After going back and forth through the first four games of the 1980 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers won pivotal Game 5 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Unfortunately, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was the league’s Most Valuable Player during the 1979-80 NBA season, suffered a severely sprained ankle in the 108-103 win.
As Abdul-Jabbar did not travel to Philadelphia for Game 6 and was considered doubtful in a potential Game 7, Jim Chones and Mark Landsberger were the only centers remaining on the Lakers roster. In one of the greatest performances in NBA history, Magic Johnson started at center after being the team’s point guard during his rookie season.
Playing all but one minute, Johnson finished with 42 points (14-of-23 shooting from the field and 14-of-14 from the free-throw line), 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and one block. With the Lakers up only two points and five minutes away from a Game 7, the 20-year-old scored nine points during this stretch to lead them to a 123-107 win on May 16, 1980.
Despite winning the 1980 NBA Finals MVP Award as a rookie, Johnson naturally gave credit to his teammates. Along with Jamaal Wilkes’ 37 points and 10 rebounds, Michael Cooper chipped in 16 points as Chones and Landsberger combined for 16 points and 20 rebounds in Abdul-Jabbar’s absence.
In six games, Johnson averaged 21.5 points (57.3 percent from the field), 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.7 steals in 42.7 minutes.
Although Johnson would go on to win numerous individual awards and championships, his performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals is widely considered his best game ever. To this day, Johnson is still the youngest and the only rookie to win the award.