The seat was empty. Eerily empty.
The seat, the first one in the front row of the airplane, belonged to the captain of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He had severely injured his left ankle in the Lakers' Game 5 victory of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, and as the Lakers boarded a plane for Game 6, holding a 3-2 lead in the series, they were unusually numb -- and a bit scared -- as they slowly passed by the empty front row seat.
They were thinking the worst, that they were going to get blown away in Philly, and that a Game 7 back in Los Angeles was inevitable. But suddenly, out of the blue, the youngest Laker, 20-year-old rookie point guard Magic Johnson, plopped himself down in the seat -- Kareem's seat -- and boldly declared that he was going to carry the Lakers to victory in the absence of The Big Man, that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, that his shoulders were sturdy enough to carry the weight of the franchise. "No fear," he said with a confident grin. "E.J. is here."
It's May 16, 1980, Philadelphia Spectrum, Game 6, NBA Finals, Los Angeles vs. Philadelphia.
Day breaks in Philadelphia with Kareem sightings, one after another. "I just saw him get out of a cab on Broad St.," yells a caller on a Philadelphia morning radio show. "He was just whisked into the Marriott," claims another caller. "I just picked him up at the airport," a cabbie tells the DJ.
Nobody in the Sixers' organization, and certainly none of its fans, really believe Abdul-Jabbar is going to miss Game 6 of the NBA Finals with an ankle injury. "He's going to pull a Willis Reed," one fan says on TV, referring to the night Reed hobbled onto the court seconds before the start of Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals with a badly injured knee, started the game and inspired the Knicks to the title.
Even with a bad ankle in Game 5, Abdul-Jabber had hobbled back onto the court to a thunderous ovation in the fourth quarter, and scored 14 of his 40 points, including a three-point play with 33 seconds left to break a 103-103 tie and propel the Lakers to victory and a 3-2 lead in the series. If he did that, he'd certainly be there for Game 6, right?
Even as the Lakers and Sixers get ready for the tip off, the Sixers and their fans still believe Abdul-Jabbar is going to pop out of the tunnel and race out on the floor, laughing. They all receive a shock all right, but it's when 6-foot-9 point guard Magic Johnson lines up at center, in Kareem's spot. Sixers center Caldwell Jones turns to Magic and says, "You gotta be joking, right?"
So unfamiliar in this position, Magic doesn't even know what foot to put in the tip-off circle. Predictably, he loses the tip. But he immediately takes control of the game, moving into the low post, taking a pass and launching a hook shot, Abdul-Jabbar style. He makes the shot.
Johnson magically transforms himself into a smaller version of Abdul-Jabbar as he plays a combination point center-forward-guard, crashing the boards, handling the ball and running the offense, and guarding everyone from Darryl Dawkins to Julius Erving.
One moment, he's throwing a scoring pass from the high post to Michael Cooper. The next he uses his position to seize a rebound, dribble upcourt and hit a jumper from the foul line. A minute later, he drives past a stunned Erving for a bank shot. Then he does it again.
The Lakers jump out to a quick lead, but the Sixers roar back and take the lead before the Lakers rally and go into the locker room at halftime tied at 60. Los Angeles, feeling great about itself minus Abdul-Jabbar, storms out for the second half and reels off the first 14 points. But with 5:12 left, the Sixers are still in it, trailing by only 103-101 after two jumpers by Dr. J, a dunk by Caldwell Jones and a 14-foot jumper by Bobby Jones.
Lakers coach Paul Westhead calls timeout. Out of the break, Magic taps in a fast-break miss by Michael Cooper, and then sets a pick for Jamaal Wilkes, who drives the lane, draws a foul and makes a three-point play, giving the Lakers a 7-point edge. Then Magic takes complete control, scoring nine points in the final 2:22, sealing victory.
As the final seconds tick off the Spectrum clock in Game 6, the Lakers mob Magic, who screams into the TV, "We know you're hurtin', Big Fella, but we want you to get up and do a little dancin' tonight."
Abdul-Jabbar, back in Bel Air, California, begins dancing -- actually hopping on one leg -- without a trace of regret that the championship he had worked so hard for all season long is captured without him, while he is thousands of miles away, nursing an injury. For the moment, his pain, all of it, magically disappears, courtesy of Johnson, who hasauthored the greatest individual rookie performance in NBA history. His final line: 42 points, 14 of 14 from the free throw line, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.