The 1979-80 NBA season was a hallmark year for several reasons. First, it was the year that the league finally adopted the three-point line, an addition that rules modern basketball in today’s game. Second, it was the season the New Orleans Jazz moved to Utah and — for some bizarre reason — kept the name. Third, and perhaps foremost, 1979 was the year Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird debuted in the league.
Magic and Bird arrived just in the nick of time, reigniting fan interest in the league after a 1970s decade that hurt the league through a lack of dominant teams and league-wide drug abuse. Fresh off a showdown in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, the two players began their careers with a rivalry that was certain to unfold in the coming years.
Bird’s fans were to be dismayed, however, as his Boston Celtics failed to reach the NBA Finals in his rookie season, despite winning the Atlantic Division behind 61 regular season wins.
Magic, on the other hand, reached the NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers. Teamed with five-time Most Valuable Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers were well-poised to win the franchise’s sixth NBA championship.
Squaring off against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers managed to win game one at home, but lost game two to lose homecourt advantage. On the road, Los Angeles won game three to take back homecourt advantage, but the 76ers won game four to again even the series.
Game five proved to be a spectacle as Kareem poured in 40 points despite badly injuring his ankle late in the third quarter. The MVP left the game briefly but returned to score 11 points down the stretch and help the Lakers win a crucial game five at home in The Forum.
Up to this point, there was no denying that Kareem was the greatest impetus behind the Lakers’ success. And had the series ended after game five, it is likely that Abdul-Jabbar would have been named the Finals MVP — a second trophy to go along with his regular season award. But as fate would have it, Kareem twisted his ankle on Lionel Hollins’ foot and would be unavailable to play in game six back in Philadelphia.
Game six unfolded in legendary fashion. Despite playing without Kareem — and Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t even present in the city due to his injury — Magic Johnson played the best game of his young career, posting 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists and led the Lakers to the championship in six games.
*I’d like to clarify one thing for certain: Magic Johnson did NOT play center during this game. He may have JUMPED center at the start of the game, but at no point during the game did he actually play the center position, despite common fable.*
Behind series averages of 22/11/9, Magic was named Finals MVP in lieu of Kareem, but advanced statistics have emerged to tell us that the rightful winner of the award should have been the injured center.
Absolute Player Value, which merges Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, didn’t exist until recently. If applied to the 1980 playoffs, Kareem’s final APV is listed as 17.8 compared to Magic’s 15.35 (and 14.25 for the series-losing Erving). What’s even more impressive is that Kareem compiled these numbers despite playing a full 40 minutes fewer than his teammate Johnson. If you look even closer at the advanced statistics, Kareem’s PER and WS are both higher than Magic’s (27.9 to 22.1 in PER and 3.3 to 2.8 Win Shares).
So why was the rookie point guard named Finals MVP if Kareem deserved it instead? Rumor has it that CBS didn’t want to present the award to an “empty chair” where Kareem should have been. The rumor has actually been confirmed to be true, as Bill Livingston has since admitted that votes were changed to deny Kareem the award.
In the end, none of the numbers really matter except for one: four — the number of games the Lakers won in the series to clinch the world championship. And for all of eternity Magic Johnson will be known as the MVP of the series, even though Kareem probably deserved the title more. Inevitably, it comes down to your own persuasion of the events.
And you can watch games five:
and six to determine for yourself whether the right man was crowned: