Magic Johnson is indelibly linked to the Lakers. But he wasn’t necessarily a perfect draft pick. What if the Lakers took Sidney Moncrief instead?
OK, fine, let’s get to it. winning time imbroglio since the last edition of “What If…” ties in with the popular HBO drama series, which wraps up its first season on Sunday, May 8.
Now I haven’t seen an entire episode. I am not a Magic Johnson apologist or someone who expects unshakable truth from historical fiction. It’s just that as a stay-at-home dad of a five-year-old, I have little free time. As I have aged and have more responsibilities, the night does not last and the morning comes much too quickly. Starting a new TV show is another in a long line of decisions to make. I don’t want a choice. I want Ian Eagle to walk me effortlessly through the Nets’ demise before fatigue takes over.
I need strength to endure the rigors of my day, including the onslaught of bitching about winning time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hates it. Magic Johnson disowned him and unleashed his own documentary. (Both men declined to speak with Jeff Pearlman to Show timethe big book on which winning time is based. So does Pat Riley, who I’m sure will be thrilled as the show unfolds.) Jerry West wants to take his anger at the show’s portrayal to the Supreme Court. Unless the judges include Artis Gilmore and George Gervin, that seems long.
Then there’s social media, where too many Basketball-Reference-scoring people are competing to be the next Harvey Pollack.
It’s important to take a step back. Historical fiction, in books and on screen, has been around forever and isn’t just for Civil War or time travel fans. With winning time, the key characters are alive and well. I don’t blame these men for being upset. Magic has spent years cultivating an image of a brilliant, happy, people-man/shrewd entrepreneur. But the roots of these characters’ behaviors are easy to find, and not just in Pearlman’s book.
Kareem’s aggressiveness with the public is widely known – Magic, his teammate, is featured in at least two of his books. Magic’s promiscuity, as detailed in Show time, apparently cleared Wilt Chamberlain. Jerry West was a tortured soul and pretty much admitted it in the title of his memoir. winning time takes the story and sexualizes it, much like what Jerry Buss did with the Lakers and the NBA. Not everyone liked him then and not everyone will like him now. And that’s OK. There are other things to look at.
Complaints come from today’s expectations. The big sports leagues don’t need the media to make themselves known. They have Twitter and Instagram and cable networks. Players can start a podcast. If you’re a big enough name, you can headline your own documentary to stem the tide of pesky reporters filing FOIA requests and scouring high school yearbooks. News reports are quickly becoming a nefarious anomaly in the sport, like everywhere else, as they threaten to upend messages, which many fans confuse with unchanging truth as they become more ubiquitous.
Here’s a hard-to-believe truth: Magic wasn’t a slam-dunk selection for the Lakers.
Johnson wasn’t the only Hall of Fame goalie in the draft. There was Sidney Moncrief from the University of Arkansas. Writing in Showtime, Rich Levin, who covered the Lakers for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, said Jerry West, a major presence in the Lakers organization, wanted Moncrief.
There was a lot to like. As Pearlman wrote in a 2012 column for SI.com:
Moncrief was everything a professional team would want in a player. He was polished beyond polished; lightning fast, a dead-eye shooter with a Walt Frazier first step and a desire to play tenacious defense. Ted Green of the Los Angeles Times rightly compared him to David Thompson. “He was a great basketball player,” said Paul Westhead, who would eventually coach the Lakers that season. “You could watch Sidney Moncrief play and know he had a lot of tools.”
Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke knew the value of star power and decided to take the Michigan State dynamo. Moncrief was a star in Milwaukee. He was twice Defensive Player of the Year and made five All-Star teams. Injuries and a stacked Eastern Conference — the Celtics, Sixers and Pistons dominated the 1980s — kept the Bucks and Moncrief from reaching the Finals.
He has no regrets. “It’s a beautiful thing how people still remember me here in Milwaukee,” Moncrief told Pearlman. “I gave the Bucks a lot, and this city gave me a lot. I’m happy with how things turned out, because who knows how it would have worked out in LA?”
So what if Sidney Moncrief had joined Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon? Suppose Chicago Bulls general manager Rod Thorn, a lifer for basketball, suffers severe brain damage and gets stuck with David Greenwood and Magic somehow falls to the Bucks. How would he have behaved with Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier and Brian Winters? How far could Don Nelson have gone with Magic playing his beloved forward?
Thanks to the simulations built by Strat-O-Matic, the market leader in sports simulation, we can discover it all.
How would things have gone if the Lakers had taken Sidney Moncrief instead of Magic Johnson?
It’s time for the big reveal: how would the franchises have fared with this switcheroo?
Magic’s amazing journey generates more questions than it answers. The revival of the NBA in the 1980s was driven by the story of Magic and Larry Bird. They had just faced off in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, a major event, before their rookie seasons. Their appeal was based on their contrasts: Black and white, Los Angeles and Boston; glamor against grain. Their final battles were a soap opera that gave the NBA viewership (and relevance) in June, a barren period on prime-time television in the days of three channels and rabbit ears.
Does this rivalry distill if they play each other all the time without a championship on the line? Can Jerry Buss deliver the same sizzle and lure the beautiful people to the front row of the Forum without magic as his main man? Could Magic fully flourish in the Milwaukee media market, even with the spread of cable and NBA Entertainment’s burgeoning marketing savvy? Or is he forcing a trade with the Knicks, home to the world’s largest media market and a star-studded fanbase that goes beyond the players available from Happy Days?
These are questions the NBA has never had to ask itself as David Stern’s insatiable desire for global growth has become a dizzying reality. The league is a regular topic of conversation even when games are not being played. People talk about a TV show about the NBA in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s on a major network. Watched by millions. It’s the kind of development the NBA would have killed for when Magic was a teenager. The magic is bigger than the game, someone with worldwide name recognition. His reaction to winning time gonna make me watch, yeah, but it’s a reminder to all of us that there are people behind the legends.