In the past decade, multiple highly-publicized debates have occurred on who is the best point guard in NBA history. The conversation has had many worthy contenders, like Jerry West, John Stockton, Stephen Curry, and Oscar Robertson. Yet, rightfully, Ervin Magic Johnson has almost always reigned supreme concerning this position ranking.
Without question, few players have shown the level of dynamism with the ball on the open court as Magic did. He not only lifted the Lakers to new basketball heights but the sport itself with his vision, novel playing style, and the way he passed jumps off the screen. His influence on new-day greats like Nikola Jokic and LeBron James is evident, even though these names do not play as point guards. But his qualities, such as how he manipulated defenders, aspects of his competitive spirit, and leadership ability are quite evidently adopted by hordes of top-end NBA players.
However, a section of his legacy often overlooked by fans and pundits is the two seasons Johnson spent playing college ball. Nowadays, interest in NCAA men’s basketball is falling, with many hopeful that legalized gambling will boost it to previous levels. However, viewership intent has dropped by almost 20% in the last five years, and even though more people than ever are betting on March Madness for the first time, the curiosity rate in the tournament continues to decline. It was a different state of affairs in the late-1970s when Magic hooped in the NCAA.
That gets discussed below.
Why Did Johnson Choose Michigan State?
As likely everyone that has followed Johnson’s career knows, he was born in the capital of Michigan, Lansing, which now ranks as the sixth largest city in the Great Lake State. His favorite player growing up was Bill Russel, and he started taking his hoop journey seriously in grade eight. At fifteen, he played for Everett High School, a predominantly white institution, and finished his high school career with two All-State selections.
Plus, the honor of getting regarded as the best college player that Michigan ever produced.
Although multiple top colleges, like UCLA and Indiana, courted Magic, everyone knew that his decision likely rested on choosing between Michigan State and the University of Michigan. The chief reason he picked to be a Spartan instead of a Wolverine was that MS coach Jud Heathcote promised him that he could be the team’s point guard and that he would not force him to take up any other role on the squad.
The 1977-1978 Season
According to past interviews, at the start of his college experience, Johnson had no aspirations of going pro. He intended to focus on his communications studies which he hoped would open the doors for him to become a TV commentator someday. Nevertheless, as a freshman at Michigan State, he averaged seventeen points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.4 assists, leading the Spartans to a record of 25-5 and a Big-Ten Conference title, coupled with a place in the Elite Eight. There, they narrowly lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that became the national champion that season.
The 1978-1979 Season
As a sophomore, Johnson remained the Spartan’s leader. He took the team to the NCAA tournament, where they won the National Championship Game, beating Indiana State 75-64. Magic was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and had a seasonal average of 17.1 points, 8.4 assists, and 7.3 rebounds. Those numbers were responsible for Johnson getting selected for the 1978–79 All-American team.
Magic Johnson’s Highest-Scoring NCAA Game
It was the 1978-79 NCAA Final Four game against Pennsylvania when he scored 29 points. He came to this total by sinking eleven out of twelve free throws and netting nine out of ten field attempts.
To boot. Magic ended the game with a triple-double, adding ten assists and rebounds to his point score to round up an overall stunning performance that night.
The Start of His Rivalry with Larry Bird
No top-five NBA rivalry list is complete without the Magic-Bird duel. The Hick from French Lick (Bird) entered the National Basketball League in 1979, the same year as Magic, but the pair kicked off their twelve-year NBA rivalry the prior season in the NCAA final. Before it, Bird had a successful career with the Sycamores, playing for three years with the team. Unfortunately, he failed to deliver for Indiana State in the 1979 championship game despite scoring nineteen points in it, on account of him making only seven out of twenty-one attempts.
The game notched the highest-ever television rating for a college basketball event at that time. Americans were eager to see the Magic versus Bird match. Two players, then viewed as rising stars, set to take over the NBA.