If I had to make a list of iconic images from Magic Johnson's career, I'd come up with the familiar ones known to Lakers everywhere: mauling Kareem after The Captain's game-winning hook in Magic's first game as a pro; the hug after Magic's 42-point performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals; the bullet pass to Worthy for a dunk in Game 6 at the Boston Garden in 1985; the no-look, behind-the-head pass to Worthy against Golden State; the junior, junior skyhook; flinging the ball downcourt against Portland.
All of those moments took place between 1979 and 1991. I could probably list 200 moments and games before I'd ever list one that happened during the 1996 season. The comeback. Like many Lakers fans, I've ignored details from Magic's 1996 return to the game, treating it the way De Niro fans must treat the last 10 years of his career. It was the year after the Lakers' surprising run in the 1995 playoffs and the year before the Shaq-Kobe era began. It was a pretty young team whose most famous player was an old guy who hadn't played in five years. The season ended with an ugly playoff loss and that was - finally - it for Magic's career. It wasn't as disastrous as Magic's talk show, but it wasn't a whole hell of a lot better.
I saw one game that season, when the Lakers drilled the Timberwolves in Minnesota. But for the most part I've blocked out much of that season, even though it was the final one for my all-time favorite athlete. You'd think I'd remember more about the actual end of his legendary career.
The last few days I've been looking back a bit more at that 1996 season, reading old stories and watching old games. And maybe it's time for me to re-assess that half-season. The season didn't add to Magic's legend, but it didn't necessarily detract from it either. He was no longer one of the top two or three players in the league, but he was still plenty good for a 36-year-old who sat out four-and-a-half seasons. He was older and slower, grouchier and, at times, a bit angrier. He wasn't the Earvin Johnson of old but there was still a touch of magic.
In 1995, the Lakers finally emerged from the mediocrity that afflicted the franchise after Magic's 1991 retirement and went 48-34, before upsetting Seattle in the playoffs and losing to San Antonio in six games. The team had young talent, with Nick Van Exel, Anthony Peeler and Eddie Jones emerging as legitimate players. Cedric Ceballos turned his career around and averaged 21 a game. They had a flopping Vlade at center, Elden Campbell - or, as he was officially named The Enigmatic Elden Campbell - at power forward and decent depth. But they struggled at the start of the 1996 season. They started the year 13-13. They were 24-18 after a victory over the Nets on January 27.
And that's when Magic returned. This classic Gary Smith article tells much of the story of Magic's decision. There was the All-Star game return in 1992, the Dream Team and then an abbreviated comeback in the fall of that year, which basically ended when Magic got cut during a game and the video of him bleeding on the court became yet another iconic image of his career, only this one didn't leave anyone smiling.
But in 1996 he returned, and not just for one game or a few exhibition contests. He returned in the middle of a season to a team that was 24-18.
The first game was at The Forum, the site of so many classic moments, against the Golden State Warriors and rookie Joe Smith. The Lakers won 128-118, a flashback game that looked more like one from 1986 than '96. Magic played 27 minutes and had 19 points, 10 assists and eight boards, a decent night for any player, an extraordinary performance for a guy coming off the 1,800-day disabled list.
At the 1:20 mark of that video comes perhaps Magic's most famous play that season, the fake pass that left Latrell Sprewell bewildered and the crowd delirious.
Reality, for the team, hit a game later, when the Bulls - who came into the game sporting an absurd 40-3 record - rolled to a 99-84 victory in LA. Following the game, Michael Jordan - who was in the middle of a triumphant comeback but would eventually attempt his own ill-advised one - proved something of a prophet when he said he told Magic he had a killer instinct look in his eyes but his teammates didn't.
If there was any question about that, it was proven when Ceballos - apparently forgetting that he was Cedric Ceballos - left the team in March, upset about playing time. He eventually returned but the team was seemingly divided. Later, Van Exel was suspended for bumping a referee. Magic, being the leader he was and wanting to show the younger guys how to properly intimidate the stripes, did the same, albeit a bit softer, a few games later and earned his own suspension. And once the playoffs began, it seemed almost inevitable that the two-time defending champion Rockets, despite not having homecourt, would eliminate the Lakers, which they did in four games.
But there were plenty of highlights, despite the fact I've blocked many of them over the last 15 years. And many of them are online. YouTube user nonplayerzealot is one of the best online historians of all-things Lakers and he has a huge collection of games from that 1996 season.
This game against the Jazz was something of a grudge match, four years in the making. When Magic first returned in 1992, Karl Malone expressed reservations about playing against someone with HIV. Malone took some heat for the comments, though he was only expressing thoughts that were surely shared by many other players at that time. Magic prevailed on this night, though, scoring 21 points to go along with seven rebounds, six assists and one Showtime flashback at the 2:30 mark.
Here against the Bucks, Magic finished with 20 points and eight assists.
The Lakers had some impressive victories in the second-half of the season. They handed Orlando its first home loss of the season, after the Magic had won their first 33 games at home. After Magic joined the team, LA went 29-11, basically a 60-win pace. Magic averaged 14 points and seven assists a game. One of his signature moves during his comeback came in the post, where he often tossed lobs to Jones or Ceballos who cut through the lane while Magic backed the defender down into the paint. He still had the hook, he still possessed the set shot from deep. He still smiled. And, on occasion, he could still lead a break, running it at 36 like he did when he was 26.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Magic's 1996 comeback is that it showed what the Lakers lost when he left the first time. Magic was still great in 1991 and was still good in 1996. How far could he have led the Lakers in 1992 and beyond? His knees had a lot of mileage on them but in 1992 the Lakers had finally signed a decent backup point guard in Sedale Threatt. Magic would have changed his game but remained effective and, likely, dominant for at least a few more seasons. He still would have been the smartest player on the court and few backcourt players would have had a chance against him in the post. Maybe the Bulls don't have their first three-peat if Magic stayed around. But then they probably don't get Shaq or Kobe and who knows where the franchise would be today.
No, there no iconic moments from that comeback season. But there were just enough Magic moments in 1996 to conjure up memories of the '80s and to remind people of what was lost in 1991.