- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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On May 16, 1980, a rookie named Magic Johnson lined up at the center circle for the opening tip of Game 6 of the Finals in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The act served as the tipping point to a run of unprecedented success by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Forty-two points, 15 rebounds and seven assists later on that fateful day, Johnson had the first of his three Finals MVP awards and his team lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy as the last guys standing for the first of five times in his career.
Thirty years later, everything has changed for the Lakers but the purple script on their yellow uniforms.
But oh, how they've changed in a good way.
When Johnson jumped into the Lakers' lineup at center in place of Abdul-Jabbar, whose left ankle was too swollen to play on, he was a 20-year-old known as a basketball player with a bright smile. Today Magic is retired and has accomplished just as much, if not more, as a businessman and spokesman for those diagnosed HIV-positive.
It was the first of nine championships and 15 Finals appearances during the 30-year run, ushering in a new era as the dominant team of the second half of the NBA's existence. The Boston Celtics, the team of the first 30 years of the NBA, have just six Finals appearances and four titles since Johnson filled in for Abdul-Jabbar. Furthermore, the Lakers have qualified for the postseason 28 times in those 30 years as opposed to just 21 times for the Celtics.
"There was a real change in their franchise," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said on Sunday's anniversary. "They took a step forward. Obviously Magic was a big addition to it and trading for Kareem a couple years ahead of that, three, four years ahead of that, really established the fact that they were going to be a dominant team for a while and the combination of the two really sent them forward."
Back then, Dr. Jerry Buss was known more as a real estate mogul than a successful owner; now 30 years later he is awaiting his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the fall for his role in presiding over such a class franchise.
Derek Fisher was just 5 years old growing up some 1,700 miles away in Little Rock, Ark., when the game was played. He doesn't remember the specifics of how the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers that day, but he remembers the impact the game had on him in the years that followed.
"That was the only team I really cared about," Fisher said. "I was a Magic Johnson fan and it didn't really matter what other people were doing. Obviously I had no clue about the organization part of it, but just in terms of the basketball product and the way Magic played and the way their team played, I was intrigued by it, even as a kid."
Not only has the Lakers' success perpetuated in Los Angeles, where the team now plays at the luxurious Staples Center downtown instead of the Great Western Forum, but the Lakers became relevant at a time when television was growing and people were less likely to spend their whole lives living in the place where they grew up, creating a nation full of Lakers fan.
"There's just so much more access to tickets, information, jerseys, hats; there's more ways to show support for a team that's a road team in another city," said Fisher, who witnessed the boisterous contingent of fans at EnergySolutions Arena in Utah on May 10 chanting "Let's go Lakers!" late in the third quarter.
"I think it speaks to the generational impact that the Lakers have held for decades," Fisher continued. "There've been kids, in some ways similar to myself, but in particular kids here in L.A., that were born and raised strictly on the Lakers and then they went off to college on the East Coast or Midwest or whatever and now you go to Milwaukee or Utah or Boston or wherever, Lakers fans are everywhere. I think that speaks to the excellence the organization has stood for for so long."
That excellence made an impact overseas as well. The 29-year-old Pau Gasol was but a gleam in his father's eye when the Lakers beat the Sixers 30 years ago, but the team's popularity was growing throughout his childhood in Spain.
"They were higher profile," Gasol said. "The Lakers and Celtics were always at the top of the list for anybody that was a basketball fan."
They remain at the top of the list today with a rematch of the 2008 Finals looming on the horizon after Boston beat Orlando in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday and the Lakers heavy favorites in their Western Conference finals series against the Phoenix Suns starting Monday.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
1hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann