Tuesday, August 3, 2010

YouTube reveals that Magic Johnson could pass

The pass between the legs of a Houston Rockets player. The no-look, over-the-head pass to James Worthy against Golden State and a shaggy-haired Chris Mullin in the Forum. The behind-the-back pass to Byron Scott for a dunk against Phoenix. The fake right, bring it up, pass left pass in Golden State. As a scholar in the advanced studies of Magic Johnson, I've become overly familiar with all of those plays.

In fact, here's a compilation of the Top Ten Magic passes, at least according to NBA TV. I have some quibbles with the list, but it still might be one of my favorite videos. My favorites are the bounce passes, like the ones to Worthy - No. 5 and No. 4 on the list - at the minute mark and at 1:12.

For years, on highlight shows and videos, we watched Magic's mastery, but eventually you see the same clips over and over. They're still as fun to watch the 500th time as they were the first, but by the thousandth viewing, you do start to crave something new. I partly blame this on NBA Entertainment, which has always lagged far behind NFL Films when it comes to preserving past films. Thanks to YouTube, some long-lost clips of Magic's brilliance are now available, finally. It's like the lost Honeymooners episodes. Some new works of art, many of which I haven't seen since the night they first appeared two or three decades ago.

This was Game 3 of the 1982 Finals, a game the Lakers won by 21 points in a series they won in six games. Like many of Magic's best passes, this one came on a break. Magic and Michael Cooper star in this one. But the balding, hulking man who outlets it to Magic - and sort of outlets it badly, which forces Magic to perform his perfect improvisation - is Minnesota native Mark Landsberger. He wasn't exactly Wes Unseld on the outlet, but without the contribution from the former Mounds View star, this play would have never happened.

I think this was Game 1 of the 1991 Western Conference Semifinals, against the Warriors. Note Rick Barry's bored color commentary. No wonder he feuded with his kids. Probably never praised them either.

"Yep, there it is, nice no-look pass by Brent Barry. Great. Crowd's excited. There you go. Too bad he can't make 90 percent of his free throws like someone I know."

This was a 1991 regular season game against the Bulls, a preview of the NBA Finals. Magic actually didn't finish this game - he got knocked out with a concussion and Tony Smith came on to play a key role in the Lakers victory. Because of Byron Scott's injury in the Finals, Smith played a key role in that series as well. Except his ineptness was a key to helping the Bulls win in five games.

There are countless other plays like this, but right now many of them are buried in the actual games and not pulled out as individual videos. A poster named tjhunt76 might have the greatest collection of classic NBA games on YouTube. He has full videos from hundreds of games from the 1980s and '90s. And inside many of those are routine plays from Magic Johnson. Routine plays that would have been magical from anyone else.

And now the video of the greatest turnover in Magic's career. Game 6, 1991 Western Conference Finals. The Lakers led the series against Portland 3-1, before the heavily favored Blazers won in Portland in Game 5. In Game 6, Worthy sprained his ankle. The Lakers blew a big first-half lead. With LA leading by one, Portland had the ball with 12 seconds left. Terry Porter takes a jumper, misses it and the ball falls to Magic...

Notice something wrong with the play? Inexplicably, the clock froze at 2.2 seconds, as the scoreboard operator anticipated a foul being called on Portland after Magic grabbed the ball. That left .1 second left. Yeah, it would have taken a miracle for Portland to tip in a length-of-the court pass, but I remember cursing the operator while watching this game. Fortunately, nothing happened and Magic and the Lakers ran off the court to face the Bulls in the Finals. And then Tony Smith reappeared in my life again.

The play perfectly summarized Magic's brilliance. Instead of waiting to be fouled, he got rid of the ball and ended Portland's hopes. Even if he had made two free throws, the Blazers could have tied with a 3. Instead, they walked off in disappointment.

NBC replayed Magic's turnover at the 2:20 mark. You can see him notice the clock malfunction when he points at it on the other end of the court. But when he raises his arm and leaps, he knows victory is all but assured. That shot of Magic became one of the iconic videos of his career. It proved that Magic almost always made the perfect pass, even when there was no one there to catch it.

No comments: