Magic Johnson is part of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team and is working to get the Lakers back on track. Leading up to All-Star Weekend, the Hall of Fame point guard discusses Kobe Bryant, Bill Russell, and Black brilliance.
Magic Johnson is looking forward to being recognized as a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team on Sunday. The fact that Kobe Bryant will not be present to accept the award will be devastating for the Los Angeles Lakers great.
In a phone conversation with The Undefeated on Wednesday, Johnson said, “I missed him so badly at the [Basketball] Hall of Fame ceremony last year that it was excruciating.” “It’s not only that he wasn’t there when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame — you know how I felt about it? But I had a feeling he was going to deliver one of the greatest speeches of all time. You’re going to miss him again now that he’s been named to the Top 75.”
During the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, the NBA will recognize Johnson, Bryant, and the whole 75th Anniversary Team with a unique halftime ceremony. The ceremony will feature Johnson and other live members of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team from practically every decade of the league’s existence.
Johnson, widely recognized as the best point guard of all time, was a 12-time NBA All-Star and won five championships with the Lakers during the course of his career. The NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team included the three-time Finals MVP.
The following is a Q&A with Johnson regarding becoming a member of the league’s 75th Anniversary Team, why he always appreciates Bill Russell, his thoughts on Bryant, why the Lakers have the best talent pool in league history, and what he told LeBron James during the recent Super Bowl in Los Angeles.
Who do you want to see the most during the 75th-anniversary team ceremony?
I’d met almost everyone on that squad, but every time I see Bill Russell, I’m reminded of his grandeur. Just knowing that this guy has won 11 NBA titles is mind-blowing. He was also a leader.
When you think about civil rights and all the things that transpired, I think about what Bill started and did, and Oscar [Robertson], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], and all those guys, when you think about what LeBron and them [NBA players] did two years ago with the social justice movement. Muhammad [Ali], I know Jim Brown and a few other men were there. But to jeopardize your employment? That was a difficult moment for Russell at the time.
I’m constantly astounded. When Bill Russell was playing for the Celtics, he had to sleep in a different hotel due to racism. Things like that, things like, ‘How did he do that, still dominate, still keep his cool, and still produce with all that pressure on him?’ That’s the person who is usually fantastic, and I’m looking forward to seeing him this weekend. I always express my gratitude to him. So, that’s who he is.
In 1997, you were a part of a similar ceremony honoring the NBA’s 50 best players. What would you tell a younger member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team if you had to give them advice on how to appreciate the moment?
I’d recommend just appreciating it, embracing it, and taking it all in. Keep in mind what it means. It signifies a lot more than just being named one of the top 75 people in the world. It means you’ll have to put in a lot more effort not only on the court but also off it and in your community.
I’m extremely proud of LeBron and KD [Kevin Durant] and Steph [Curry], who have been able to accomplish so much. Then you have to go back and touch those younger guys that are on the rise, right? I saw Dr. J [Julius Erving] do that when I first met him. That is our role, according to Bill and Dr. J. That was Isiah [Thomas] and me’s job, right? Jordan [Michael]. … We had the opportunity to assist the young men who were following us, and we were able to do so. Then there was Kobe, the next period, and the next group of players who had to accomplish the same thing.
That’s what these young players must-do for the players who are just starting out in the league. They all look up to LeBron and Steph, and they’ve had the opportunity to teach them and tell them about what it’s like to play in the NBA and how wonderful it is. You can be one of the top players if you put in the effort, right? They serve as an example. That’s exactly what I’d tell them.
Have you found any peace since Bryant’s death in 2020?
Being a part of the Laker group means you’ll never truly find serenity. After he left, he sat me down. ‘I simply want to be like you and Michael,’ he stated when he wanted to meet with me. That is, he is referring to his post-career plans.
‘I’m modeling my company and everything I’m doing after what you and Michael have done after your careers,’ he remarked. ‘Man, this guy understands it,’ I thought. He comprehends.’ Sure enough, he was on his way to becoming one of the most powerful businesspeople, athletes-turned-businessmen, we’d ever seen.
He left a lasting impression on a lot of these guys that will be in the All-Star Game since he probably worked out with the majority of them. He either worked out with them or trained them. Kobe is simply one of a kind, and we’ll never see another like him. He’s simply a different species. He was a celebrity who gave of himself to help others improve and become better people.
You don’t see that too often. You don’t have that kind of access to superstars. ‘Hey, you want to train?’ he said as he offered you access. OK. ‘It’s 5 a.m.’ To be so powerful in the world and say, ‘Oh, come on,’ is incredible. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes ‘I’ll figure everything out for you.’ Jayson [Celtics forward] You may continue, Tatum… He trained a lot of males, as well as women. Kobe was a lifelong learner who was interested in everything.
But one nice thing about him is that he is always present in Los Angeles. He’s all over the place. They’ve got murals all over the place, and that’s one of the questions I am asked everywhere I go. In fact, I was just talking about what, Valentine’s Day was Monday, and one of the first questions was about Kobe and Michael, and I told them how similar their players and styles were. Kobe has always aspired to be like Michael Jordan. All of Michael’s varied moves were worked on by Kobe. As a result, he will be sorely missed.
What does the fact that the majority of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team players are African Americans indicate about Black excellence?
You’ve already stated it. It’s the epitome of black excellence. Basketball has traditionally been a male-dominated sport. We were men who stood strong in their communities, who were leaders on and off the court, and we embraced our race. We embraced our roles as community leaders and gave of ourselves in the hopes of improving our communities, and our communities were able to touch us.
Every single man has made a significant contribution to his community. Every year, LeBron returns to Akron. What Dr. J taught me and taught us — Isiah, Michael — about writing big checks and what he’s doing for the [National Museum of African American History and Culture], and on, and on, and on We can continue on down the line. Everyone has done incredible things and will continue to do so.
That was one of the first things Bill Russell told me when we met. That’s another thing I like about these 75 guys: they excelled in areas other than basketball. They were also outstanding in their communities and had a positive impact. Then, when problems arise, we stand up as well. When we are not treated fairly, our people are mistreated, or anything is wrong in our neighborhood, we band together and take action.
Are the Lakers the team with the most players on this list?
No way, no how. Hey, we can put a stop to it right now. It’s a long way off.
Boston may make a statement.
Yeah. They can say anything and will most likely come in second, but they will not come in first. Now, look up and see that, except Bill, we’ve got all of the other dominant centers. Man, oh, dude, I’m talking about the Lakers. Come on, man. Now it’s Kobe, Jerry [West], and LeBron. I mean, [James] Worthy, uh, man. Let’s get this party started. There are simply too many Lakers.
What are your current opinions on the Lakers and your expectations for the remainder of the season?
Who are we, exactly? What is our genetic make-up? That’s something we’ll have to find out. To win, we’ll have to figure out who we are and what we do on a nightly basis, right? What are the rules of the game? That is what we must embrace and discover. Are we going to be this team that goes up and down and runs every night? Are we going to run a set offense with LeBron and AD [Anthony Davis] on the court?
All we have to do now is figure out who we are. And on the defensive end, we’ll have to really buckle down. But I’d say this: The Lakers have struggled for the majority of the season, but I believe they discovered something in that Golden State game [Feb. 12]. [Wednesday] is a crucial day for me. Is there something they found, and will it be used against Utah? [Note: On Wednesday night, the Lakers defeated the Jazz 106-101.] This is something I told LeBron during the Super Bowl. ‘Man, I suppose if you guys keep playing like that…’ I said. ‘You should have won the game [against Golden State], up six with two minutes to go,’ I remarked.
We didn’t get those two offensive rebounds that [Warriors guard] Klay [Thompson] basically converted into six points. They passed it back to him, and he nailed those two massive threes, igniting the fans, and Golden State went on to play fantastically from there. ‘Man, we could be terrifying,’ I replied if we play like that. Because that was certainly our best performance, and we seemed to have figured out how to win, right?
It used to be a battle with the Big Three. They still haven’t figured it out. But it seems that they figured it out in the [Warriors] game. I’ll watch what happens tonight, and I’ll tell you this: If they figure it out, nobody will want to face them because one thing about LeBron in the playoffs is that you know he’ll be there when the stakes are highest.
AD can reclaim his jump shot if he can rediscover it; he’s been doing everything else well. Because remember, he shot well every year before this, but this year he’s been struggling from the outside. Everything else has gone well, so all he has to do now is discover that, and we still have time. You’ve got what, 20 or 30 games left? They still have time to put things right.
I recall Mike Dunleavy, the new coach in 1991. We have a few fresh recruits. Kareem had retired, so we had Sam Perkins. ‘Oh, the Lakers’ season is gone,’ everyone said. Until the last month of the season, we never found our game. We finally figured out how to play with Sam, James, and me, so we integrated him, and we were off and running.
We rolled over every team that was supposed to beat us, including Golden State and the rest of the league. We beat them all, and then we beat Portland, who had the greatest record, to get to the championship. Because they [Trail Blazers] had the best record in the league that year, everyone expected they [Trail Blazers] would win the championship. We found our game, got started, and the game was on.
We know this group has talent. I tell you, if they can just find their game, they’ll cause a lot of difficulties for teams. All they have to do now is discover it. All they have to do now is discover their game. Also, Russell [Westbrook], just get used to the way you have to play right now. You don’t have to be concerned about your previous performance because it doesn’t matter. It’s all about how I can help this team win and what I need to do to do so.