He is defined by the wizardry in the open court. The no-look passes, the deceptive ballhandling. With that signature long gait, he pushed the pace and accelerated the NBA’s growth into an up-tempo cultural force.
But the legend of Earvin Johnson would not be what it is without something altogether different from the traits that made him
Every good story, after all, needs a hook.
His came on June 9, 1987.
For this moment, Johnson did not need to reach into his proverbial bag. No, you might say he found it in his Cap.
With the seconds winding down in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden and the Lakers trailing by two, Johnson channeled The Captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, floating a hook shot over the fingertips of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead and put them on the path to their fourth championship in eight years.
“You expect to lose on a skyhook,” Larry Bird said. “You just don’t expect it to be from Magic.”
It is perhaps the defining moment of Johnson’s career: The shot that ultimately propelled the Lakers to another championship and, perhaps more importantly to Johnson, the second title in three matchups against the Celtics in the decade the two teams defined.
The Lakers had beaten the Celtics two years earlier in the 1985 finals, breaking a curse that stretched nearly three decades and had seen the Lakers run into a Boston buzzsaw in their first eight encounters, most recently in ’84.
So Johnson and Bird, the sport’s greatest rivals, whose encounters dated back to the 1979 NCAA title game, were tied at 1-1 in NBA ring count against each other.
“One of us going to take this championship lead over each other,” Johnson said with a laugh on his recent Apple TV series, “They Call Me Magic.” “That’s between Larry and I. And I had to make sure that was my team being up 2-1, because I had to have the edge.”
Those were the stakes with five seconds remaining in Game 4 of that decisive third title tilt.
The Lakers trailed by one when Michael Cooper inbounded the ball to Magic.
The parquet floor had not always been kind to Johnson. Three years earlier, his critical errors in Games 3 and 4 in Boston had propelled the Celtics to a seven-game victory.
In Game 3, Johnson inexplicably dribbled the clock out with the Lakers trailing by two, and then, in the next outing, threw the ball away to Parish late in regulation and missed a pair of a tie game in overtime.
He would later acknowledge those miscues were on his mind in the final moments of Game 4 in 1987.
Cooper inbounded from the baseline to Johnson, who was immediately covered by McHale. As a 6-foot-9 point guard, Johnson’s size usually played to his strength. But with the 6-foot-10 McHale swarming him and the shot-erasing Parish lurking behind him, Johnson was at a decided disadvantage.
“I could have shot the jumper,” Johnson later said, “but I’m not a jump shooter. If I would have tried it, McHale might have blocked it. When you have a big man on you, it’s always a good idea to take the ball to him, and that’s what I did before I hooked it over him.”
Johnson jabbed at McHale, then stutter-stepped. He did not see Abdul-Jabbar slip loose on the block, so instead, he took matters into his own hands.
It was fitting that Johnson would seal the deal with his version of Abdul-Jabbar’s signature move.
Magic’s first championship came in 1980 when, with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with a badly sprained ankle, the rookie Johnson stepped in at center and poured in 42 points and 15 rebounds, both game highs, to carry the Lakers in the clincher over Julius Erving and Philadelphia.
This time, with Abdul-Jabbar healthy and dominating in his own right, Johnson once again channeled his inner Kareem.
“It was,” Pat Riley said on “They Call Me Magic,” “the invention, they said, of the baby skyhook.”
In the delirious aftermath of the victory, Johnson dubbed it the “junior junior skyhook,” a term that maintains a place of distinction in the glossary of Lakers history.
He finished Game 4 with 29 points and would go on to cap his first MVP season with his third — and last — NBA Finals MVP award.
Johnson was never defined by his scoring. That’s not what the Lakers needed from him — except for when they did.
And on that June night in Boston, the Lakers really needed it.
That’s why Johnson has called the junior junior skyhook “the biggest basket of my life.”
This story is part of the Magic Johnson Moment series presented by top-shot.
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