A Battle of Two Great Smiles
How Michael Jordan beat Magic Johnson and won his first championship.
This Longform Reprint is reprinted by permission of author.
After they defeated Detroit in the Eastern Finals, the Bulls then took on the Los Angeles Lakers for their first shot at the championship. It was the Lakers’ ninth visit to the Finals in the age of Magic Johnson, which began in 1980, eleven years earlier. Both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper were gone, and by all odds this should have been the twilight of Johnson’s career, but he was still a superb player on a powerful team. If there was a decline in his on-court play, it had yet to be exploited by opposing teams. Johnson still had a stellar cast, including James Worthy, Sam Perkins, A. C. Green, Mychal Thompson, Byron Scott, and Vlade Divac. The Lakers, coached by Mike Dunleavy, won fifty-eight games that year. Some of the old razzle-dazzle from the earlier Johnson years was gone, and the Lakers used a more deliberate offense now, designed as much as anything else to conserve energy, but they were still a formidable team, and their players were accustomed to all the media hype and the accompanying disruption of the NBA Finals, unlike the Bulls, save of course for Michael Jordan, who dealt with that kind of media pressure every day of his life. This matchup was exactly what NBA and NBC executives had long wanted: the raw young gunslingers from Chicago up against the savvy old pros from Los Angeles, the older, incumbent superstar against the ascending one, the player much of the country longed to see in the Finals.
In a way, it was a battle of two great smiles. Magic Johnson had a brilliant smile, which if anything seemed more a permanent part of his countenance than Michael Jordan’s. Jordan’s smile was more controlled, as befit his character—it might have a higher wattage, but he flashed it more sparingly, only on select occasions such as championship-award ceremonies, and photo shoots for his varying commercial sponsors. That selective rationing made it more effective with the public—the fierce face of the warrior suddenly gone, replaced at the end of the game by a smile that reflected the incandescent pleasure of the victor. Johnson’s smile was much more his signature on the court; he seemed to take constant joy from the sheer pleasure of playing, and it was easy to forget how intense and demanding he was, how hard he pushed his teammates, coming down on them immediately if he sensed some slippage or carelessness in their game. “Forget Magic’s smile,” his longtime teammate Mychal Thompson said. “That’s not who he was. He was like Ali, and Ali smiled a lot too. But what they both wanted was nothing less than to kill you.”
The Lakers-Bulls Finals gave basketball people a chance to compare two very different superstars. Johnson was a natural leader on the court, and he played the right position for it, point guard. In the shrewd assessment of Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, who had covered both men for a long time, Jordan was by contrast not a natural leader, he was a natural doer. His game did not evolve naturally from sharing the ball and making other players better. One of the few men who knew them both very well, James Worthy, once said that if anything, Johnson was more intense than Jordan: “Michael is more intense within himself, Magic is intense for everybody.”
The stories of Jordan pushing his teammates were well known, in no small part because he had labored so long in such difficult circumstances with lesser players. There was less a sense of Johnson as someone who pushed and punished his teammates, for he had from the start been fortunate enough to be surrounded by greatness. The Lakers team he joined was like a very good, very well crafted automobile that lacked only one thing, an ignition system. He was that system. Winning was very serious business to him: He won in high school, he led his Michigan State team to the NCAA championship when he was all of nineteen years old, and he took the Lakers, who had not been in the Finals since 1973, to the Finals in his first year, winning as a rookie at a time in his life when there were a great many states in the union in which he could not legally drink.
He was not a great one-on-one player, not a great pure shooter, and his ability to jump was quite limited. But he was passionate about winning, joyous about playing the game itself, and his instinct on the court—when and where to get the ball to a teammate—was almost unmatched. He had great peripheral vision, he was a superb ball handler with huge hands, and his height—six foot nine, unprecedented in a point guard—meant that not only could the defensive man not block his vision but he was constantly causing matchup problems. His sense of the court, his capacity to make the right pass at the right time as the play unfolded, was special. Coaches and scouts who did nothing during a game but focus on Johnson, trying to figure out where his weaknesses were, often came away shaking their heads, believing that there were no weaknesses.
Magic Johnson was the prototype of the alpha personality as basketball player, a born leader, his manner on the court a natural extension of his personality off it. Knowing him, it was hard to imagine a field of endeavor in which he would not have taken command. He made the Lakers his team almost from the start. “We thought he was very good when we drafted him,” Jerry West said years later, “and we thought he would distribute the ball very well to his teammates. But we had no idea that he would take over the team and exert his leadership that quickly—that he would do it midway through his first season.”
His nicknames reflected different aspects of his personality. To the fans at large and most sportswriters he was Magic, reflecting the wizardry of his game. It was the nickname for those who did not know him well, the outsiders who wanted to feel like insiders. To those who knew him better, the elite, he was Earvin (his given name), a name he liked to be called. His teammates and those very close to him—the select few—called him Buck, for young buck, a nickname bestowed on him by teammate Norm Nixon when he first arrived in Los Angeles because of his energy and drive and passion to win.
In time, as the team crystallized and after Pat Riley became the coach, the Lakers became a very tough team. Riley was endlessly driven, a young man with blue-collar roots who had always been aware of his physical limits as a player. Riley knew that this was his one great chance at the brass ring. One day, his career over, he had been virtually out of a job, absolutely unsure of his future, when he lucked into a marginal position as assistant broadcaster to Chick Hearn, the Laker announcer, a man who neither wanted nor needed an assistant; the assistant’s principal responsibility was to say “That’s right, Chick” several times a game, as Mark Heisler noted. Then Riley stumbled into a job as a Lakers assistant coach, and when Paul Westhead was fired, it became his team, because Jerry West wanted no part of coaching. Riley was stunned by this series of events, but once they won their first title under him, he was not about to let this opportunity slip away—he was going to push it for all it was worth.
Riley himself was always aware of to whom he owed the most. One day, he was with a group of non-basketball friends, and he asked them if they could name two words that set him apart from everyone else. So they tried—Honesty? Loyalty? Toughness? Simplicity? Preparation? All wrong. Finally he told them. “Magic Johnson.”
Riley and Johnson pushed that team hard: If Riley was the general, as James Worthy once pointed out, then Magic Johnson was the drill sergeant. The drill sergeant, Worthy added, knew that his job was to take as much pressure as he could off the general. Lakers practices were serious business. Everything was scripted, and no time was to be lost. The enforcer was Johnson. He was the first player there every day for practice, wanting to get his own head right, sitting there by his locker, thinking of what he needed to do himself, and then checking out the other players. He did not want a lot of noise in the locker room, particularly before a game. He wanted nothing to break his concentration. No boom boxes—if someone wanted music, let him use earphones. The lesson was clear: This was a business office, not a social or athletic club. If you were late to practice, it was Johnson who got down on you: “Let’s look at you. Is everything OK? Nothing wrong? No one in your family died? You didn’t have a car wreck on the way over here? Thank God!” A message was being sent. He was very hard on A. C. Green because Green did not have good hands and could not handle some passes, and he was very tough on Vlade Divac, who arrived from Yugoslavia a bit soft for the American game. On occasion he addressed Divac, said one teammate, the way you talk to a dog—a dog you did not particularly like. If the Lakers lost two in a row, Johnson was in a terrible mood, worse even than Riley.
The Laker team that emerged in that decade was a great team. At its best, only the Celtics at their best were its match. Because of its speed, because of its capacity to play a finesse game, and because it played in Los Angeles, which was not considered a tough city in the way that Chicago or Detroit were considered tough cities, it was said to be a soft team. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Pat Riley did not coach soft teams, and Magic Johnson did not play on them. The Lakers were very tough. Though Dunleavy had since replaced Riley, the Lakers were still very tough, and they were the team Chicago was to face for its first championship. How well they would match up against the Bulls was a fascinating question.
Because of Jordan’s brilliant offense, few noticed that the team’s real trademark was its defense. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” Don Nelson, then the coach of Golden State, told Phil Jackson a year later. “I think I do, but what do you mean?” Jackson asked him. “Your two best offensive players are your two best defensive players,” Nelson answered. That was true, and it was very rare. Phil Jackson had no illusions about his ability to coach an offense, but he knew he was a very good defensive coach. When Jackson got the team in the fall of 1989, he pushed all his players at camp to play pressure defense. That first camp was brutal. They were all to be in great shape and push hard on the defensive end; their energy there would create opportunities at the offensive end. They most assuredly had the talent for it.
Michael Jordan was a very good defensive player. Some, like Mike Dunleavy, considered him the best ever at his position on defense. It was part of the singular completeness of his game. Here credit went to Dean Smith, who, sensing Jordan’s offensive brilliance and surpassing natural ability, had pushed him to excel on defense as well. Out of that early pressure evolved the rarest of players, a brilliant offensive star who also had a hunger for the exhausting and often neglected gritty work at the other end of the court. Early in his professional career Jordan mentioned casually to reporters that he hoped one day to be named defensive player of the year as well as the MVP. Jan Hubbard, then with The Dallas Morning News, wrote that it could not be done, that it took too much energy to play his kind of offense and an equal amount of energy to be that kind of defensive star—no one could have enough energy to do both. But then, in 1987-1988, Jordan was named both the MVP and defensive player of the year. Hubbard wrote that he had been wrong, but Michael, who always wanted the last word, never let Hubbard forget what he had written, forget that he had, however momentarily, underestimated Michael Jordan, certainly more than a journalistic misdemeanor and perilously close to a felony.
Scottie Pippen emerged that season as perhaps an even better defensive player than Jordan, or at least a more versatile one. With those unusually long arms, a wingspan that exceeded Jordan’s, he was able to play in the backcourt with the footwork of a guard and the reach of a center. Nothing in those early years helped him more than playing against Jordan every day in practice. The equation was simple: If Pippen could guard Jordan, then he could guard anyone in the league. The two of them, plus Horace Grant, arguably the quickest power forward in the game, made the Bulls a formidable presence on defense. “The Dobermans,” Johnny Bach called the three of them, because they were so young, quick, and fierce on defense. In addition, though Cartwright had lost much of his offensive game, he was a skilled positional defensive player; it was hard for any other team’s center to have a dominating night against Cartwright. No matter what the tempo, they were a hard team to beat: They played very good defense and so could win low-scoring games, but they were also explosive and good in the open court, so they could also win if the score went well over one hundred.
As the two teams prepared to meet, very few people knew how good the Bulls were. They knew how good Jordan was, but that was a different story. Yes, they had swept the Pistons this year, but only the people who played against the Pistons knew how tough they were, how much was required to beat them. By contrast, people knew how good the Lakers were, or thought they did, because they had been around for so long.
The first two games were played in Chicago. In the first game, the Bulls seemed a little tentative and surprisingly slow on their defensive rotations. Sam Perkins hit a three pointer at the end to give the Lakers a two-point win. Phil Jackson had a sense that his team had played beneath its level, that it had struggled with first-game jitters; he was confident that there were some defensive adjustments he could make that would impede the Lakers’ flow on offense. He was not that unhappy. A game had slipped away, but he liked most of what he saw, and he was sure they could get the game back.
In Game Two, an early second foul on Jordan pushed Jackson’s hand. He would have Pippen guard Magic on defense, something he had pondered doing earlier on. It was a marvelous move: Pippen was nearly as tall as Johnson but much quicker at this stage of their careers, and Johnson was unaccustomed to that combination. Pippen’s defense of Johnson seemed to throw the Lakers offense out of sync. The Lakers were also hurt by the absence of James Worthy, who was suffering from a badly sprained ankle—he was a better ball handler and thus a better press breaker than Byron Scott, the off guard. Without Worthy on the court, the pressure applied to Johnson was harder to handle. Sensing that, the Bulls stepped up the defensive pressure.
At the same time, the Bulls were finding their own rhythm: In the third quarter, they hit seventeen of twenty field goals to take over the game. When the game was over, Jordan had hit fifteen of eighteen, Paxson eight of eight. One of Jordan’s fifteen baskets was a highlight-film special: driving to the basket with the ball in his right hand, he saw Sam Perkins, his old Carolina teammate, coming at him. In mid-flight he seemed to pause for a moment, and then he switched the ball to his left hand and slammed it home. No one else in basketball could have made that shot. It was part of a 107–86 blowout, and it ended the idea that the Bulls were too young and inexperienced to play the Lakers. They had split in Chicago. Now, as they were going to Los Angeles, Phil Jackson said he wanted to win two out of three there. “What about making it three of three?” Jordan asked.
In Game Three in Los Angeles, Jordan hit a fourteen-foot jump shot over Byron Scott with 3.4 seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime. The Bulls, younger and fresher, went on to win, but Jordan had injured his big toe when he landed after making the tying shot. The pain was immediate—he thought at first that it was broken—and it affected his ability to start and stop. Chip Schaefer, the Bulls’ trainer since 1990, tried to construct a special shoe, designed to give his toe extra protection, but when he tried it out he found that he could not make his normal cuts. Just before the tip-off for Game Four he turned to Schaefer and said, “Give me the pain.” He would wear his regular shoe, would deal with the pain. He did, scoring thirty-six points in Game Four, the third straight Chicago victory. In the second half, Magic Johnson screamed at his teammates to play harder. Sam Perkins made just one of fifteen shots. It was not just a shattering blowout, 97–82, but a blowout driven by great defense. The Bulls simply shut down the Laker offense, holding Los Angeles at home to its lowest point output since the introduction of the shot clock. That the old order was changing was dawning on the Lakers. After Game Three, Johnson had said it would be a long series: “Nothing’s been decided.” But after Game Four, he was clearly shaken. “An old-fashioned ass kicking,” he said. “Never dreamed it would happen.” What had been the inconceivable, a sweep of all three games in Los Angeles, now seemed possible.
The Bulls got the sweep in the Los Angeles Forum in Game Five. This time, however, Los Angeles made it a game. With about six minutes left, the Lakers had a one-point lead. The Chicago coaches were wary that Jordan was slipping out of the team offense and trying to do it all himself. That was the last thing they wanted, particularly because Magic Johnson had a tendency to play a kind of zone defense, dropping off Paxson and leaving him open in order to be able to lay back and stop potential drives to the basket by Jordan or Pippen. Jackson had pushed Jordan during the entire series to look for Paxson. “Michael, who’s open?” Jackson asked near the end of Game Five. There was no answer. “Michael, who’s open?” he asked again. Still no answer. Then he asked a third time.
“Pax,” Jordan finally answered.
“Then get him the fucking ball,” Jackson said. To the players it was a critical moment in the evolution of the team, if not in this game and this series, then for the future. (Years later, when the division between Jackson and Krause was absolute, Jerry Reinsdorf recalled that as one of Krause’s happiest moments—“Jerry kept saying that it was one of Phil’s great moments, that no other coach could have gotten Michael to do that.”) The Bulls went on to win, 108-101.
They had won four in a row, sweeping Los Angeles in Los Angeles as they had swept Detroit in Detroit: They had gone 8–1 in the two series, and they had won all five games they played on the road. Much of it, people discovered, was about defense: They held the Lakers, who year after year averaged around 110 points a game in the Finals, to 90 points per game in regulation. The torch had truly been passed.
After the game, after winning his first championship seven years into the league, Michael Jordan broke down and wept. Reporters asked Magic Johnson if he had been that emotional when he won his first title. No, he answered, “I was so young, so unschooled in what it took to win the NBA title back then. So I know exactly what Michael is feeling now, because I felt that way later in my career, when it took much more effort and sweat to win it.”
Jordan would go on to win five more championships and forever change the sport. To read David Halberstam’s full account of his career, buy a copy of , buy a copy of David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, for just $4.99.