The 1980 Los Angeles Lakers were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s team. That’s obscured by the arrival of a rookie named Magic Johnson, but it was Kareem who powered the Lakers to the brink of an NBA title, enabling Johnson to finish it off with a final performance that was…well, magical.
Kareem had won two MVP awards in Los Angeles since his arrival in 1976 and immediately turned a 30-52 team into a contender. But he did need help if they were going to reach the NBA Finals. There had been playoff disappointments, with Portland and Seattle winning the past three Western Conference championships and two of the previous three NBA crowns.
Jabbar was as good as ever in 1980, averaging 25 points/11 rebounds/5 assists/4 blocks per game and he picked up another MVP trophy. Norm Nixon averaged 18 points and his eight assists per night were fourth-best in the NBA.
Jamaal Wilkes knocked down 20 more on a nightly basis, and 30-year-old Jim Chones was a reliable backup center, averaging 11 points/7 rebounds a game.
The core was most definitely there and the finishing piece came in the form of the #1 overall draft pick, which the Lakers held as compensation from the New Orleans Jazz, for the signing of Gail Goodrich.
Los Angeles picked the 20-year-old Magic, fresh off of leading Michigan State to an NCAA crown in a memorable championship game battle with Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
Magic was everything he was cracked up to be, averaging 18/8/7 and bringing new enthusiasm to the team. The Lakers had obstacles—new head coach Jack McKinney was injured in a serious biking accident after 14 games and was replaced in-season by Paul Westhead. But those obstacles didn’t stop Los Angeles from going 60-22 and getting the top seed in the West.
The structure of the NBA at this time was two divisions per conference and the playoff format called for each division winner to get a bye into the conference semifinals, while four other teams played a best-of-three “mini-series.” The Lakers took a few days off and then met up with the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix went 55-27 and they were both hungry and talented. Hungry, because they had come within a basket of reaching the NBA Finals in 1979. Talented, because they had explosive scorers in Walter Davis and Paul Westphal, horses up front in Truck Robinson and Alvan Adams and a lockdown defender in the backcourt with Don Buse.
But Robinson was injured and missed most of the series. Kareem owned Game 1 with 30 points/12 rebounds and five blocks, while Magic set a career high with 16 assists in a 119-110 win. Kareem poured in 32 more in the second game, getting help this time from Nixon, who scored 26 points.
Los Angeles got yet another injury break when, in a game that ultimately went overtime, Davis had to leave with a sprained ankle midway through the fourth quarter. In the end, Nixon hit the go-ahead shot with 21 seconds left in OT for a 131-128 win.
The series went to Phoenix and Davis returned, but Robinson did not. Kareem kept rolling, with 37 points in a 108-105 win. The Lakers basically mailed in Game 4, losing in a rout, but Jabbar set the tone right away back at the old LA Forum in Game 5. He scored 21 points in the first half, as Los Angeles built up an 18-point lead and finished with a 35/16 night, as the series was clinched with an easy 126-101 win.
Another tough opponent awaited in the Western Conference Finals and it was the Seattle Supersonics. They were the two-time defending Western Conference champs, the defending NBA champ and had a team that was both deep, yet still keyed around three outstanding players. The guards were Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams, with Jack Sikma as good a match as any for Kareem down low.
Seattle showed its depth and mettle in the opener, when “Downtown” Freddie Brown banged in four three-pointers, scorer 34 points and keyed a 108-107 upset. Kareem, having failed to drop his usual 30-plus in the opener, came back with a vengenance in Game 2. Jabbar scored 14 in the first quarter alone, finished with a 31/16 night and the Lakers got a game they desperately needed, 108-99.
Los Angeles still had to reclaim homecourt advantage, and in Game 3 it was Kareem taking over the fourth quarter. He scored 13 of his 33 points in the final period, including a key jumper with 1:11 left, followed immediately by a driving layup that keyed a 104-100 win.
It looked like the series went go back to SoCal all tied up when the Lakers trailed Game 4 by 21 points in the third quarter. Kareem “only” had 25 points, while Wilkes had 24, but the two of them keyed a big comeback, particularly an 11-0 run late in the game. The Lakers won 98-93 and the series was all over but the shouting. Kareem poured in 38 back home in Game 5 to clinch it, 111-105.
When the playoffs began, we were in a collision course for another Magic-Bird showdown, as Bird’s Celtics had gone 61-21 for the best record in the league. The Philadelphia 76ers were 59-23 though, and the more experienced team. They had the respect of the oddsmakers were favored in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then Philly backed that up, by dispatching Boston in five games. Los Angeles would get homecourt for the NBA Finals, but it would be against an opponent that was battle-tested.
The 76ers had reached the Finals in 1977 before losing to Portland and suffered tough playoff losses each of the previous two years. Julius Erving, the great “Dr. J”, scored 27 ppg, fourth-best in the league. Caldwell Jones hauled in 12 rebounds a game, also fourth-best in the NBA.
Darryl Dawkins could hit the boards, Mo Cheeks was one of the great point guards in the game. There were future head coaches in the rotation, with Lionel Hollins and Doug Collins, and Bobby Jones was an All-NBA defender. Oftentimes, an NBA Finals result can seem almost preordained, more so than most sports. 1980 was not one of those times.
Kareem got his team off to a good start, with 33 points and Magic stepped up with a triple-double, 16/10/11 and the Lakers controlled the opener throughout in a 109-102 win. Kareem came back with 38 in Game 2, but the rest of the team didn’t follow suit. The Lakers trailed by 18 at the half before making a late rally to cut it to a point in the closing minute before Philly got the clinching bucket in a 107-104 win.
Game 3 was LA’s turn to get out to the big lead and then hold on. Led by Jabbar’s 33 points, the Lakers were plus-13 after the first quarter and maintained control in a 111-101 win. Game 4 was the best game of the series to date, competitive throughout. Magic scored 28, the first time Jabbar hadn’t led the Lakers in scoring, but the Sixers pulled out a 105-102 win to keep it a series.
The fifth game in the Forum was a great battle and one of Jabbar’s great moments. He and Dr. J waged a great battle, Kareem going for 40 points and Erving pouring in 36. When Jabbar sprained his ankle, it looked like he might not return. But he did, and with the score tied 103-103 late, the big man took a pass from Magic, went hard to the glass and slammed it home. And he drew the foul, converting the three-point play. Los Angeles had survived 108-103.
But Kareem’s ankle had not survived. He was ruled out of Game 6 and the swelling was bad enough that he was ordered not to even make the trip. His status for a potential seventh game was iffy, so the doctors’ orders were to get rest and do everything possible to be able to play that Game 7 if it was needed.
Everything was in place for the Lakers to roll over on the road—teams facing much less adversity certainly have, instead putting all their eggs into one basket. Instead, Magic stepped up with a performance that lives on for the ages. He jumped center, played all five positions and finished with 42 points/15 rebounds/7 assists. Forgotten is that Wilkes also pumped in 37 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Los Angeles won 123-107 and were NBA champs. Magic was named Finals MVP, although this really does a serious injustice to Jabbar. Magic’s one-game performance was one for the books, but Kareem was clearly the MVP of the entire Finals and the dominant force on the Lakers. To Magic’s credit, he insists to this day that Wilkes also get his due for the Game 6 heroics in Kareem’s absence.
It would come as no surprise to anyone watching that night that the Los Angeles Lakers were just getting started. Before Magic and Kareem were done, they would reach seven more NBA Finals and win four more titles. A dynasty began in Philadelphia, anchored by the big man in the middle.