This column, by NBA Insider Jan Hubbard, first appeared in the June 24, 1991, issue of The Sporting News, after Michael Jordan had won his first NBA title. Jordan’s Bulls dispatched Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games, finishing the series victory on June 12, 1991.
The moments are rare and grand. They are lusted after, embraced and savored. They are sports fantasies realized. Before 1991, the last one occurred in 1987. A championship was at stake, but there was something much larger. It was a meeting of legends. It was a chance to settle arguments.
The marquee read: Bird vs. Magic.
They had met before, but that only enhanced the matchup. During the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era, the Celtics and Lakers were tied 1-1 in championship series. Bird had seemed the more accomplished player because he scored more.
But the 1986-87 season was the first in the Lakers’ preparation for the impending retirement of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson had become more of a scorer, and he averaged 23.9 points while leading the league in assists with 12.2 a game. The Lakers won 65 games. In his eighth season, Johnson won his first MVP award.
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Bird, however, had won the previous three. He was at the peak of his game. He had averaged 28.1 points. He would not go down easily.
But Bird and the Celtics still went down. And Johnson, who always had sacrificed for the good of the team, outperformed everyone. He averaged 26.2 points and 13 assists while Bird averaged 24.2 points. The Lakers won the title in six games, and arguments were settled.
Johnson was clearly the best basketball player in the world at that moment.
Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson
In 1991, history, for the most part, repeated itself. Again, teams were involved, but there was a bigger individual argument at stake. And the marquee lights sizzled: Magic vs. Michael.
Michael Jordan entered the 1991 NBA Finals as the owner of everything but a championship ring. He had won five consecutive scoring titles. Earlier that season, he won his second MVP award. Together, Jordan and Johnson combined to win the last five MVP awards.
Despite his accomplishments, Jordan had a lot to prove. He has long been acknowledged as the greatest individual talent in the world. But the greatest talent is not always the best player.
“Michael is head and shoulders above us all,” Bird once said. “But Magic Johnson is the best player I have ever seen.”
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But no longer. The Buils won the championship in five games over the Lakers. After the Bulls’ 108-101 victory in Game 5, Buils coach Phil Jackson said, “The series was a tribute to Michael Jordan.”
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It was that — and more. Whether or not Jordan or his supporters admit it, there has been an advancement in his game. He has evolved from being better than anyone to being the best player.
Individually, Jordan authored one of the best all-around performances in championship series history. He was impressively consistent. And he did it in his high-flying way with a series of acrobatic moves that came with delightful regularity. If he wasn’t dunking, he was double pumping. hanging or switching the ball from hand to hand in mid-air.
But he also was playing defense, rebounding and trusting his teammates. In the five games, he averaged 31.2 points, 11.2 assists and 6.6 rebounds and shot 56 percent from the floor.
“This should get rid of the stigma of being a one-man team,” he said. “We have players surrounding myself that make us an effective basketball team. My teammates have stepped up, and the stigma is removed.”
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But the real stigma that has been removed is not that the Bulls are a one-man team, it is that, as an individual, Jordan is not the best team player. Jordan was the only one who could remove that stigma, and he did.
Johnson still is a great player, just like Bird was still great after the Celtics lost the 1987 finals. And Johnson still has five titles while Jordan has only one. But the issue is now.
And right now, Jordan owns the NBA. He is a champion. He is the best basketball player in the world. Arguments have been settled.