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Magic Johnson is indelibly linked with the Lakers. But he wasn’t necessarily a slam-dunk draft pick. What if the Lakers took Sidney Moncrief instead?
OK, fine, let’s address the Winning Time imbroglio since the latest edition of “What If…” ties into the popular HBO dramatic series, which completes its first season on Sunday, May 8.
Now I have not seen an entire episode. I’m not a Magic Johnson apologist or someone who expects unflinching truth from historical fiction. It’s just that as the stay-at-home working dad of a five-year-old, my free time is scant. As I’ve gotten older and burdened with more responsibilities, the night doesn’t last and morning arrives much too quickly. Starting a new TV show is another in a long line of decisions to make. I don’t want choice. I want Ian Eagle to escort me effortlessly through the Nets’ demise before fatigue wins.
I need the strength to put up with the rigors of my day, including the onslaught of bitching about Winning Time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hates it. Magic Johnson has disavowed it and has unleashed his own documentary. (Both men declined to talk with Jeff Pearlman for Showtime, the great book on which Winning Time is based. So did Pat Riley, who I’m sure will be delighted as the series unfolds.) Jerry West wants to take his anger at the show’s portrayal of him to the Supreme Court. Unless the judges include Artis Gilmore and George Gervin, that seems like a long shot.
Then there are social media, where too many people who have Basketball-Reference bookmarked are competing to be the next Harvey Pollack.
It’s important to have some perspective. Historical fiction, in books and onscreen, has been around forever and is not reserved for the Civil War or time-traveling lovers. With Winning Time, the key figures are alive and well and highly prominent. I don’t blame these men for being upset. Magic has spent years cultivating a shiny, happy, man-of-the-people/shrewd entrepreneur image. But the roots of these characters’ behaviors are easy to find, and not just in Pearlman’s book.
Kareem’s surliness with the public is widely known — Magic, his teammate, described in it in at least two of his books. Magic’s promiscuousness, as detailed in Showtime, apparently would have made Wilt Chamberlain blanch. Jerry West was a tortured soul and pretty much admitted that in his memoir title. Winning Time is taking history and sexing it up, kind of like what Jerry Buss did with the Lakers and the NBA. Not everyone liked it then and not everyone will like it now. And that’s OK. There’s other stuff to watch.
The complaints come from today’s expectations. The major sports leagues don’t need the media to get the word out. They have Twitter and Instagram and cable networks. Players can start a podcast. If you’re a big enough name, you can headline your very own documentary to stem the tide of pesky reporters filing FOIA requests and paging through high school yearbooks. Reporting is quickly becoming a harmful anomaly in sports, like everywhere else, because it threatens to upend messaging, which many fans mistake as immutable truth as it becomes more pervasive.
Here is a truth that’s hard to believe: Magic was not a slam-dunk selection for the Lakers.
Johnson was not the only Hall of Fame guard in that draft. There was the University of Arkansas’s Sidney Moncrief. 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 pro team would want in a player. He was polished beyond polished; lightning-quick, a dead-eye shooter with a Walt Frazier-esque first step and an eagerness to play tenacious defense. The Los Angeles Times’ Ted Green compared him—rightly—to David Thompson. “He was a terrific basketball player,” says 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 dynamo from Michigan State. Moncrief was a star in Milwaukee. He was twice the 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 a lot to the Bucks, and this city gave a lot to me. I’m glad the way things worked out, because who knows how it would have worked in Los Angeles?”
So, what would have happened if Sidney Moncrief had joined Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes, and Norm Nixon? Suppose Chicago Bulls general manager Rod Thorn, a basketball lifer, suffered a major brain injury and stuck with David Greenwood and Magic somehow fell to the Bucks. How would he have fared with Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, and Brian Winters? How far could Don Nelson have gone with Magic playing his beloved point-forward?
Thanks to simulations built by Strat-O-Matic, the Market Leader in Sports Simulation, we can find out all of this.
How would things have worked out if the Lakers took Sidney Moncrief instead of Magic Johnson?
Time for the big reveal: How would the franchises have done with this switcheroo?
Magic’s amazing run generates more questions than it does answers. The NBA’s renaissance in the 1980s was driven by the narrative of Magic and Larry Bird. They had just played each other 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; glamour vs. grit. Their Finals battles were a soap opera that gave the NBA viewership (and relevance) into June, a barren time in prime time television in the day of three channels and rabbit ears.
Does that rivalry get distilled if they face each other all the time without a championship on the line? Can Jerry Buss provide the same sizzle and attract the beautiful people to the front row of the Forum without Magic as his leading man? Could Magic fully bloom in the Milwaukee media market, even with the spread of cable and NBA Entertainment’s blooming marketing savvy? Or does he force a trade to the Knicks, home to the world’s biggest media market and a starry fanbase that goes beyond available cast members of Happy Days?
These are questions that the NBA never had to consider as David Stern’s unquenchable desire for worldwide growth became dizzying reality. The league is a regular topic of conversation even when games aren’t being played. People are talking about a television show about the NBA in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s on a major network. Watched by millions. This is the kind of development the NBA would have killed for when Magic was a teenager. Magic is bigger than the game, someone with global first-name recognition. His reaction to Winning Time will get me to watch, yes, but it’s a reminder to us all that people lurk behind the legends.