Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived for the 1980 NBA season and the league would never be the same. The Boston Celtics became a contender after two years on the outs. And Magic would first help the Los Angeles Lakers get to the Finals and in position to win, before an electric performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals became one of the sport’s iconic moments and Los Angeles won the title.
Los Angeles had another new arrival—Jerry Buss bought the team and began a tenure where he would become regarded as the NBA’s greatest owner ever. On the court, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a 25 points/11 rebounds average and won the MVP. Jamaal Wilkes scored 20, while two-guard Norm Nixon scored 18 and dished eight assists. Magic fit in smoothly with an 18 points/8 rebounds/7 assists average. The Lakers steamrolled into the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle Sonics.
The Sonics had won the West the last two years and the 1979 NBA championship. They also stole Game 1 in Los Angeles by a point. The Lakers evened up the series and then Kareem took over on the road, scoring 33 in Game 3, 25 more in Game 4, and his team won the series in five games.
Bird posted a 21/10 average for Boston and was joined by Cedric Maxwell and Dave Cowens up front, and Tiny Archibald in the backcourt. The Celtics won 61 games, best in the league and reached the conference finals.
The opponent would be the Philadelphia 76ers. Julius Erving averaged 27 ppg, with Darryl Dawkins posting a 15/8. Key roles were played by Bobby Jones on defense, Caldwell Jones on the boards and Maurice Cheeks running the show.
It was the beginning of a six-year period when the Lakers, Sixers & Celtics ruled the NBA, but a Magic-Bird showdown would have to wait. The Sixers split the opening two games in the Garden, took care of their home floor and then clinched the series on the road, 105-94, with an unexpected 24 points from Lionel Hollins.
Kareem was the story of the 1980 NBA Finals as it unfolded. He dropped 33 points in a 109-102 home win in Game 1. He had 38 in Game 2, though the Sixers stole a road win. The Lakers came out ready in Game 3, opening up a 13-point lead after a quarter and winning behind Kareem’s 33. Magic had his first big showing in a Game 4 loss, scoring 28 points.
Game 5 was a great battle between Kareem and Dr. J, with the former scoring 40 and the latter 36. But Jabbar would sprain an ankle and briefly leave the game. He came back long enough to convert a three-point play with the scored tied at 103, and the Lakers survived.
Jabbar would not make the trip east, as the team chose to rest his ankle for a potential Game 7. Magic jumped center and played all five positions in Game 6. He also scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished 7 assists. The Lakers won the championship 123-107. Magic’s performance was as iconic as history remembers, but the 1980 NBA Finals MVP award he won should have gone to Jabbar.