Synopsis: Do you root for players in the NBA but teams in the other Big 4 sports? Does your favorite basketball player not play for the NBA team geographically closest to you? Prior to 1980, your answers likely would have been different. However, something “magical” happened since then. In this post, I discuss the early days of the NBA Modern Era when television stations aired playoff games on tape-delay. Starting with superstars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the league made a conscious decision to promote its stars more than its teams. Fortunately, players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have been able to take the game to the next level. In fact, they helped drive the game’s tremendous international popularity. The NFL is set, but perhaps MLB and the NHL could learn something from their younger (and smarter) brother.
NBA Modern Era (Heeere’s Magic)
Despite the content of the previous paragraph, the title of this post refers to lowercase magic and not uppercase Magic. Just to be clear, uppercase Magic is NBA legend Ervin “Magic” Johnson. I’m not referring to the painfully bad talk-show host, or the movie theater entrepreneur, or self-appointed voice of social consciousness. Then again, those descriptions do refer to the same person. Regardless, do you consider him one of the all-time greatest NBA players? Odds are that you do even if you never saw him play. Why? Perhaps it involves some magic?
SIMPLE MAGIC TRICK
To start, I have a simple trick that you can use to convince your friends that you have psychic abilities.
- Pick a number from 1-20.
- Multiple that number by 9. Pick a new number from 1-10 if you can’t do the calculation in your head.
- Add all of the digits of your answer. For instance, if your prior answer was 56, the sum of the digits would be 11 (i.e. 5+6=11).
- Subtract 4 from your answer. Using the previous example with a sum of 11, your new number would be 7.
- Convert your number into the corresponding letter (1=A, 2=B, 3=C, 4=D, 5=E, 6=F, 7=G, etc.). Based on the example, your letter would be G because 7=G.
- Think of an animal that begins with that corresponding letter.
- Think of a color for that animal.
Click here to see if I can read your mind.
For those of you who are curious about how this “magic” works, I’ll reveal the secret at the end of the post. Don’t worry, it’s not so controversial that I need to wear a mask as if I’m violating some made-up code of silence.
NBA MODERN ERA – TOP 5 PLAYERS
Since 1980, the five greatest players in the Big 4 sports include the following superstars.
- NBA: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.
- NFL: Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith.
- NHL: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ray Bourque, and Martin Brodeur.
- MLB: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Mariano Rivera.
Assuming you’re being objective, the bolded names likely are on your own Top 5 lists. Bonds and Clemens should be on everyone’s list, but some of you might exclude them for “suspected” steroids use. Yeah, just like O.J. was a “suspected” murderer.
“SUSPECTED” PED USERS
For my two cents, I don’t think the records of these players should be recognized in a historical context. However, I believe their Hall-of-Fame status shouldn’t be denied either because they absolutely dominated during a time when steroid use was rampant. As of now, the NBA doesn’t recognize ABA statistics (sorry, Dr. J). Similarly, the NFL doesn’t recognize USFL statistics (too bad, Herschel). In that regard, MLB should simply asterisk the tainted statistics as if they reflect a combination with another league.
For example, Bonds, McGwire and Sosa’s single-season highs in home runs should be 73*, 70*, and 66*, respectively. As such, Roger Maris still would have the single-season record with 61. How poetic if Maris could regain the record when he almost never got it because of the desire for some to challenge his achievement. In particular, Babe Ruth fans called for the use of an asterisk because the Sultan of Swat hit 60 HRs in a 154-game season whereas Maris reached his total in a 162-game season.
Back on point, why is it most likely for us to have the same Top 5 list for NBA players than the other sports? I’ll go with Magic.
NBA MODERN ERA – SUMMARY
The NBA Modern Era can be summarized quite effectively with five players and four simple statements.
- Bird and Magic had legendary battles throughout the 1980s.
- Jordan elevated the game in the 1990s.
- Kobe killed the competition in the 2000s.
- LeBron has ruled over the 2010s.
Unfortunately, this summary undercuts the careers of other champions like Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. In addition, it overlooks the contributions of “losers” like Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Allen Iverson. There still are other great players missing from this expanded list, but I was trying to be inclusive and not exhaustive.
NBA MODERN ERA – THE ABA/NBA MERGER
Superstar players (e.g. Kobe and LeBron) overshadow great teams (e.g. the Spurs) in professional basketball more than in other team sport. Regardless, I believe that the NBA has been so successful because of, and not in spite of, this strategy. As an illustration of its superstar promotion, the league conveniently looks to the emergence of Magic and Bird as the beginning of the NBA Modern Era. Arguably, the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 provides a more meaningful starting point. However, the league disagrees.
The positive influence of the ABA on the NBA should be undeniable. Almost immediately after the merger, the flow of the game changed to become faster-paced and more open. Over time, other “gimmicks” from the ABA found their way in the NBA. Some changes (e.g. the 3-point line) enhanced competition while others (e.g. the slam dunk contest) provided more entertainment. Despite these improvements, the greatest impact resulted when the NBA incorporated the ABA’s strategy of promoting superstars instead of teams.
NBA MODERN ERA – THE EMERGENCE OF LARRY LEGEND AND MAGIC JOHNSON
By the time Bird and Magic turned professional, they already had a tremendous following. Of note, the 1979 NCAA Championship Game between the two players is still the most watched basketball game ever. With all due respect to Michigan State and Indiana State fans, viewers tuned in to see the game because of these two players and not because of the schools. As we now know, both players lived up to the hype from the moment they entered the NBA
For the 1979-80 season, Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game for the Boston Celtics. Based on these statistics and the 32-game improvement in the Celtics’ record, the “Hick from French Lick” won the Rookie of the Year Award. More impressively, he earned 1st Team All-NBA honors. The exclusive list of players to receive both distinctions includes Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Wes Unseld, and Tim Duncan.
As inconceivable as it may seem, Magic had an even more memorable rookie season. Playing for the L.A. Lakers, he averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game during the regular season. Impressively, those numbers increased to 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 9.4 assists, and 3.1 steals during the 1980 Playoffs. Step back for a second and realize that he almost averaged a triple-double in the playoffs as a rookie. More impressively, he led the Lakers to the NBA title with a 42-point, 15-rebound, and 7-assist effort in the series-clinching game. Of note, he played that game at center due to an injury to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not surprisingly, Magic won his first of three Finals MVP awards that year.
NBA MODERN ERA: TAPE-DELAYED GAMES
Despite Magic’s legend-building performance, hardly anyone saw it. Similar to Game 5 of the 1994 Finals, Game 6 of the 1980 Finals lost viewers to footage of two guys being pursued by befuddled cops in a high-stakes car chase. The 1994 car chase involved Al Cowlings and “suspected” murderer O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco being pursued by the LAPD throughout LA County. In contrast, the 1980 car chase involved “suspected” moonshiners Bo and Luke Duke in a red Dodge Charger being pursued by Roscoe and Enos throughout Hazzard County.
WHAT YA GOT? A FORD BRONCO
OR THE GENERAL LEE?
During the 1980 Finals, I was a 9-year-old kid who lacked interest in the NBA. As such, I would have been pissed if CBS had decided to show a basketball game instead of reruns of The Incredible Hulk and Dukes of Hazzard. At that time, CBS only aired weekday playoff games live in the competing teams’ local markets. Fortunately, I didn’t live in Philadelphia or Los Angeles so I didn’t have to switch to Here’s Boomer or Facts of Life. For the rest of the country, those games were aired on tape delay at 10:30 or 11:30 p.m. Interestingly, those tape-delayed games often would lose in the ratings to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Like most of America, I never saw the 1980 Finals. As a result, I missed not only Magic’s Game 6 performance but also Dr. J’s legendary behind-the-basket reverse layup from Game 4.
NBA MODERN ERA – THE DOCTOR IS IN
Despite offering compelling drama, the NBA had a problem because it couldn’t get live airtime across the country for its most important games. Starting with the 1981-82 season, the league did two things to help its exposure.
First, the NBA delayed the start of its season such that the Finals wouldn’t begin until after May sweeps. Certain games during earlier playoff series still aired on tape delay, but at least the Finals could be seen live across the country. Second, the league moved away from regional promotion of local teams. Instead, it highlighted games played by its three biggest stars: Julius Erving; Larry Bird; and Magic Johnson.
WHAT YA GOT, CATS OR DOGS?
The NBA’s new marketing strategy worked in my hometown (and probably in many hometowns throughout the country). In particular, the only teams used when picking sides on the playground were the Sixers or the Celtics. Of note, the Knicks played less than 25 miles away but no one seemed to care. Just like people either love cats or dogs, kids in my neighborhood either loved the Sixers or the Celtics. I love dogs and I loved the Sixers.
Even though I was hyper-focused on the Sixers/Celtics rivalry in the early 1980s, my support transferred to the Lakers by the middle of the decade. Embracing the saying, “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine,” I learned to root for whichever team was playing the Celtics. As we all know, the team playing the Celtics in the most important games throughout the 1980s was the LA Lakers. I stilled liked the Sixers, but stopped following them after Sir Charles left the team. Like me, many NBA fans follow players instead of teams.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good because the NBA picked the right three players/teams to begin its superstar strategy. From 1980-1988, the combination of Erving/Bird/Johnson accounted for 5 of 9 MVP Awards and 5 of 9 Finals MVP Awards, and the combination of their teams accounted for 9 of 9 Championship Titles and 16 of 18 Conference Titles. Most importantly, the NBA rode the wave provided by its superstars such that the last tape delayed broadcast of a playoff game occurred in 1986 and the first non-Finals weekday playoff game televised live occurred in 1987.
NBA MODERN ERA – HIS AIRNESS
Lest anyone worry that the NBA wouldn’t survive the retirements of these three legends, Michael Jordan single-handedly took the mantle and elevated the NBA’s popularity to another level. Despite numerous contenders, Bryant and James became the worthy successors to fill Jordan’s shoes.
I apologize for the digression, but got caught up in the history of the NBA to the point that I can finally say that I know why I became a Sixers’ fan and why the 1981-82 Finals is the first one I remember watching. I would have guessed that I became infatuated with Dr. J watching Warner Wolf’s Plays of the Month; however, now I realize that the NBA offered up three options, and I picked the Doctor. Clearly, Magic’s accomplishments are deserving of being considered one of the Top 5 NBA legends in the last 35 years. However, his unanimous selection comes from major marketing muscle supporting his enduring legacy.
Keep reading only if you want to know why you thought of a gray elephant before seeing the picture!
Let’s repeat the series of steps from the beginning of this post.
- Pick a number from 1-20.
- Multiple that number by 9.
- Add all of the digits of your answer.
As an interesting math fact, the sum of the digits of the product of 9 and any number from 1-20 is 9.
- Subtract 4 from your answer.
Since your answer from the first three steps should be 9, your answer should now be 5.
- Convert your number into the corresponding letter (1=A, 2=B, 3=C, 4=D, 5=E, 6=F, 7=G, etc.).
Hopefully, this step was easy: 5=E
- Think of an animal that begins with that corresponding letter.
Now for the “magic” because you could have picked any animal that begins with the letter E. You could have chosen an emu, or elk, or eel, but odds are that you chose an elephant.
- Think of a color for that animal.
Since the odds are that you chose an elephant, the odds are that you picked the color gray. Then again, you may have said pink if you took 9th grade World History from Mrs. Hamilton.
Just like you picked a gray elephant because I limited your options, you likely picked Magic in your Top 5 list because the NBA did the same.