Friday, September 4, 2009

Magic Johnson's last good game

The YES Network - the station for all Yankees-related propaganda ("George Steinbrenner's passion for winning inspired respect from all") - just replayed Jim Abbott's no-hitter from September 4, 1993 as part of their Yankees Classics series.

Occasionally the network has a rather broad definition of what makes a classic. Is a game really a classic because Melky Cabrera robbed a homer from Manny Ramirez? YES says yes, those immune to the allure of pinstripes say no.

Abbott's certainly qualifies and is one of several no-hitters and perfect games the network trots out every few weeks, from David Wells's mastery of the Twins in 1998, to David Cone's perfect effort a year later.

It got me thinking about how cool it would be to attend a game like Abbott's. You go to the park expecting a typical 5-3 affair. Three hours later you've just witnessed baseball history. And as I thought about it, I realized that the professional games I've attended have really been lacking in drama, excitement and history, no matter the sport. Even if I use YES's definition of the word, I'd probably be unable to find any that were classic.

Not that I've seen hundreds of games. We'd go to a couple of Twins games every year, a handful of Timberwolves losses and I've seen two or three Vikings games. In elementary school our group traveled to the Metrodome and saw Kirby Puckett win the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth. But that was a regular season game, not Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.

Since moving to New York I've gone to two Knicks games, five games at Yankee Stadium - all wins by the Yankees, none classics - and a couple of Mets games. They were all rather mundane, although attending a game last year two weeks before the Stadium closed was a memorable experience. But that had everything to do with the atmosphere, and little to do with the play.

With so few candidates to choose from, it seems the best professional game I've attended came in 1996, when I saw the Timberwolves host the Lakers late in the regular season. Basketball Reference tells me the game was actually on April 10, 1996. The final score: Lakers 111, Timberwolves 90. Nothing memorable about that result. But what stands out is that Magic Johnson was playing for the Lakers. It was two months into his comeback, and just a few weeks before his final retirement.

Magic only scored six points, to go along with 10 rebounds and 11 assists. I looked up those numbers, but several of the assists remain etched in my mind, ready to be conjured up on a moment's notice. Many of the 11 assists were classic Magic, from the no-look alley-oops out of the post to the one-handed bounce passes that traveled 30 feet and hit their target in stride. It could have been any Magic game between 1980 and 1991. Those games I watched on TV. I'd only seen him play live once before - in 1984 the Lakers played an exhibition game in Minneapolis as Minnesota attempted to land an NBA franchise. Instead, the Timberwolves arrived in 1989.

The significance of the game rose in stature because of what came next. Two games later, Magic temporarily lost his mind - the same thing happened two years later when he said yes to the idea of hosting a talk show - and bumped a referee, earning a suspension. He returned, but Houston eliminated the Lakers in four games in the first round of the playoffs. Magic, who by then was no longer rounding into shape but was simply getting round, finally looked like a guy who hadn't played in five years. That game in Minneapolis, the game I got to see, was the final time a guy from Michigan named Earvin played like Magic Johnson. While it might not have been a classic, it remains a vivid memory. And maybe that's even better.

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