Sunday, November 21, 2010

Magic Johnson's final high school game

Earvin Johnson became Magic when he was still in high school, thanks to a sportswriter who gave him the moniker after watching the young star dominate. As the story goes, he couldn't go by Dr. J because that had been taken, as had The Big E. So it was Magic Johnson, double-entendres be damned.

By his senior year at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, Magic was a legend. He led his team to the Class A state championship game against Birmingham Brother Rice.

The footage lives.

Everett won 62-56 in overtime. Two years later, Magic led Michigan State to the NCAA title, and a year after that he won Finals MVP as the Lakers won the NBA title. Three titles at three different levels in four years.

The title game footage is incredible to watch, even if it does look like it took place in 1957 instead of '77. Magic's game was ahead of the times but his hairstyle was with the times. He sported an Afro, which was long gone by the time he scored 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals.

A couple of things:
* Several times Magic drains a little turnaround jumper on the baseline. I watched hundreds of his games in the 1980s and have watched a hundred more on YouTube. Rarely did he use this turnaround jumper in the NBA. Where'd it go? It was, in fact, an Elvin Hayes-like turnaround jumper, but seems to have disappeared as his game progressed in so many other areas.

* Check out the pass at the 54-second mark. A classic Magic look, the type you'd see to Rambis or AC Green in the ensuing years. Unlike AC Green, though, his high school teammate made the layup.

* Magic did most of his damage in the post. He possessed a sort-of-unsightly jumper, a shot that he didn't really perfect until the middle to late 1980s. Even then, it was more set shot than jump shot.

* The analyst offers nothing. I'm not sure who it is, probably a former Michigan legend who only broadcast games every March and ran a used car dealership the other 11 months of the year. "Boy it looked awful easy," chuckle, chuckle. "That's Earvin Magic Johnson," chuckle. "I think he's got his rhythm, Mike." "That wasn't a bad shot, Mike. Wasn't a bad shot at all," chuckle.

* At the 2:40 mark, another great Magic pass. At times he simply overpowers the opponent, looking something like the mustached 14-year-old who dominates 8th-grade basketball games thanks to size alone, but the skills that made him a pro legend and not just a schoolboy one are also on display.

* This game has an insane ending. Everett leads by 2 in the closing seconds. Rice brings the ball up and the guard launches from just inside the halfcourt line at the buzzer...and banks it in! You can see Magic preparing to celebrate even as the ball falls through the net. It's like the shot Butler had that would have defeated Duke in the NCAA Finals last year, or the shot that Fritz Skinner used to beat Worthington Community College on a cold night in 1994 (still very bitter about that one, since he shot it right in front of me). Fans actually come onto the court. But it only tied it. If there had been a 3-point line, obviously Rice would have won. Then again, if there had been a 3-point line Jerry West's famous shot against the Knicks would have won the game and the Lakers wouldn't have lost in OT. Rice also falls, despite the miracle.

* Magic takes over in overtime. A perfect bounce pass for a layup. Then, at the 3:55 mark, a behind-the-back dribble leads to an open-court reverse layup. Even today, more than 30 years later, it's not the type of move you see many 6-9 point guards make. Actually, there still hasn't ever been another 6-9 point guard.

* According to the person who posted the video on YouTube - a person who should be put up for sainthood - Magic scored 34 points, though you wouldn't know that from the stumbling post-game interview.

In the interview Magic sounds like a kid, which he was. His interviewing skills improved over the years, as did his jumper. But the passing and intangibles that made him one of the greatest winners in basketball history? Those skills were already fully formed.

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