On June 3, 1984, Earvin “Magic” Johnson dropped 21 assists as the Los Angeles Lakers took a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals.
To this day, that stands as the Finals record, and the only two other occasions where a player broke 20 dimes also belongs to Johnson: June 4, 1987, against the Celtics; and on June 12, 1993, against the Chicago Bulls.
In ’84, he added 14 points and 11 rebounds to complete the triple-double that night. He also chipped in one block and a steal.
For the seven-game series, Johnson averaged 18.0 points, 13.6 assists and 7.7 rebounds. And yet, he was largely blamed for the Lakers eventually losing the series and was dubbed “Tragic Johnson.”
The criticism was largely based on Magic missing shots or turning over the ball in key moments during three of the Lakers’ losses.
Alexander Wolff penned a classic hit piece on Johnson for Sports Illustrated, opining:
“Magic refers to what he does as ”Showtime.’ Presumably, the bigger the game, the bigger the production. But you can’t have fun in the clutch; Lordy, you can’t crack a smile in the clutch. The clutch is a crucible. Calling on Magic then is like asking Busby Berkeley to step in and direct the climactic scene in an Ingmar Bergman movie.”
Johnson turned that criticism into fuel and helped lead the Lakers to revenge in the 1985 Finals. He would win his third Finals MVP in 1987. In Game 2, he hit the “junior, junior, junior sky-hook” to win the game, forever eradicating the “Tragic” label.
One lesson to be learned from all this?
It’s silly to build an entire narrative about a player around a single series or three or four games. Like all of us, players are neither defined by their best or worst moments, but by the sum of them all.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.