Talk bad about Minnesota.
Make jokes about Hay Daze and the Doll in the Window.
Ridicule Saint John’s football. (Actually, no, don’t do that one. I’ll weep).
I can take a lot. But warning to former NBA players, current NBA writers, old NBA broadcasters and young NBA bloggers: Do not ridicule Magic Johnson’s playing career.
To be more accurate, don’t ridicule Magic’s playing ability while completely misrepresenting reality. Don’t be Clyde Drexler.
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum has a new book coming out about the 1992 Dream Team, which won Olympic Gold and featured Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner. It’s been 20 years since those two — along with a few other Hall of Famers, such as Magic and Clyde — dominated in Barcelona. A few weeks ago NBA TV premiered a documentary about the team. Now McCallum’s book. Deadspin ran an excerpt from the book and it features Drexler talking about Magic’s contributions to the team. Well, it features Drexler saying things like, “Everybody kept waiting for Magic to die. Every time he’d run up the court everybody would feel sorry for the guy and he’d get all that benefit of the doubt.” He’s also upset about not getting the 1992 All-Star MVP Award, which went to Magic, and, he adds, if people knew Magic wouldn’t die that he would not have made the Dream Team.
I’ll just focus on the idea that Magic was somehow undeserving of a spot, except out of pity. Drexler lacks tact, but when Magic made his fateful announcement in November 1991 most people did expect him to die within a few years. That thought hadn’t changed by the time the All-Star game rolled around or when the Olympics took place. But Magic didn’t maintain his spot on the team because of a fear of his future. He maintained the spot because he deserved it.
The Dream Team members were actually announced before Magic retired, 10 of them anyway. Drexler and Laettner were the final two players added to the roster in 1992. Maybe Clyde thinks Isiah Thomas should have gotten Magic’s roster spot after he retired. Or maybe he wanted his Portland teammate Terry Porter, though that addition would have meant ditching the Dream Team label. But in the summer of 1992, Magic Johnson was probably still the best point guard in the world. In 1991, his final season with the Lakers, Magic led the Lakers to the NBA Finals while averaging 19 points and 12.5 assists. In the winter of 1991, before his retirement, the Lakers were again one of the favorites to win the title. They’d added a solid backup point guard in Sedale Threatt — no, really, this was a big addition — and still had Worthy, Sam Perkins, Vlade, Byron Scott…and Magic. After he retired Magic stayed in game shape, if not NBA condition, in anticipation of his participation in the Olympics.
Hell, four years later Magic did return to the NBA and put together a respectable half-season with the Lakers, five years after his retirement. So, yes, in 1992, Magic still deserved his spot.
Drexler sounds like a bitter defeated foe because that’s exactly what he was. When the Lakers made their run to the 1991 Finals the Lakers upset Drexler’s Blazers, who were the heavy favorites entering the Western Conference Finals. Instead Magic and the boys upset Portland in Game 1, swamped them in Games 3 and 4 and then held on in Game 6. The Trail Blazers owned the best record in the NBA in 1991. They would have had homecourt advantage over the Bulls in the Finals. They could have been champions. People remember Chicago’s victory over Portland in 1992 and look at Jordan’s six titles and think he would have never lost a Finals. But Chicago had homecourt in ’92, not Portland. And in 1991 Jordan wasn’t a six-time champion or even a onetime champ. The Lakers themselves could have won that series, if not for a sprained ankle Worthy suffered in the WCF or the fact they squandered a 13-point lead in Game 3. The 1991 Blazers? Maybe they delay Jordan’s dynasty, or even start one of their own. Instead Portland never lived up to expectations and Drexler had to wait until he joined forces with Hakeem in Houston before he won a ring.
So, yes, it’s not surprising that he would still carry a 20-year grudge about that season — or the other beatings inflicted by the Lakers during Magic’s era — and lash out at a weakened Magic, or at least our memory of what Magic was like in 1992.
Of course the Dream Team wasn’t just about the greatest players. It was about putting legends together. Specifically three legends: Magic, Michael and Larry Bird. Only one of those players was in his prime at the Olympics. Larry retired a few months later and didn’t contribute much in Barcelona because of his bad back. Didn’t matter. People wanted those three on the same team and they wanted them on the same court, even if it was only for a brief time. They wanted to see Magic pass to Bird for a three and they wanted Magic to throw an alley-oop to Jordan. They wanted Jordan’s defense to lead to a Magic-led fastbreak.
People wanted to watch Charles Barkley rebound, dunk and talk. They wanted to watch Karl Malone fill the lane and David Robinson and Patrick Ewing protect it. They wanted to watch Chris Mullin hit threes and Scottie Pippen block them.
But mostly people wanted Magic, Michael and Larry.
So even if Magic had been washed up as a player in 1992 his spot on the team would not have been in danger. Instead he was one of the best players in the world, a year after he left the NBA. Drexler should know it better than anyone.