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Magic Johnson on the NBA 75th Anniversary Team and fixing the Lakers

The Hall of Fame point guard talks Kobe Bryant, Bill Russell and Black excellence leading into All-Star Weekend

Magic Johnson can’t wait to join his fellow legends in being honored as part of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team on Sunday. However, what will be bittersweet for the Los Angeles Lakers legend is that Kobe Bryant will not be there to enjoy this accolade.

“I missed him so much at the [Basketball] Hall of Fame ceremony last year that it was painful,” Johnson told The Undefeated in a phone interview Wednesday. “Not just that he wasn’t there when he went into the Hall of Fame — and I felt that, right? But I knew he was going to give one of the greatest speeches. Then, to now get this honor of the Top 75, you’re going to miss him again.”

The NBA will honor Johnson, Bryant and the entire 75th Anniversary Team in a special halftime ceremony during the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland. Johnson and other living members of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team from nearly every decade of the league’s existence will be in the arena for the ceremony.

Johnson, often regarded as the greatest point guard, was a 12-time NBA All-Star and claimed five championships while playing his entire career with the Lakers. The three-time Finals MVP was also a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

The following is a Q&A with Johnson on being on the league’s 75th Anniversary Team, why he always thanks the great Bill Russell, reflections about Bryant, why the Lakers have the greatest collection of talent in league history and what he told LeBron James during the recent Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

From left to right: Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal celebrate the Lakers’ NBA title in 2000. All three will be part of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, which will be honored during the All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. Johnson and O’Neal were also listed among the NBA’s 50 greatest players during the 1996-97 season.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Who are you most looking forward to seeing during the 75th anniversary team ceremony?

I had met just about everybody on that team, but it is still about the greatness of Bill Russell every time I see him. Just to understand that this dude won 11 NBA championships, oh, man. He also led. When LeBron and them [NBA players] did what they did two years ago with the social justice movement, when you think about civil rights and all the things that happened, I look at what Bill started and did, and Oscar [Robertson], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], all those guys. I know Jim Brown and some other guys were there as well, Muhammad [Ali]. But to put your job in jeopardy? That was tough during that time [for Russell].

I’m always blown away Bill Russell had to sleep at another hotel due to racism when he played for the Celtics. Things of that nature that I just said, ‘How did he do that, still dominate, still just kept his cool and still produced with all that pressure he had on him?’ That’s the guy who always just, even when I’ll see him this weekend, it’s going to be amazing. I always tell him thank you. So, that’s the guy.

You were a part of a similar ceremony during the NBA’s 50 greatest players ceremony in 1997. If you had to give a younger member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team some advice on how to take in that moment, what would you say to them?

I would say just really enjoy it, embrace it, take it all in. Remember what it means. It means so much more than just us being honored as one of the top 75. It means that you have to do so much more, not just on the court, but also off the court and in your community. I’m so proud of LeBron and KD [Kevin Durant] and Steph [Curry], on and on and on, these guys have been able to do that. Then you got to reach back and touch those younger guys who are coming up, right? That’s when I met Dr. J [Julius Erving], I saw him do that. Bill and Dr. J told us that’s our job. Isiah [Thomas] and myself, that was our job, right? Michael [Jordan]. … We got to help the young guys that are coming up behind us, and that’s what we were able to do. Then Kobe, that next era and the next guys, they had to do the same thing.

Now that’s what these young guys have to do for the guys that’s coming up in the league now, but are young. They all look up to LeBron and Steph and all of them, and they got to mentor them and they got to tell them what it means to really play in the NBA and how special it is. If you put the work in, then you can be one of the top players, right. They are the example. That’s what I would tell them.

Have you been able to find peace after Bryant’s death in 2020?

You’ll never really find peace, especially being a part of the Laker organization. He sat me down after he retired. He wanted to meet with me and he said, ‘I just want to be like you and Michael, that’s it.’ That is, he’s talking about after his career. He said, ‘What you and Michael have done after your career, I’m patterning my company and what I’m doing after you guys.’ I was like, ‘Man, this guy gets it. He understands.’ Sure enough, he was about to really just be one of the biggest businessmen, athlete-turned-businessmen, that we’ve ever seen.

He left a long-lasting legacy with a lot of these dudes who also are going to be in the All-Star Game because he worked out probably with most of them. He worked them out or trained them. Kobe is just, again, we’ll never see another one. He’s just a different breed. He was a superstar who also gave of himself to help others to be better, to improve themselves. You don’t see that too many times. You don’t really have access to superstars like that. He gave you access and said, ‘Hey, you want to train? OK. 5 a.m.’ To be that big in the world and say, ‘Oh, come on. Yeah, come on, train. I’ll work you out.’ [Celtics forward Jayson] Tatum, you can go on … so many guys who he trained, and women, too. Kobe was a student of everything.

But the one great thing is that his presence is always felt here in Los Angeles. He’s everywhere. They got murals all over the place, and everywhere I speak, that’s one of the questions. Matter of fact, I was just speaking on what, Valentine’s Day was Monday, and so one of the first questions was about Kobe and Michael, and I told them how close they were in terms of players and style. Kobe always wanted to be like Michael. All the different moves Michael had, Kobe worked on them. So, he will definitely be missed.

What does it say about Black excellence that the majority of those NBA 75th Anniversary Team players are African American?

You just said it. It’s Black excellence. It’s men who excelled at the game of basketball. Men who also stood tall in their community, who were leaders on the court, but also off the court, and we embraced our being Black. We embraced being leaders in our community and we gave of ourselves to, hopefully, make our communities better, and our community could touch us.

Every single guy has gone into their community and made a huge difference. LeBron goes back to Akron every year. Myself, what Dr. J taught me and taught us — Isiah, Michael — with writing the big checks and what he’s doing for the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] and on and on and on, other things. We can keep going down the line. Everybody’s done some amazing things and will continue to do that.

That’s one thing Bill Russell stressed to me the first time I met him. That’s what I love about these 75 guys, too, is that it just wasn’t about basketball that they excelled at. They also excelled in their community and making a difference. Then when issues arise, we step up, too. When we’re not treated right, or our people or something is wrong in our community, we rally and step up.

Do the Lakers have the greatest collection of players on this list?

Oh, no question. Hey, we can stop it right there. It’s not even close.

Boston might say something.

Yeah. They can say something and they’re probably going to be second, but they are not first. Now, you look up and shoot, outside of Bill, we got all the other dominant centers. I mean, man, oh, man, I mean the Lakers, come on, man. Kobe, Jerry [West], LeBron now. I mean, oh, man, [James] Worthy. Come on now. It’s just too many Lakers.

From left to right: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook are still trying to figure out how the Los Angeles Lakers are going to play, according to Lakers legend Magic Johnson.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What are your thoughts on the Lakers now and your hopes for them the rest of the season?

Who are we? What’s our DNA? We have to figure that out. Once we figure out who we are and what we do, we have to do [it] on a nightly basis to win, right? How do we have to play? That’s what we have to embrace and find out. Are we going to be this team that, on a nightly basis, we going to go up and down, we going to run? Are we going to be a set offense and feature LeBron and AD [Anthony Davis]?

We just have to figure out who we are. And what we really going to have to do is really buckle down on the defensive end. But I would say this: It’s been a struggle for the Lakers most of the season, and then that Golden State game [Feb. 12], I think they found something. [Wednesday] is really a key to me. Did they find something and will that translate against Utah? [Note: The Lakers beat the Jazz 106-101 Wednesday night.] I told LeBron this at the Super Bowl. I said, ‘Man, I think if you guys play like that …’ I said, ‘You should have won the game [vs. Golden State], up six, two minutes to go.’

We didn’t get those two offensive rebounds which [Warriors guard] Klay [Thompson] turned into six points, basically. They kicked it back out to him, and he hit those two big 3s, and the crowd got going, and Golden State from there just played great. But if we play like that, I said, ‘Man, we could be scary.’ Because that was probably our best game, and we looked like we knew how we were going to win, right?

Before, it was a struggle with the Big Three. They didn’t really figure it out. But it seemed like that [Warriors] game they figured it out. I’m going to see tonight, and I will say this: If they can figure it out, I tell you this, nobody’s going to want to face them because one thing about LeBron in that playoff, man, you know he comes with it when it’s the biggest moments.

If AD can find his jump shot, he’s been doing the other things well, he can get that back. Because remember, every year before this he’s been shooting great, but this year he’s been struggling from the outside. Everything else has been good, so he’s just got to find that, and we still got time. You still have what, 20-something games to go, whatever it is, 30 to go? They still have time to really get it together.

I remember ’91, new coach, Mike Dunleavy. We had some new guys. We had Sam Perkins, Kareem had retired. Everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s over for the Lakers.’ We never found our game until the last month of the season. We finally knew how to play with Sam, James and I, and we incorporated him, and man, we got rolling, man.

We rolled every team that was supposed to beat us, Golden State, all those guys. We beat all of them, and then Portland, who had the best record, we beat them to go to the championship. Because everybody thought they [Trail Blazers] were going to be the ones who win the championship because they had the best record in the league that year. We found our game and got rolling and it was on.

This team, we know they got talent. Now if they can just find their game, I tell you, they’re going to pose a lot of problems for teams. They just got to find it. They just got to find their game. Also, Russell [Westbrook], just be comfortable with how you have to play now. You can’t worry about how you played before, because that doesn’t matter. It’s about how can I help this team win and what do I have to do to help this team win.

This interview was conducted before the Lakers announced that Davis will miss four weeks with a mid-foot sprain.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.