LOS ANGELES - Magic Johnson and Showtime made their debut Wednesday facing Chick Hearn Court outside Staples Center.
They will be there forever.
A 17-foot bronze statue of the former Los Angeles Lakers’ star was unveiled at dusk before several hundred fans and a handful of former teammates and dignitaries including NBA Commissioner David Stern and Mayor James K. Hahn.
Appropriately, the sculpted figure shows Johnson dribbling with his right hand and pointing with his left index finger as if leading a fast break, which he did so often for the Lakers from 1979-91 and briefly in 1996.
“Man, 25 years ago, coming here to this great city, I never expected anything like this,” Johnson said. “This statue represents every player that I played with. It’s not about me, it’s about the team and the way we played together.
“I am so amazed. This is just crazy. What a day! Wow! What a day!”
Now 44, Johnson was the maestro of Showtime of the 1980s, when the Lakers won five NBA championships. The team played at the Forum in nearby Inglewood during that time, moving to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in 1999.
Johnson’s Hall of Fame career was cut short in November 1991 when he tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. He returned to play the second half of the 1995-96 season before retiring for good.
A minority owner and vice president of the Lakers, Johnson has been very successful in the business world. He also established the Magic Johnson Foundation, which has worked to raise funds for community-based organizations dealing with HIV/AIDS education and provide programs to meet the educational needs of urban residents.
“He’s been more than a basketball player, he’s been more than a winner. He’s been a person who’s left his mark on the city of Los Angeles, the NBA, all over the world,” said Jerry West, a former Lakers star player, coach and executive.
“For all of his accomplishments, the thing I liked most about him is he’s been so approachable,” said West, now president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. “I think he smiles in his sleep.”
It was Johnson’s magnetic smile and unique style of play that breathed life into the NBA in the 1980s — after popularity had waned.
“He played the game with flare, but he had more substance than he had flare,” West said. “You win the game with substance.”
Former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalled Johnson’s first game with the Lakers. A last-second shot by Abdul-Jabbar off a pass from Johnson meant victory, and Johnson immediately put a bearhug on his older teammate.
“All of I sudden, I thought I had become a Siamese twin,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled with a smile. “I was trying to stand up straight and enjoy this victory. Magic had me in a hold. That type of enthusiasm was infectious.”
Abdul-Jabbar took Johnson aside in the Lakers’ locker room afterward, reminding him there were 81 games left on the schedule.
“That story epitomizes Magic’s energy for the game,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
The first person Johnson acknowledged following the unveiling was Hearn, the Lakers’ longtime play-by-play announcer who died at age 85 on Aug. 5, 2002 of head injuries sustained in a fall at his home three days earlier. Chick Hearn Court is a street outside the arena.
Among the fans on hand was 40-year-old Joseph Bruce of Inglewood.
“I’ve supported Magic over the years,” said Bruce, who wore a jersey with Johnson’s name and No. 32 on the back. “He was one of the greatest team players of all time. He’s been an inspiration for what he’s done on the court and in the community.”
Johnson also had a statue of himself unveiled at Michigan State last fall. He led the Spartans to the NCAA championship in 1979 before leaving school early to turn pro at the age of 20.
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