Revisiting Magic’s Comeback

I’ve been reading Jeff Pearlman’s great new book “Three Ring Circus,” which examines the Kobe-Shaq Era in Los Angeles from 1996-2004.  The book is fascinating in its subject but also touches on the pre-Kobe-Shaq times.  There is a short prologue on the 1995-96 Lakers, who were a decent team that happened to feature the return of a 36-year old Magic Johnson.  Magic’s comeback is a fascinating blip in NBA history.  The return is viewed as mostly forgettable because Magic did not get along with some teammates and there was a lot of internal tumult.  I thought we could dig into the minutiae of comeback and see if we could see, upon further inspection, whether it is viewed correctly in retrospect.  Let’s do a deeper dive on what happened…

The End of Magic’s Career Part 1

Any story about 1996 must start with Magic’s first comeback attempt.  The basic story is very well-known.  Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in early 1991, abruptly ending his career at age-31.  The obvious primary concerns were for Magic’s health and those of the NBA players.  At the time, it was not tenable for Magic to continue playing because his health prognosis was not favorable and it was not clear whether, even if he would be healthy, whether there was risk to other players playing against him.

While basketball concerns were trivial compared to life-or-death matters, Magic certainly had a sense that he left some great years on the table.  In 1990-91, Johnson’s final season before this retirement, he put up 19.4 ppg, .477 FG%, 7.0 rpg, 12.5 apg.  From an advanced stats perspective, the season fit right into his prime: he put up 25.1 PER, .251 WS/48 , 9.0 BPM, and 8.1 VORP. 

These numbers were about in line with career highs.  Michael Jordan was clearly a better player (and had been for a few years) but Magic was third in BPM (slightly behind Charles Barkley) and fourth in VORP (slightly behind Davis Robinson and John Stockton).  Magic was still really good and, had he remained, the early 1990s Lakers would’ve been in the conversation to make the Finals (though they clearly couldn’t beat those Bulls unless they somehow could’ve grabbed another star).

Magic has always been a competitor and a winner and it no doubt nagged at him that he was sitting out, even though he was still one of the best players in the world.  He addressed this by coming back for the 1991-92 All-Star game (winning MVP), playing with the 1992 Dream Team in the Olympics, and in various exhibition games. 

Magic’s Comeback Part 1, 1992

After he played in the 1992 Olympics without incident, it became clear that Magic’s health was pretty good and risk of transmission during a game seemed pretty low.  The other unspoken issue was that David Stern seemed to understand was that HIV status was a private matter and that there could very likely be players with the same issue and that they just didn’t disclose it.

Magic took momentum of his success in 1991-92 and announced a comeback to the Lakers for the 1992-93 season.  With respect to infection risks, Magic said that “the doctors have said there is no chance of me giving it to anyone.  So there is no risk.”  Magic’s doctor, Dr. Michael Johnson told the New York Times on November 1, 1992 that “[t]here is a theoretical possibility of [infection while playing due to cuts] happening, but if these is a risk, it’s incredibly low.  But when it gets into the concept of zero risk, there is no such thing—for anything.”  That same article, however, quoted several players who had serious reservations about playing against Magic.  Karl Malone was most vocal, pointing out how Malone was covered in wounds from playing and that “[t]hey can’t tell you that you’re not at risk, and you can’t tell me there’s one guy in the N.B.A. who hasn’t thought about it.”  It wasn’t just Malone.  The same New York Times articles quoted Gerald Wilkins, Jeff Malone, Chris Dudley, Jerry Colangelo, Darrell Walker, and other anonymous players and GMs who all expressed concerns about the comeback to varying degrees.

Three days later, Magic suffered a cut in an exhibition game and the resultant fear of the players on the court and promptly retired again.  Magic told the press that the fear sapped his desire: “I just felt all the controversy, people saying different things, not people outside of the NBA, but people within the NBA.  It wasn’t worth it because I played basketball for two reasons, the love of the game and to have fun. I have fun doing it. I was seeing that the fun part wasn’t gonna be there. And it wasn’t worth playing, then, if I wasn’t going to have fun and enjoy it.”  And with that, it seemed Magic’s NBA career was finally over for good, though he continued barnstorming around the world and briefly coached the Lakers in 1993-94 (not very successfully).

Magic’s Comeback Part 2, 1996

Despite the messy end in 1992, Magic never really gave up the idea of a comeback.  He was briefly the interim coach of the Lakers for the last few games of the 1993-94 season, before realizing his temperament did not lend itself to that job (ask Vlade Divac’s beeper).  In July 1995, Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about Johnson possibly coming back again as a player.  Taylor discouraged the idea, writing that Magic deserved to play if he wanted to but felt that the time wasn’t right: “Magic has always played as if he was enjoying himself so much that he welcomed everyone to join him, and he deserves to be made just as welcome if he decides to come back. But perhaps the best anyone could wish for him now is not that he gets what he wants, but that he learns to want something else.”

Johnson didn’t immediately return for 1995-96 and, perhaps, the state of the Lakers affected that.  The Lakers seemingly had rebuilt decently well without him.  In 1994-95, the Lakers went 48-34 and went to the second round of the playoffs behind a solid team of young players Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell, and Divac.  Despite the success, the Lakers’ point-differential indicated, however, that they were really a .500ish team.  The Lakers were actually outscored by opponents and had an expected record of 40-42.

But expected win-loss was not a big deal in the 1995 and the Lakers thought they would be better in 1995-96.  Technically, they were better by point differential (+1.5) but the team was only 24-18 and, without some changes, they looked like a low seed first round fodder in the playoffs.  On January 14, 1996, The Sun-Sentinel quoted Magic as saying he wasn’t interested in a comeback anymore because the team wasn’t great: “I don’t know how to come back with a team like this.  I’d be fighting with somebody out here.”

Magic may have believed he didn’t want to return when he said that but, clearly, that wasn’t the end of the story.  Rather, it appears that Magic was very wishy washy on what he wanted to do.  Finally, Jerry West pushed the issue a few days later.  West recalled to Roland Lazenby in “The Show” that “I told [Magic] that his time [to be a player] was running out.  It was getting to a point when he needed to make a decision and I think he felt the same.” On January 26, 1996, Magic was back.  There were a lot of questions however: (a) would the NBA be more supportive of playing with an HIV positive player than it was in 1992? (b) would it be awkward for Magic to play with teammates he coached and routinely criticized for not being very good?, and (c) how good would a 36-year old Magic be? 

Let’s answer them one-by-one:

Would the NBA be more supportive of playing with an HIV positive player?

Feelings weren’t perfect but had improved considerably from 1992 to 1996.  Michael Jordan openly supported Magic immediately but did note that there could be some concerns from other players.  This Baltimore Sun article from February 1996 talked with Terrell Brandon and Michael Cage, who were present for the 1992 exhibition game where Magic got cut, about how attitudes on HIV risk had changed.  Cage said “I didn’t know what the risks were….When he got cut, all of us freaked out.”  Brandon noted that “[w]e were naïve [about] how you contract it.”  To help Magic’s case was Nets forward Jayson Williams who vocally explained about how two of his sisters coped with the virus and how ordinary contact presented little risk.

Fortunately, when Magic did return to the court, there was little talk of risk this time.  I could not find the article(s), but I do remember the press pushing Karl Malone for comment given his outspoken stance in 1992 and an exasperated Malone refusing to talk about the issue in detail (though it was clear his feelings had not changed much).  The only on-court event that raised any eyebrows that I could recall was during a February 6, 1996 Lakers-Denver game where blood was discovered on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s shirt that turned to be from teammate Dikembe Mutombo.  A March 26, 1996 Tampa Times article talked about risk of HIV infection in all sports (most notably boxing) and the article wrote of two NBA players who expressed concern about transmission and implied that others were fearful of speaking out but had the same concern.  The article quoted Abdul-Rauf as saying “[y]ou can’t help but wonder. You wonder, hoping you’re not the one it happens to, if it happens.”  The articles did not get any quotes from Magic about the Denver incident, but I remember Magic basically saying “it wasn’t my blood” and leaving it at that. 

But Magic’s blood wasn’t the issue.  Magic was on drugs tsshat made the virus undetectable and reinfection of others was nearly impossible in the very unlikely situation of blood swapping on the court.  Most importantly, it was obvious to most that the issue was bigger than any one player, including Magic.  In theory, any player in the NBA could have the virus anyway and that the risk would always be present on some level (regardless of whether Karl Malone was specifically aware where the risk was coming form).  The fact that other players did not know who else might be infected did not change the risk.  Ostracizing Magic didn’t change that fact and there was no way to regulate this risk, other than to take reasonable precautions to avoid remote possibility of infection at all times.   

Would it be awkward for Magic to play with teammates he coached and routinely criticized for not being very good?

It was really awkward.  Jeff Pearlman recently told me that the players viewed Magic as that old guy who constantly yells at the kids to get off of his lawn.  Magic considered the younger players selfish and not willing to commit to winning the way he was.  This was partially true but not nearly as much as Magic felt. 

The seminal example came when Van Exel lost his temper and shoved a ref, only to have an eye-rolling Magic separate them.  Magic looked to the heavens for help with this immature kid.  A few days later, Magic bumped a ref in pretty much the exact same situation (Van Exel did not mockingly separate Magic from the ref but that would’ve been the funny thing to do).  Also, Magic was so peeved about perceived lack of commitment that he even threatened to [gasp] sign with another franchise in the off-season (this would’ve been hard since he still technically owned shares of the Lakers).

What Magic did not appreciate was that he was taking minutes and shots from young players trying to establish themselves and constantly dogging them as a coach, a retired player, and now as a teammate.  No player likes that.  Van Exel never complained about loss of minutes but, famously, an angry Ceballos went AWOL in April 1996, allegedly for family reasons, only to be seen jet skiing in Arizona. 

According to Sports Illustrated: “Ceballos, the Lakers’ starting small forward and leading scorer, put at least a temporary halt to the good feelings at the Forum by abruptly skipping out on L.A. after that win over the Sonics. When he missed a team flight to Seattle the next day, the Lakers suspended him without pay, and no one in the organization heard directly from him until five days later….Ceballos insisted he did not leave in a huff over reduced playing time since Johnson’s return, despite evidence to the contrary.”

There was no defense for Ceballos’ selfish tantrum. Even other players, who might’ve found Magic grating, didn’t blame him for Ceballos’ action (Van Exel noted that he did not want to speak with Ceballos afterwards).  The interesting question was whether Ceballos was really hurt by Magic’s return.  Let’s look at the stats:

-Ceballos pre-Magic: 40 gms, 36.3 mpg, 23.4 ppg, 16.9 fga/pg, .517 FG%. 7.3 rpg, 1.7 apg

-Ceballos w/Magic (before suspension): 22 gms, 33.3 mpg, 20.6 ppg, 14.6 fga/pg, .573 FG%, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 apg

-Ceballos w/Magic (after suspension): 16 gms, 27.8 mpg, 16.6 ppg, 12.9 fga/pg, .507 FG%, 5.9 rpg, 1.3 apg

Ceballos lost a few minutes with Magic’s return but he played ridiculously efficiently with Magic, shooting incredibly well.  It seems that the Magic issue was less of a problem than a single game against Seattle where Ceballos played only 12 minutes (in a big Lakers win).  Ceballos disappeared right after that game.  We can infer that this one benching was mostly the reason for Ceballos’ fleeing and not specifically Magic taking a few minutes from him (particularly since Ceballos had been playing really well with Magic).

After his return from spring break, Ceballos was not quite the same player and his minutes dropped initially.  The Lakers did eventually step up his minutes and he played 33+ minutes in the last five games of the season.  It still seemed that the damage was done and that Ceballos was going to be discarded as soon as possible by the organization (he was traded for Robert Horry, the polar opposite player, early in 1996-97).

In the end, the Ceballos incident was used as the primary example of the disconnect between Magic and the rest of the team.  The narrative falls apart on even a cursory inspection.  No doubt the team found Johnson annoying (he clearly was) but Ceballos’ shtick was totally separate.  Ced freaked out primarily because his minutes dropped for a game.  That could’ve just as easily happened with George Lynch as Magic.

How good would a 36-year old Magic be? 

This bulkier and slower Magic was pretty damn good.  Here are his numbers from 1995-96:

-32 gms, 29.9 mpg, 14.6 ppg, .503 eFG%, 5.7 rpg, 6.9 apg

Superficially, that looks very nice.  Now let’s look how his advanced stats compare with his career stats:

1995-96: 21.1 PER, 3.6 WS, .181 WS/48, 5.2 BPM, 1.8 VORP

Career:  24.1 PER, .225 WS/48, 7.5 BPM, 6.1 VORP per season (rough average)

Magic was way down from his peak years but still pretty good.  His PER, WS/48, and BPM were basically even with his rookie year but below his peak.  Compared to his peers in 1995-96, here’s where Magic ranked (assuming he had played enough to qualify for the leaderboards):

-His 21.1 PER would’ve been 15th in the NBA, just ahead of Scottie Pippen and just below John Stockton

-His .181 WS/48 would’ve been 17th just ahead of….Cedric Ceballos(!) (and Detlef Schrempf).

-The 5.2 BPM would’ve been about tied for 11th with Mookie Blaylock.

-A full season of VORP would’ve put him in line with Kenny Anderson or Kevin Johnson (about 20th in the NBA).

In other words, old and slow Magic was a border line All-Star.

In terms of team contributions, here’s how the Lakers’ season went with and without Magic:

-Pre-Magic: 24-18, +1.5 ppg

-w/Magic: 29-11, +7.6 ppg

In all, the Lakers had a 53-29 record and an SRS of 4.21, good for 6th in the NBA.  No one was going to beat the Bulls that year (recall that 1995-96 team went 72-10 and is widely considered the best ever) but the Lakers were serious second tier contenders.

The Swift Playoff End Courtesy of Hakeem

The real reason the season felt so bitter, in retrospect, was the abrupt playoff ending.  The Lakers, the four seed, drew the fifth seeded Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Horry.  The Rockets were the two-time champs but had been pretty blah in 1995-96 (48-34, 1.63 SRS).  The Rockets were 3-1 against the Lakers, including 2-0 after Magic came back (though both games were close).

The odds makers had the Lakers as slight favorites going into the series (-145).  The New York Times, predicted the Rockets winning 3-1, with the following succinct summary: “Los Angeles: Johnson’s comeback turned Lakers into contender. But antics of Cedric Cebalos [sic] and Van Exel exposed fragile chemistry. Houston: Injuries ruined any chance for high seeding. However, defending two-time champs have been marking time until playoffs. Prediction: Most compelling first-round matchup, but Rockets find a way. Houston in four.”

And so it was.  The Rockets stole Game 1, with a close win in Los Angeles (thanks to 33 pts from Hakeem and a great game from Mark Bryant of all players).  The Rockets were able to win their two home games and that was the series.  Magic played well but Hakeem was the best player, by far, in the series and this was the difference and the end of Magic’s career.  He retired a few days later, saying: “I was satisfied with my return to the NBA, although I would have hoped we would have gone further into the playoffs, but now, I am ready to give it up. It’s time to move on.”

The reporting immediately after this was favorable.  The New York Times noted the prevailing sentiment that Magic was “leaving on his terms.”  Time passed, and then this comeback was remembered less fondly.  In 2002, a young Bill Simmons wrote that the comeback was “awkward.  Nobody really cared….it was fun for about three seconds.  Even if the other players finally accepted him (an underrated milestone for the acceptance of HIV in this country), it didn’t change the fact that you just felt sorry watching him.”  Simmons did note that it was great that there was little stigma in his return but “[y]ou don’t remember this now; all you remember is Magic laboring to get up and down the court.“  I don’t mean to give Simmons all the credit/blame for this sentiment but it did seem that a school of thought set in that Magic’s comeback was not worth the time in retrospect.

Our Verdict on the Comeback

So, we now have almost 25 years of clarity to look back at Magic’s 1996 comeback and we can assess what happened.  The comeback was clearly not a total success but we can make the following findings:

HIV and the NBA:  Magic felt chased out of the NBA early and he felt like an outcast.  The aborted 1992-93 comeback wasn’t just “not fun” but the rejection made him feel like a freak.  It wasn’t fair to him and there was enough information available at that time to let people know that the risk of infection was small.  Even in 1996, there were still murmurs against Magic but those who murmured felt the stigma this time (and rightfully so).  For that reason alone, the comeback was a huge success and was well worth it.

Magic the Player: By 1996, Magic was actually still a borderline All-Star.  He made the Lakers really after he came back.  Yes, he was larger and slower but he was very effective.  There are those who don’t like superstars at anything less than their absolute peak.  I understand the logic but, frankly, it’s a silly sentiment.  It wasn’t like Magic was a scrub getting dogged by lower level players.  Johnson had plenty of dignity left but he left an impossibly high standard to meet.

-Magic the Complainer:  The argument that Magic whined like a crotchety old man is fair.  His teammates, other than Ceballos, were pretty professional.  Johnson’s I’m-above-the-fray-champion shtick was too much.  But it didn’t really matter.  The team played almost as well as could reasonably be expected.  They lost to a worse team in the playoffs but Houston had the best player on either team (peak Hakeem).  Even if the Lakers had beaten the Rockets, Los Angeles likely would’ve been waxed by the Sonics (at their absolute peak with Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp) in the next round anyway.  In fact, the Rockets were promptly swept by the Sonics.  In all, Magic’s bitching made him look silly but it was just a minor bug, not the main story.  Magic has always had a pattern of emotional outbursts as a coach, a player, and, very recently, as a GM.  It doesn’t serve him well when he isn’t a superstar but who really cares?

In sum, it’s easy to say that time had passed Magic by in 1996 and, therefore, the comeback was not worth it.  But he did great things for HIV stigma issues, showed he was still very good, and his team was pretty good.  No one’s perfect and Magic’s comeback deserves to be remembered as a mostly good thing.  It’ll always be a small postscript to a particularly busy season but it was really fun.