National High School Star
Join Date: Aug 2007
Re: Magic Johnson vs. Kobe Bryant
Magic, without question. Here's the difference between Magic and Kobe:
When I first arrived, the Lakers consisted of Kareem and eleven other guys. I accepted that, and I never tried to rock the boat. But because of Kareem, I could never really let loose on the court. I always knew I was capable of more, and sometimes I was frustrated because I knew I was a better player than I was able to demonstrate. That’s what Larry Bird had over me—that some people thought I couldn’t score and couldn’t shoot. I could do both, of course. But on the Lakers, shooting and scoring weren’t my role.
We were successful because each of us knew and accepted his job on the team. Mine was to feed the other shooters—especially Kareem, but also Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and, later, James Worthy. For everything to click, I had to take a backseat and play at a level that was slightly below my talent.
It’s not that I felt unappreciated—not at all. I kept making the All-Star team, and fans all over the country were singing my praises. As for my ego, that was satisfied in the best possible way—by winning. Wherever we went, people said, “Here come the Lakers. They’re the champs.” I loved hearing that, and winning had always come first.
Even so, I wasn’t playing the way I had, for example, in that championship game in Philadephia when Kareem was injured. The fans and the sportswriters didn’t know the full story. They hadn’t seen me at my best. “Just wait,” I used to say. “Somebody you’ll see the real Magic Johnson.”
Whenever I talked that way, people just smiled. There’s a lot of bragging in the NBA, and they probably thought I [was] shooting my mouth off. But I always knew that eventually my turn would come; I just assumed it would happen after Kareem retired.
As things turned out, I didn’t have to wait long.
In 1986, the Lakers finished the season with a record of 62-20. That was a great start, but we were only warming up. As always, we came into the playoffs with high hopes and expectations. For five of the previous six years we had gone all the way to the championship series In 1980, and again in 1982, we had defeated Philadelphia to win the title. We had lost to Boston in 1984, but the following year we came back to beat them. Now, as the defending champions, we were looking forward to another title series against the Celtics.
As everyone expected, we breezed past San Antonio and Dallas in the first two rounds. Then came Houston. The winner of this series would advance to the finals. It looked like a third-consecutive Celtics-Lakers series was just around the corner.
We won the opening game in the Forum. But Houston shocked us by winning the next four to take the series. The Rockets, with their “twin towers” offense of Ralph Sampson (seven feet four) and Hakeem Olajuwon (seven feet), were simply more than we could handle. The two of them closed down the middle against Kareem and James Worthy, and our outside game wasn’t strong enough to beat them.
We could see that our offense had become too predictable, and that the time had come to shake things up. That summer, Coach Riley sent me a letter, saying he wanted me to become more of a scoring threat. When I read those words, I practically jumped out of the room. Yes! Now I could play my game. But before I allowed myself to get too excited, I wondered how Kareem would accept this change.
Kareem had just completed his seventeenth season in the NBA. During every one of those seasons, his team’s offense had been built around him. Before that, the same thing had been true in college and high school. In the entire history of basketball, no one player had ever dominated for that long.
In the fall, when we started training camp, Riley told me again that he was planning a more balanced offense that would rely on all five players. And he repeated that he had a special role in mind for me. “It’s time the Lakers became your team,” he said. “We need you to start scoring more.”
“I’m ready, Coach,” I told him. “But have you talked to the Big Fella about this?”
“Not yet,” he said. “But I will.”
“Well, let’s wait until then,” I said. “Because I don’t want any problems.”
It’s not that Kareem has an unusually large ego, or that I expected him to object. But all good athletes have a lot of pride. I wanted to avoid doing any damage to the relationship with Kareem or the unity of our team. We were having one great season after another, and I didn’t want to screw that up.
It wasn’t just Kareem I was concerned about. For seven years I had been the setup man, getting the ball to the other players so they could score. If my role was going to change, that would affect everybody.
The next day, Riley told me that Kareem and James Worthy had both agreed to the new plan. But I felt a lot better when Kareem came over to me and said, “Okay, Buck, it’s all yours.” Then I felt free to go out there and play the way I’d always wanted to.
But it’s hard to change old habits, and it didn’t happen all at once. I was still holding back a little when, in late December, Kareem was forced to miss three games. Then I went to town. I scored 34 agaist Dallas, 38 against Houston, and a career-high 46 against Sacramento. In my first seven seasons, I had scored 40 points or more only twice. In 1986–87, I hit that mark in three different games. Not only was I hitting more shots from the outside, but, more than ever before, I was also taking the ball to the basket.
That season is still my best as a pro. It was also the most fun I’ve ever had in the NBA. I averaged close to 24 points a game, which was five points higher than my previous average. It was hard to get used to looking for my own shot instead of taking it as a last resort. But after seven years of shooting well in practice, I was certainly prepared. I was also able to increase my assists, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots.
I couldn’t have done this without Kareem’s support. He was great about the team’s new look. And he may have been relieved that he no longer had to carry us on his back. He became less dominant, but he still drew the double team inside, which now helped us more than ever. Some big men can’t bring themselves to pass the ball back out, but Kareem did it often and easily. With less pressure on him, he started having more fun. And that loosened everybody up.
In addition to becoming the go-to guy, I took more of a leadership role on the team. I started talking more on the court, encouraging guys, and yelling at them when it was called for. This, too, came naturally to me, but I had held back as long as Kareem was running the show.
At the end of the 1986–87 season, I received the one prize that had always eluded me—the MVP. It felt so good to win it, because finally, after all these years, I had been able to show my best stuff. Now everybody knew what kind of player I was, and what I might have been able to accomplish under different circumstances.
Magic was in the same situation Kobe was, having a dominant big man as a teammate, but he did what was necessary for the team to win. He deferred to Kareem when it was necessary for the team's success, and he eventually got his chance to be The Man, and when he did, he took the ball and ran with it, winning MVPs, rings as "the #1 option," getting the pub, having people call him GOAT, etc.
And he did it the right way. He didn't do stupid crap to prematurely break up a dynasty. He was a WINNER, doing whatever was necessary.
Notice I said nothing about stats. There's nothing Kobe can do to pass Magic in my book, because we've already seen his best, and he simply wasn't the player Magic was. Magic got it.
(cue the outraged Kobe stans and cowardly anonymous comments by people too gutless to speak in public in 3,2,1...)