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'Winning Time': Did Magic Johnson Really Chuck an Airball Against the Rockets?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 14, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 14, 2023 |


The second episode of the second season of Max’s Winning Time covers the remainder of the 1981 NBA season after Magic Johnson returned from his knee surgery. That season ended when Magic Johnson — who heroically helped lead the Lakers to an NBA Title the previous year as a rookie — tossed up an airball with only a few seconds left. How true-to-history was that airball? Here’s the opening paragraph from the NY Times describing the end of the game that eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs:

Magic Johnson reached into his bag of tricks and came up with air today — an ”airball” that never reached the basket with five seconds left — as his Los Angeles Lakers, the defending National Basketball Association champions, were eliminated by the Houston Rockets, 89-86.

More than that, however, the article confirms that there had been chemistry issues on the team, especially between the rest of the squad and Magic Johnson, who “had complained about teammates’ jealousies” the week ahead of the playoff game. As good as Magic Johnson was before the injury and as good as he would become over the course of his career, he played terribly in the elimination game, hitting only 2 of 14 shots and missing five free throws, including two at the end of regulation that might have put the team over the top.

Johnson’s teammate, Jamaal Wilkes, attributed the loss, at least partially, to the team’s infighting over all the attention Magic was receiving. “It definitely did not help,” he said, “and might have been a distraction.”

As for Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson’s beef, that definitely seemed to exist, and Norm Nixon did suggest that Magic would not have a long legacy. The bigger issues, however, seemed to be between Nixon and Jerry West.

Moreover, there were rumors — but nothing more — about a possible trade of Norm Nixon for David Thompson. Magic and Norm, however, worked out their differences and played together another year before Nixon was finally traded to the Clippers, where injuries ultimately forced him into retirement.

As for Pat Riley stabbing Paul Westhead in the back by sneaking around and practicing with Magic Johnson? More of that will probably play out in the next episode because, early the next year, Paul Westhead was fired, and Pat Riley took over as coach. The speculation is that Magic Johnson orchestrated Westhead’s ouster.

There is also an interesting coda to the Nixon and Thompson trade: A few years later, in the early 1990s, both David Thompson and Norm Nixon had to be carried off the court on stretchers after sustaining injuries during the Legends Classic, a game played between retired players. After their injuries, the NBA decided that it would no longer host the annual matchup.