It didn’t seem real. Magic Johnson was not even part of the active roster of the Los Angeles Lakers. He was supposed to be at home, resting. Just three months prior, Johnson delivered news that shook the basketball world: he had tested positive for HIV and he is retiring from the NBA. Yet on February 9, 1992, Johnson showed up at the All-Star Game, wearing the familiar purple and gold warm-up jacket. He was supposed to be watching the game someplace far away, where the spotlight can’t reach him and the criticism can’t hurt him. Yet there he was in Orlando, voted in as an All-Star starter by his fans, introduced last after names like Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, and James Worthy.
Before tipoff, Johnson, a charismatic and charming individual, waved nervously to the cheering crowd. His eyes had a peculiar gaze–the look of someone about to say final goodbyes at the airport. Then he let out a big laugh as one by one, players from the East squad–names like Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan–approached him to give hugs and respect. The game hadn’t started; Johnson had already won the MVP trophy.
Johnson’s basketball brilliance was cut short at the start of the 1991-1992 season. His Lakers lost to Jordan and the Bulls in his last NBA Finals appearance, despite elite numbers of 19 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds per game. He undeniably still had it in him, and the All-Star Game set the stage perfectly so he can prove it to 23 of the NBA’s best players and, ultimately, to the world.
Like any other respectable sports film, the game started shaky for the hero. In the very first possession, Johnson–going for the instant highlight–tried a cross court bounce pass between three defenders to a cutting Clyde Drexler. The pass was deflected. Two plays later, Johnson found himself inside the paint, and was fouled while attempting a shot. He calmly sank two free throws. In one sequence, Thomas challenged Johnson’s defense and scored on a layup. Johnson responded with a coast-to-coast layup of his own on the other end. By the time fourth quarter came, Magic found his groove, throwing no-look passes and nailing baby hook shots as if he never left.
In Rocky IV, a bloodied and staggering Rocky Balboa was on the brink of defeat when he unleashed a barrage of body shots on Ivan Drago. With heady music swelling at every blow, Rocky capped off one of the best sports film moment ever with a knockout punch that sent his opponent to the canvas. Magic had a similar moment at the 1992 All-Star Game. There were no punches thrown, but it was even more dramatic; it was stranger than fiction.
Magic’s future in basketball was uncertain then. The man himself said it could be the last time he would ever step inside a basketball court. With the game already decided, Thomas and Jordan–two of the greatest competitors to ever play the game–wanted to make the most out of their time on the court with another great competitor. They wanted to pass the Magic test.
Thomas, a close friend of Magic, went first. Eight other All-Stars on the court vanished, and it was Isiah Thomas versus Magic Johnson. Isiah put on a dribbling show, baiting Magic to reach in. Magic, with his defensive stance locked on, didn’t budge. Isiah drove to his right, pulled back, and shot a fadeaway jumper that hit nothing. Magic raised both arms in the air in celebration.
Jordan, Magic’s fiercest rival, went next. Again, the other players vanished, and it was Jordan versus Magic. Everyone got on their feet as the two legends sized each other up; Drexler applauded, Mullin stopped to play defense. Jordan also drove right and pulled back for a fadeaway that rimmed out.
Then came Magic’s turn, his Rocky moment (cue the swelling music). Backing up on Thomas at the three point area, Magic stepped back to swish an off-balanced three-point heave–the knockout punch aimed towards his detractors, his fears, his doubters, his illness. Fourteen seconds were left on the clock, but everyone on the court, teammates and opponents alike, stopped playing basketball. They spent the final seconds of the game to give Magic congratulatory high-fives and warm hugs.
It didn’t seem real. It was almost magical.
THE ROSTER: Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Tim Hardaway, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Otis Thorpe, James Worthy
[Video from YouTube]