It was a story already out there, but now getting brought up by Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. When Magic Johnson was drafted, he told the Lakers he would be leaving and go play for the Detroit Pistons as soon as he was able.
No player is probably more identified with the Los Angeles Lakers than Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. Maybe the late Kobe Bryant could give him a run for his money as ‘Mr. Laker’ but Johnson has been a player, coach, general manager and minority owner with the Purple and Gold.
However, that was not his original plan.
Johnson was a Michigan guy before he was a Laker. He was born in Lansing and played at Everett High there. He moved over a few miles to East Lansing for college, where he led Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA Championship (beating Indiana State, who had some guy named Larry Bird, in the final).
Detroit that year only held the No. 4 pick (where they took Johnson’s MSU teammate and current Pistons TV commentator Greg Kelser) and Magic was not lasting that long.
Detroit tried hard to get him. Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey said in the “Bad Boys’ documentary on ESPN that he offered the Lakers carte blanche, whatever players they wanted, to get the No. 1 pick, but Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss said no.
But Magic Johnson still hoped to play for Detroit.
Current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, daughter of Jerry, is making the rounds to promote the new series ‘The True Story of the LA Lakers’ and she has been re-telling about her first meeting with Magic, following the draft.
Here is how Buss told the story, back in 2014, to CSQ:
"I showed him to the living room, and we chatted for a few moments. He told me matter-of-factly that he appreciated being drafted by the Lakers but that he was only going to stay for three years because he wanted to go home to Michigan and play for his hometown team – the Detroit Pistons.I did my best to hide my reaction and excused myself to go upstairs and inform my father that his guest had arrived. When I was out of Magic’s sight, I raced up the stairs with panic to tell my dad what our number-one draft pick had just said to me.My dad didn’t bat an eye. He told me, “Jeanie, don’t worry. He may say that today, but the first time he puts on a Lakers’ uniform and steps out on the Forum floor, he is never going to leave.”"
Of course, her dad was correct. Magic helped the Lakers win the NBA championship in 1980, beating the Dr. J-led 76ers in the finals. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out for Game 6, Johnson famously played center, as L.A. won the game and clinched the title.
How does a backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson sound for Detroit Pistons?
For the heck of it, let us say Johnson kept to his original plan. He had a five-year contract with the Lakers he signed as a rookie. As the No. 1 pick, he received $460,000 a year, in comparison, Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in 2021, got $10.55 million for his rookie season.
Johnson could have been a free agent starting in the 1984-85 season. Back then, there was no salary cap, Magic simply could have signed with Detroit when his contract expired.
That season, the Pistons went 46-36, and lost to the Boston Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals (that Larry Bird guy popping up again). Imagine if they had picked up Magic Johnson that year.
Back then, Detroit was led by the tandem of Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka.
The Pistons were still four years away from their first title, but some of the pieces were already there: Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson. But Detroit was mostly going with a ‘Twin Towers’ lineup of Laimbeer and Kent Benson, with former University of Detroit standout John Long at shooting guard.
It was a team not quite ready to take the next step, unless they had Magic Johnson.
How would a Magic-Thomas backcourt have worked? Both like the ball in their hands but Magic is more of a ‘pass first’ point guard, while Isiah had great scoring ability, The personalities having to mesh together also would have interesting, as both were used to being the team leader.
At the time, Magic and ‘Zeke’ were very close (things would change later on) so it probably would have worked itself out. How many more NBA titles would the Pistons have won, if they got Magic Johnson in 1984? Oh to dream.
As Dr. Jerry Buss predicted, those Michigan plans quickly changed. Being Magic Johnson in Los Angeles in the 1980s was a very nice thing to be. But it is one of the bigger ‘What if’s?’ in NBA history.