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How Magic Johnson Influenced Modern Basketball

In the early 1970s, basketball had dwindled in fan turnout, while financially, the NBA franchise declined due to low ratings on TV. The matches lacked a spark, and fans only saw a low-paced counter-offensive, an almost scripted scenario over and over, that made games boring. The betting markets focused on team efforts, not a player’s brilliance. A team with a well-built power forward and center would focus on defense.

Modern-day power forwards like Toronto Raptor's Pascal Siakam or the LA Lakers' Lebron have evolved in their style of play, playing on the offensive more often. Pascal Siakam would probably have drawn fans to betting on the Raptors to average low points spread in almost every game had he played in the 1970s. Such players rarely had the freedom to make shot attempts when they moved up-court but instead passed to the point guard, who had more accuracy.

Magic Johnson re-wrote the traditional player roles and paved the way for modern basketball. Defensive players started taking up the role of scoring, creating assists, and making rebounds. Quite often these days, they average double digits in all three roles in what is today referred to as a triple-double.

Before Magic Johnsons first NBA season in 1979, point guards averaged a height of 5 ft 10 to 6 ft 4. They were expected to be among the shortest players on the court with a low center of gravity to aid them in making fast twists and turns around the opponents defense. Their height also helped with quick footwork while dribbling or making lightning-speed transitions from the defense on the counterattack.

Magic Johnson was none of these, as he was 6 ft 9 (2.06 m) and widely expected to take up the role of a forward. In his rookie season, he joined the LA Lakers, which already had a budding point guard, considered among the best in the league, in Norm Nixon. However, the coach at the time, Jack Mckinney, saw the potential and uniqueness that Magic Johnson exhibited and played him out of his "natural" position. He made him the teams primary point guard to aid in improving Kareem Abdul-Jabbars scoring talents by using his vision to create double-digit assists.

It paid off because Abdul Jabar became the NBA's all-time scorer. A record that stood for 38 years from 5th April 1984 till 7th February 2023 until it was smashed by another LA Lakers legend, Lebron James. Ironically, Lebron's prowess on the court is influenced mainly by Magic Johnson because he is 6 ft 9 and plays as a power forward, which is predominantly a defensive role.

Magic Johnson had an infectious energy, charisma, passing, and alien vision. The arenas lit up because he could sprint across the court and throw no-look passes. Fans described the atmosphere as an experience rather than just a basketball game. They would leave the arena, talk about the game and discuss the night’s events until the next match was played.

More often, the topic of discussion was almost always Magic Johnson’s on-court exploits. His no-look passing set up spectacular slam dunks by Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before Magic joined the Lakers, they had always fallen short of winning the Championship despite the immense talent on their roster. However, in his rookie season, he inspired them to the finals by playing as a point guard in the first 5 games of the series. As the Lakers led 3-2, their top scorer Abdul-Jabbar who had averaged 33 points a game, sprained his ankle and was not in contention for game 6.

They had to win the final game to clinch the series, and the coach decided to start Magic Johnson as a center while rotating his roles as a forward and a playing guard. In defense, he managed 3 steals, while on the offense, he recorded 15 rebounds, made 7 assists, and scored 42 points. It earned him the NBA Finals MVP (Most Valuable Player), making him the only rookie in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

In the previous year, he had also won the college championship, which made him among four players in the NBA to consecutively win the NCAA and NBA finals. As for his performance as a versatile playing guard, forward, or center, his display in game 6 of the series is regarded as one of the best in NBA history.

Today, he is ranked 7th on the all-time assist list with 10,141 assists to his name. His versatility changed how teams played, making the games more intense and captivating. TV ratings shot up, and season tickets were in demand. The NBA franchise started experiencing record revenues that raised the salary cap and made basketball players among the most-paid sportsmen.

His style inspired new-generation talent, particularly Lebron James, who is the NBA’s all-time scorer, 4th in all-time assists, and 32nd in all-time rebounds. Other superstar figures who are influenced by Magic Johnson and have almost similar attributes in their physicality, defense and offense qualities are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lamelo Ball, Luka Doncic, Russel Westbrook, and Nikola Jokic.