without Abdul-Jabbar. “Junior” wanted a bigger role in how the team ran their plays, particularly after a disappointing playoff loss to the Houston Rockets in 1981.
The drama inside the LA Lakers camp was made for Hollywood during that time. Johnson demanded to be traded, forcing the late Dr. Jerry Buss to fire Westhead just 18 months after coaching the team to a championship.
That Buss seemingly did not have a plan on who would succeed Westhead wasn’t lost on basketball fans. He looked like his hand was forced following Johnson’s trade demand.
Strangely enough, the LA Lakers named Jerry West and Pat Riley as co-coaches. It was so disorganized that the “Logo,” during the press conference, told reporters that he would be working “for” Riley instead of the other way around.
With Riley and West on the sidelines, the Lakers looked dangerous again. They promptly won 17 of their first 20 games before eventually struggling.
Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers regained the championship in Pat Riley’s first year as head coach
Pat Riley’s offense, which maximized Magic Johnson’s passing and vision on the open floor, re-invigorated the LA Lakers. They dispatched the Phoenix Suns and then the San Antonio Spurs without losing a game to reach the 1982 NBA Finals.
Waiting for them in the championship round was a foe they just vanquished in a classic 1980 title series. Andrew Toney, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Daryl Dawkins, Bobby Jones and the Philadelphia 76ers wanted to avenge their loss to Magic Johnson’s Lakers.
Johnson, though, also had a star-studded team that had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper. For the second time in three years, the Lakers beat the 76ers in the NBA Finals.
Like in 1980, Magic Johnson was yet again a problem the Sixers couldn’t solve. In six games, “Junior” averaged 16.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.5 steals. The brash star, who just forced Dr. Jerry Buss to fire a championship-winning coach, won his second NBA Finals MVP.
LA’s championship ushered in the “Showtime Lakers” era headed by the flamboyant Johnson.