From the moment this smiling young stranger from Michigan jumped into the arms of stunned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the kid’s first Lakers win, it seemed destined.
When this same joyful presence later directed the Showtime era to five championships with his gifted athleticism and endless imagination, it seemed obvious.
When he essentially ended his career by bravely announcing he was HIV-positive and embarking on a mission to eradicate AIDS while fostering understanding and acceptance for its victims, it was confirmed.
Magic Johnson is the greatest Laker.
In the franchise’s 75 years of existence, one doesn’t need to see a no-look pass to understand he is clearly the only choice.
In a poll conducted in conjunction with the Lakers’ 75th birthday, five of the six experts on The Los Angeles Times panel voted Johnson as the greatest Lakers player, with the sixth expert choosing Kobe Bryant, who is a worthy selection but not quite the basketball equal of Magic.
They were both so great that they will be forever known only by their first names — and so it shall be in this column — but there are some slight differences.
While Kobe is surely the most popular Laker player ever, Kobe’s greatness followed a path carved by Magic, in an atmosphere created by Magic, in a culture created by Magic.
They both won five championships, but Magic won first, under new ownership, with two untested coaches, forcing him to create a winning environment. Kobe stepped into a scene where the owner was already established, the coach was already one of the greatest, and the blueprint for success was already drawn.
The Lakers’ rollicking championship atmosphere was birthed in the Showtime era. Magic was its first entertainer. Magic was its first attraction. Magic was Showtime. When defining Lakers greatness, Magic started it, and Kobe continued it, and that’s only one of the things that separates them.
Magic won three league MVP awards, Kobe won one. Magic was a three-time Finals MVP, Kobe won the award twice. Magic led the league in assists four times and twice in steals, while Kobe lead the league twice in scoring.
While Kobe eventually made others around him great, Magic always made them great. While Kobe had to grow into being a leader, Magic was a leader from his first dribble.
One cannot ignore what happened after Magic essentially ended his career in 1991 when he announced he was HIV-positive during a time when the mere whisper of AIDS caused its victims to be shunned.
He didn’t need to reveal his disease — he could have claimed he was quitting because of knee or back problems. Yet by willingly making himself a national outcast for the sake of normalizing his illness, he sacrificed his ego for the greater good.
Then, once the admission was made, he could have chosen to deal with his physical condition privately. Instead, he became one of this country’s leading warriors in the fight against AIDS, and today Magic is known as much for that battle as for anything he did on the basketball court.
Bryant received five second-place votes, so he joins Magic at the top of the poll to create a formidable one-two punch that is at least the equal of any other NBA franchise’s top two players.
What the Lakers have in this poll that others are lacking is incredible organizational depth.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, yet he was only ranked third. Jerry West is the NBA’s logo, for goodness sakes, and he was only ranked fourth. LeBron James is considered by some to be the greatest player ever and he is only ranked seventh.
Actually, in this observer’s sort-of-humble opinion, James was actually ranked too high. He’s barely been a Laker, he barely won one title in an abbreviated season, and he will be best known as a Cleveland Cavalier. To rank him ahead of James Worthy (9), Wilt Chamberlain (10) and even Pau Gasol (12) feels like recency bias.
Then there’s Robert Horry — Big Shot Bob! — who scripted at least a dozen great Lakers championship memories yet was only tied for 26th with Bob McAdoo. That feels like a miss. It says here Horry, who won three Laker championships among his seven titles, belongs in the Hall of Fame and much higher in this list.
Because of the poll qualifications — one must have played at least 100 games as a Laker — several notable Lakers were not included in the voting.
Obviously, in any list of Lakers employees, owner Jerry Buss is in the top 10. So, too, is coach Phil Jackson and announcer Chick Hearn. Somewhere in the top 50 one might also find broadcaster and former player Stu Lantz and public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter. If front-office duties were included among the criteria, Jerry West might move into second place behind Magic. Heck, if front-office duties were included, maybe Magic drops out of first place?
But the game is about the players, the franchise has always been about the players, and so this poll is appropriately players-only.
No, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Steve Nash aren’t on the list, because even though they’re Hall of Famers, they didn’t play enough games to be considered historic Lakers.
Yes, Arild Verner Agerskov Mikkelsen is on the list, checking in at 13th ahead of the likes of Byron Scott and Derek Fisher, and if you’ve never heard of him, you need to brush up on your Minneapolis Lakers history. Mikkelsen was a wicked Hall of Fame power forward who won four NBA titles and could have made this list simply because of his nickname, “The Great Dane.”
In case you were now wondering, George Mikan was tied for seventh with LeBron James, a fair assessment of the game’s first great big man. Other Minneapolis stars remembered fondly by the pollsters include Slater Martin, who was ranked 17th, and Clyde Lovellette and Jim Pollard, who finished tied for 22nd.
It was a tough list to crack. Among the eligible players who surprisingly didn’t make it were Ron Harper, Walt Hazzard and Jordan Farmar.
Among the final ones to break into the top 75 were Mitch Kupchak (the player), Trevor Ariza (the defender) and, finally, checking in at No. 75, the renowned Darrall Imhoff.
Yes, believe it, Imhoff, a rumbling center in the Lakers’ early Los Angeles days, made the cut despite a nondescript 13-year career during which he averaged 7.2 points per game. He made the cut because, as a top bench player, he helped the Lakers advance to consecutive NBA Finals in 1965 and 1966.
To be honest, he might have also made the cut because he was an outgoing piece in one of the greatest trades in Lakers history. Imhoff went to Philadelphia as part of the deal that brought in Wilt Chamberlain, which recalls one of the greatest strange attributes of another top-75 player.
Ranking 29th, just behind Lamar Odom and ahead of Kurt Rambis, is the legendary Vlade Divac, whose best Laker accomplishment might be that he left town.
Remember, without trading him, there is no Kobe Bryant.
Seventy-five years of Lakers greats, and magic is everywhere.