It was the worst of times. Then it was the best of times.
There may never have been a more defining season in the history of the Lakers franchise than that of 1979-80 — it set the table for Showtime and the legend of Magic, it had Kareem near his peak, it had luck both good and bad, it started to define Jerry Buss as the ultimate sports team owner. Simply, it had everything.
The tale of that season really starts in the summer of 1976, when Tall Ships dominated New York Harbor while out in California Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak deiced to start a company called Apple Computers. In Los Angeles, the brain-trust of the then Jack Kent Cooke owned Lakers decided to let aging star Gail Goodrich walk in free agency — no small decision, Goodrich had just averaged 19.5 points per game and was one of the team’s best players. The NBA rules at that time meant the Lakers got compensated when a player left, even via free agency. Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz, who gave the Lakers three picks, including their first pick in 1979.
Goodrich played in just 27 games that first year with the Jazz and by the 78-79 season was a shell of himself. He averaged 12.7 points per game that season, a role player behind Pistol Pete and Spencer Haywood. The Jazz were terrible that year, winning just 26 games. That gave the Lakers the top pick in the NBA draft.
That gave the Lakers Magic Johnson.
And that was the team that Jerry Buss bought from Cook in the 1979 summer (he also got the Forum and the LA Kings all for $67.5 million). The Lakers were a team that had the best center in the game in Kareem Abdul Jabbar, had a powerful front line that included Jim Chones, great role players like Norm Nixon and Jamal Wilkes who could step up, and they had depth (Michael Cooper and Spencer Haywood came off the bench).
Buss made changes, moving Jerry West from the coach’s seat to the front office and brought in Jack McKinney as coach. McKinney was of the school that you change the system to fit the talent you have (as opposed to Phil Jackson, who comes in with a system and the team needs to be molded to fit it).
Jack took all our skills and developed the perfect system for us… He knew we could run, and he didn’t mind giving us the freedom to run every chance we got.
Magic brought not only his amazing skills as a passer and playmaker, but his unfettered love of the game to the table, something that started to change the city.
The moment Magic started smiling, I guess LA started smiling.
Opening night the Lakers are playing the Clippers on national television (just like the start of this season, although the number one pick is on the other team this time). It was a tight, back-and-forth game but Kareem hit a skyhook to win the game in the final second. Magic rushed down the court with all that enthusiasm and hugged a stunned Kareem.
Magic baptized him. He transformed him into an enthusiastic player.
—Paul Westhead on magic and Kareem
The Lakers raced out to a 10-4 start. Then on an off day, November 8, assistant coach Paul Westhead called McKinney and asked if he wanted to play tennis. He did, but his wife had the car, so McKinney hoped on his son’s bike and started riding through Palos Verdes to Westhead’s condo (where the courts were). Going down a hill, McKinney got to much momentum, and when he tapped the breaks to stop, McKinney went flying over the handlebar. The accident was something McKinney barely survived; he was slowed by a severe concussion and many injuries. He could not coach the Lakers in the short term, so Buss tapped Westhead. (Later that year McKinney would return to scout for the Lakers, but Buss never put him back in the coach’s chair. He eventually went on to coach Indiana the next season.)
Westhead stuck with McKinney’s system — the Lakers ran at every opportunity. But make no mistake, this was Kareem’s Lakers team. And he was dominant — he averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game, his true shooting percentage was 61.6%. He went on to win his sixth and final MVP trophy that season.
For us, everything revolved around Kareem Abdul Jabbar from the moment I arrived for my first training camp until the 1986-87 season, when Pat Riley restructured our attack, and focused most of it around me. As the team’s point guard, I almost always had the basketball, but the screens, the cuts, the openings, they all keyed on Kareem. He was my anchor during my first 10 seasons.
The Lakers went on to win 60 games, with a league-best offense that scored 109.5 points per 100 possessions (for comparison, that great Lakers offense last season averaged 112.9, but played at a muh slower pace). They steamrolled through the Suns and defeated Sonics in the playoffs. They looked in control in the West. Then they ran in to Dr. J and the 76ers in the NBA Finals.
The two teams were evenly matched — the two teams split the first four games of that series. But the Lakers seemed to have the advantage, the difference maker seemed to be Kareem, the Sixers had no good answer for him (nobody did).
Then in game five, Kareem sprained his ankle. He played through it, and scored 40 points in the Lakers 108-103 win. But there would be no Captain for game six.
It was Magic that took the opening tip for the Lakers, and it was Magic that played center (and more).
On the first play, he came down in the low post and took a turnaround hook shot. He took a Kareem hook shot. The rest of the game he played everywhere. He played guard. He played forward. Everyone sees him as playing center. That helped us. People forget Jamal Wilkes had 37 points in that game.
Magic, a 20-year-old rookie, finished the game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists, and the Lakers won the title 123-107.
I felt like I could do anything
—Magic on game six
From there, Showtime grew. The Lakers and Celtics rivalry grew the NBA. Magic grew the love of basketball and the Lakers in Los Angeles. Buss kept making smart moves, and largely letting his basketball people handle the basketball things.
It was the start of the Lakers we think of today. And it all came together in one season.
Quotes taken from Lakers Glory.