Magic’s First Game: A Snap Shot of the NBA Circa 1979

In order to make the best of life without NBA games, NBA TV and other networks have been showing a ton of older games.  Most of them are well-remembered (i.e., Isiah Thomas’ scoring rampage on a sprained ankle in 1988, a bunch of Laker-Celtics Finals games from the 1980s, or Michael Jordan games).  Those games are great and significant but I actually saw most of those games live and find them less interesting than stuff I’ve never really seen.  One game that caught my eye in the reruns was Magic Johnson’s rookie debut in 1979 against the San Diego Clippers.  When I actually sat down and watched the game, it was a fascinating period piece.  It revealed the style of play in the NBA at the time, common wisdom circa 1979 that seemed foreign to me, and some other wonky things.

Beforehand, all I really knew about the game was that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit a hook at the buzzer to win the game.  After the shot, Magic embraced Kareem like they had won the title and Kareem, ever the stoic, was pretty detached about the whole thing.  The lore handed down over the years has been that this new Magic kid helped invigorate Kareem to titles and that the first game presaged this bright future.  Was this true?  Certainly, in the larger sense it was.  Let’s look at the game, itself, and we’ll point out some the interesting tidbits, bullet point style:

Bill Walton Was The Star: Magic’s debut was obviously a big deal but the first thing the telecast mentions is that Bill Walton, who was supposed to play his first game for the Clippers, would sit out with an ankle injury.  Brent Musburger broke the news matter-of-factly but Walton was the big news.  Walton was widely considered the best player in the NBA for the Blazers in 1976-77 and 1977-78, before breaking his foot late in that second season.

Now, Walton waxes fondly of his time in Portland but the split was actually acrimonious post-foot break.  Walton missed all of 1978-79 and accused the Blazers’ doctors of malpractice in allowing him to play with the foot issue.  Walton would never play another game in Portland and the feelings were hard on both sides.   According to a Sports Illustrated story on Walton from early October 1979 (the same week as Magic’s debut game), Walton’s personal orthopedist Dr. Tony Daly told SI that “Walton reluctantly agreed to be injected with the painkiller Xylocaine before the Portland-Seattle playoff game on April 21, 1978. With the feeling in his feet deadened, Walton had no way of knowing that he was placing too much stress on them; as a consequence, Daly believes, the tarsal navicular bone in his left foot fractured.”  Walton even took shots at Jack Ramsay, his old coach, whom he would later speak about reverentially.  Walton sued the Blazers’ orthopedist for $5.6 million, and the lawsuit was eventually settled in 1982 for an undisclosed amount.

After the 1978-79 season, he signed with the new San Diego Clippers (the team had recently moved from Buffalo to Walton’s hometown) and the Blazers chose a player compensation instead of matching the offer, believing the relationship was too far gone.

-The Clippers as of 1979:  Signing with the Clippers in 1979 was not thought to be the terrible fate it would soon to be viewed.  First, the Clippers were owned by Irv Levin and not yet by Donald Sterling.  On the court, the 1978-79 Clipps were a respectable 43-39 (slightly worse than the Blazers, who went 45-37 without Walton that season).   Still, the Clipps were really an odd team.  They were 4th in offensive rating but dead last in defense.  The offense was built around legendary gunner World B. Free, who put up 28.8 ppg, and point guard Randy Smith, who had 20 ppg but was already 30.  Free was well-known for not playing any defense and shooting every time he touched the ball (albeit fairly efficiently).  The advanced stats of today agree that Free played no defense.  Though, he led the team in BPM at 2.9, his OBPM was 4.4 and his DBPM was -1.5.  He also had only 0.7 DWS, lowest of any regular player on the team.  The hope was that Bill Walton would bring some defense to the table and make the Clippers very competitive.  To get Walton, however, the Clippers gave up their two best defenders (Kermit Washington and Kevin Kunnert).  Going into 1979-80, the Clippers lineup looked like this (based on 1978-79 stats):

PG: Brian Taylor, age 28, barely played in 1978-79 (Smith had been traded for a draft pick)

SG: World B. Free, age 26, 28.8 ppg, 4.4 apg, 22.1 PER, .164 WS/48, 2.9 BPM, 3.7 VORP

SF: Nick Weatherspoon, age 29, 13.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 12.7 PER, .068 WS/48, -1.7 BPM, 0.2 VORP

PF: Sidney Wicks, age 30, 9.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 11.1 PER, .037 WS/48, -2.6 BPM, -0.3 VORP

C: Bill Walton, age 27, hadn’t played in 18 months (back up was Swen Nater, age 30, 10.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 16.9 PER, .133 WS/48, 0.6 BPM, 1.3 VORP)

Does this team look any good?  Not really.  Even if Walton stayed healthy, there were three below average starters and Free, who always had his own thing going on.  The question was whether Walton could make this team title worthy.

What was the perception of the Clipps at the time?  In that same Sports Illustrated issue noted above, the Clippers were predicted to finish fourth in division.  The preview wrote that the San Diego “must keep Walton healthy for an entire season to be competitive within its division, but even if the Clippers do that, it may not be enough.”  As for Walton, he did play in the pre-season.  The article noted that Walton was “obviously rusty [but] was intermittently awesome during the exhibitions.”

The blurb noted that losing Washington at power forward was a problem, which is true but didn’t seem to recognize the other big holes in the lineup.  As for Free, SI wrote that Free shoots maybe too much, to which Free is quoted as saying “[p]eople relate to me as being a bad guy.  But I can’t stop shooting the ball in order for us to win.  Bill can help and I can help him, and that’s what we have to do.”  Free was actually quite correct about all those things.

-Magic, Nervous?:  Magic always had a reputation as a clutch performer but he was only 20 at the time.  Brent Musburger of CBS interviewed him on the court literally as he was taking off his warmups to play.  Johnson admitted to being nervous then trotted out to the court.  These nerves were borne out in the first quarter, when Magic immediately committed a bad foul, missed all his shots from the field, and committed a few bad turnovers (while getting roasted by Free a few times).

-The Three-Pointer:  This was the first season that the NBA used the three-point line.  Hot Rod Hundley interviewed Free before the game and asked Free how the three-point shot would change Free’s game.  Free was already known for taking long range bombs, so it was natural that this might work for him.  Free told Hundley that “I’m not going to go off my game.  My game is driving and that’s it to help the team win.”  Free also noted that he would have to guard Magic and that “I played him very well in the pre-season.”

Musburger also predicted that Free would be the first player to hit a three-pointer.  In the end, no player on either team took a three-pointer all game and Free was only 9-25 from three for the season.  The actual first three was hit by Chris Ford in the Celtics game played that day on his only attempt (teammate Larry Bird was 0-1 from three that day).  The most threes attempted (and made) that season ended up being from Free’s teammate Taylor who shot 90-239 from three.  Taylor held the record for threes made for a season until Darrell Griffith in 1983-84 (91-252).

-Gratuitous Larry Bird Mention:   Musburger did make note that Bird won his debut game and that he only had 14 points.  Bird and Magic were linked even then, though it would not be until 1984 that they met in a playoff game.  Interestingly, SI predicted that the Celtics would finish fourth in the Atlantic.

– Offensive Style:  The half court offenses in this game were surprisingly rudimentary.  The Lakers tried to post up Kareem, which made a lot of sense.  The Clipps also posted up a bit but less effectively.  On non-post up sets, the  primary play was to pull up and shoot mid-range jumpers or run a set play where the point man would dribble backward to the foul line and hand off to a man running behind for an 18-footer.  Most of the jump shots were open and uncontested.  Free really enjoyed this style and he was hitting open jumpers from all over.  He had a ton of open 20-footers and ended 19-29 for 46 points, yet it was evident why fans and coaches did not love his style.  Think of him as a less effective/efficient James Harden.  If Free had played with the right coach today, though, he really would’ve enjoyed contemporary offensive sets.

The Lakers fell behind by double digits with everyone but Kareem struggling on offense.  When Magic checked back in in the second quarter, he seemed to gain confidence.  He began pushing the ball and creating a ton of fast break opportunities for himself (he only had four assists, but did get 26 points and eight board, and four blocked shots).

-Those Crazy Chains:  I had forgotten that players, at one time, liked to play with gold chains during actual games.  It seems odd that the NBA ever had a time where they permitted players to wear accessories that you and I would know not to wear in a pickup game today.  In fact, the Clipps had four players sporting cheesy chains: Free, Nater, Wicks, and Freeman Williams. did a nice history of gold chains and reminds us that Dr. J and Michael Jordan also went with this dubious fashion choice during games or slam dunk contests.

-State of Kareem, Circa 1979:  At the time, Kareem was 32 and still a stud.  In 1978-79, before Magic was in town, Kareem put up 23.9 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 4.0 bpg and led the NBA in PER (25.5), WS (14.4), WS/48 (.219), BPM (7.6) and VORP (7.7).  Abdul-Jabbar had gotten mixed press because he was not press friendly and because his political views were also outside the mainstream.  Recently, Kareem has been appreciated as a thoughtful person but, then, he was considered sullen and he was not a media darling.

There was a natural tendency to try to have Kareem and Walton compete against each other.  Initially, the media sided with Kareem’s quiet professional manner over the quirky hippie.  As the Blazers improved, however, Walton was regarded as the better “team player.”  In 1976-77, the Blazers swept Kareem’s Lakers in the playoffs, solidifying this perception that Walton was either better as a player or, at the very least, the better center to win with. This conclusion was somewhat superficial when you delve into the numbers:

-In 1976-77, the Blazers were the better team, The Lakers had a few more wins but, by SRS, the Blazers were the best team in the NBA (5.39), while the Lakers were merely solid (2.64).  Walton was great in the series (19.3 ppg, 14.8 rpg, 5.8 apg, 2.3 bpg, .507 TS%) but Kareem was even better (30.3 ppg, 16.0 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.8 bpg, .660 TS%).  The difference was that the Blazers had Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins also scoring while the Lakers only other decent scorer Lucius Allen missed half the series.  In other words, Walton gets some credit for this sweep but let’s not blame Kareem for having a worse team.

Let’s also put peak Walton’s stats against Kareem’s from the same time frame:

Walton 76-77: 34.8 mpg, 18.6 ppg, .563 TS%, 14.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3.2 bpg, 22.9 PER, 10.2 WS, .215 WS/48, 6.7 BPM, 5.0 VORP

Walton 77-78: 33.3 mpg, 18.9 ppg, .554 TS%, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.5 bpg, 24.8 PER, 8.4 WS, .209 WS/48, 8.1 BPM, 4.9 VORP

Abdul-Jabbar 76-77: 36.8 mpg, 26.2 ppg, .608 TS% 13.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 3.2 bpg, 27.8 PER, 17.8 WS, .283 WS/48, 9.4 BPM, 8.7 VORP

Abdul-Jabbar 77-78: 36.5 mpg, 25.8 ppg, .589 TS%, 12.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 3.0 bpg, 29.2 PER, 12.1 WS, .257 WS/48, 9.3 BPM, 6.5 VORP

As great as Walton was at his peak, Kareem was a bit better by pretty much every metric.  Walton was a really good passer but Kareem actually even did that well.  The point here is not to denigrate Walton’s awesome peak but point out that Abdul-Jabbar is about as good a center as there ever was, even during his wilderness years.

Walton Postscript:  You probably know this but Walton didn’t play much as a Clipper.  He did not play in the 1979-80 season until January and was limited to 14 games before reinjuring his foot and missing the next two years.   He was, unfortunately, never the same after he came back.  He was good when he was healthy but it was ever so fleeting.  The Clippers were 35-47 in 1979-80, again with the second worst defense in the NBA, and a slightly worse offense (9th).  Free scored over 30 ppg but they had little else.

-That Crazy Ending:  Now, let’s return to the end of that game.  It is remembered for Kareem’s nonchalant skyhook but that last minute featured also sorts of nuttiness.  Let’s just say it was not a clinic in great execution or coacing.  Here’s breakdown:

(a) The Clippers are nursing a two-point lead (98-96) with two minutes to go.  First, the Clipps set up a wide open 20-footer to Freeman Williams, who promptly air balls it.

(b) Lakers catch the air ball and send a full court pass to Magic who promptly tries a bad pass to a cutter guarded by three Clipper, resulting in a turnover.

(c)  Clippers get the ball in the half court.  Free attempts to drive through three defenders and is called for an offensive foul.

(d)  Lakers sensibly give to Kareem in the post and he scores and is fouled by a helpless Nater.  Kareem hits the foul shot to give the Lakers a 99-98 lead.

(e)  Clippers enter the half court and immediately turn the ball over on a terrible pass caused by a double team.

(f)  The Lakers have the ball with about one minute left. Magic misses a 10-footer and Jamal Wikes gets the rebound.  Rather, than kick the ball out and milk the clock, Wilkes tries another quick shot and is stripped, resulting in a break for the Clippers.

(g)  Freeman Williams is fouled on the fast break and makes both free throws, giving the Clippers a 100-99 lead.

(h)  Lakers’ ball with 40 seconds.  Kareem skyhook is in-and-out and the Clippers fast break instead of killing clock with 30 seconds left.  Free has the ball at the rim but has to go through Kareem to score.  In this instance, most coaches would tell you to pull out and delay because the odds of scoring on Kareem are worse than just delaying.  Free is undeterred and makes a crazy layup over Kareem anyway. 102-101 Clippers.

(i)  With 24 seconds left, the Lakers don’t bother with a timeout and, instead, rush to the front court.  Magic misses a wide open jumper (in-and-out).  Kareem grabs the board and puts in to make the score 102-101 Clippers with 16 seconds left.  The Lakers press the inbounds play and the Clippers call a time out.  Most coaches would call that time out before even attempting the inbounds because the time out entitles the team with the ball to move it to half court.  The Clippers did the right thing eventually but it took defensive pressure to force the right decision.

(j) With 16 seconds left, the conventional wisdom for the Lakers would be to go for a quick steal and, if unsuccessful, foul right away to stop the clock and extend the game.  CBS had access to the Lakers huddle and we can hear Lakers Coach Jack McKinney telling them to “go for the steal” and “if they score, call timeout.”  Note that he is not telling them to foul.  This is a strange plan because the Clippers do not have to shoot.  They can just run out the clock and win.  The Lakers execute as instructed and double team the ball.  The Clippers throw the ball a few times around the perimeter killing the clock.  After four passes around the perimeter, Free passes the ball Williams in the corner with four seconds left.  The Lakers come to double team Williams, who oddly spins backwards and dribbles the ball off his own foot out of bounds with two seconds left.  Yes, Williams could’ve shot the ball to kill the clock or just held it and forced a foul but he decided the spin out of bounds was the ideal move.

(k)  With two seconds left, the Lakers inbound to Kareem at the foul line.  He hits a tough skyhook to win the game.  Kareem is mobbed by Magic (and the entire team actually).  Kareem, true to the story, is pretty bemused by all the excitement.  Kareem tells Hundley in the postgame interview that the primary option was to throw an alley oop from 30-foot to Magic off of a backdoor pick.  Unsurprisingly, Magic was guarded well (the Clippers immediately switched on the pick play).  Incidentally, the pass and dunk would have been incredibly difficult to execute even if Magic was open.

So, the coaching and execution was pretty horrid in the last two minutes, with mistakes galore.  I counted an air ball, four bad turnovers, and bad coaching calls on both sides.  The more glaring mistakes seemed to be coaching related, where neither McKinney nor Clippers Coach Gene Shue, had an idea what their best options were to extend/end the game quickly.  It’s possible that the problems related to early season hiccups but it looked bad.  The Lakers would play much better and smoother over the years.  The Clippers….not so much.  In either case, it was a fascinating snapshot of the NBA transitioning to more modern offenses and strategies (and fewer gold chains worn during games).   Magic was good but looked incredibly raw, even more so than LeBron James looked as an 18-year old in his debut.  Still, Magic would develop pretty quickly and it was fun to see the NBA literally changing from a small league to a monolith before our eyes.