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petulant-johnson.jpeg

'Winning Time': Just How Disliked Was 'Petulant, Greedy' Magic Johnson During the 1981-82 Season?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 28, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 28, 2023 |


petulant-johnson.jpeg

After charming the nation with his winning smile as a college basketball player at Michigan State and during his rookie season in Los Angeles — helping the team to a championship — Magic Johnson gained even more admiration from fans when he returned from an injury that sidelined him for 45 games in the 1980-81 season.

However, in the 1981-82 season, Johnson found himself cast in a completely different role: that of the villain. This week’s episode of Winning Time not only accurately depicts this but may even understate the NBA’s sentiment toward Johnson at the time. Sports Illustrated labeled him a “greedy, petulant 22-year-old,” and Larry Brown, then-coach of the New Jersey Nets, declared he would “never take Magic on his team.”

Much of the hostility stemmed from Johnson’s 25-year contract worth $25 million — a deal that wouldn’t even take effect until 1984. But it wasn’t solely about the money; it was also about Lakers owner Jerry Buss declaring Magic part of the family and hinting at a future role in management.

Jerry Buss remarked, “Magic may even be my coach, general manager, or maybe he’ll run the team and I’ll just sit back and watch. Magic is a bright kid, and I plan to make him my protege. I’ll teach him the business aspect of sports after his career is over. What it comes down to is that Magic is part of the family.”

This contract left the impression among Magic’s teammates that a third-year player wielded more influence than anyone else on the team, including the coach. This seemed to be confirmed when, after a win against Utah, Magic declared, “I can’t play here anymore. I want to be traded.”

Within twenty-four hours, coach Paul Westhead was fired.

Although Buss insisted Westhead’s dismissal wasn’t due to Magic’s request and that he’d been considering it since the team’s slow 2-4 start, questions remained. Rumors swirled that Buss had actually encouraged Johnson to request a trade to justify the firing, particularly because this request came on the same night that Magic openly defied Westhead during a timeout.

Notably, Magic Johnson was far from struggling on the court. He was averaging over 17 points per game and led the league in assists before Westhead’s dismissal. Magic simply disliked Westhead’s regimented system, which he felt stifled the team’s natural flair. “I’m here to play ball and have fun, and that hasn’t been happening,” Johnson said after the firing.

The ensuing turbulence within the team did not endear Johnson to his teammates. While many shared his dislike for Westhead’s system, they resented how Johnson had handled the situation. Jamaal Wilkes even questioned whether his own job was safe, asking a reporter, “If [Magic] got mad at a player, would that player be gone the next day?”

During the next away game against San Antonio, Johnson was loudly booed as he took the court. It would not be the last time that season. It’s hard to imagine that one of the most beloved figures in NBA history ever spent a season as the league’s villain.