Looking through the statistical record of the National Basketball Association, there are certain things that I find incongruous. For example, Cliff Robinson, a journeyman player, is actually the 39th all time leading scorer in NBA history. I remember back in the early 1990s, when the Portland Trailblazers were championship contenders, Cliff Robinson was the 6th Man for that team, and while a good player, I was surprised to see that he had managed to place on that all time list: mostly through a long career.
I am writing about Magic Johnson, and the oddity of Cliff Robinson's statistical achievement is relevant to this. Magic Johnson is not amongst the top 50 all-time scorers. Partly that has to do with his position: Magic Johnson played point guard, a position whose contributions to the game involve intangibles that are sometimes hard to capture statistically. And indeed, in two categories that point guards usually excel at: assists and steals, Magic Johnson does have the numbers. But Johnson's contributions to basketball go beyond his statistics.
Part of the appeal is probably just in the name. Magic Johnson was born with the name "Earvin", which is much less charismatic than his basketball nickname of "Magic". Magic Johnson got that name in high school, where he was already a star, and carried it through to his college career, where he again stood out, leading Michigan State to a championship over Indiana State (which was led by Larry Bird). He entered the NBA early, getting drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, one of two teams (the other being the Boston Celtics, where his college rival Larry Bird would play) in the NBA with the largest and longest running record of basketball success.
Some of Magic's fame was probably due to where he was drafted: if Magic had gone to a team that did not have such a large fanbase, and was not a perennial contender, he might be a name that was only familiar to basketball fans. As it was, the entrance of Johnson (and Bird) to the NBA helped make Magic a household name, and was one of the the things that changed the nature of the game.
Recently, I was reading a book by the late Steven Jay Gould about the sport of baseball, in which he said that when he was growing up, baseball was the game for working class people, while football and basketball were games usually confined to people who attended college. It was an interesting thing to learn, because while I was growing up, I always imagined baseball as the sport of crewcut, traditional people, and football as the sport of pudgy men sweating in their recliners, while basketball was (to me, as someone born in 1979, the year that Magic Johnson entered the NBA) the sport of the young, the cool and the hip. There was perhaps some racial bias to this: basketball was the sport of the black youth. Basketball is also a fast paced, dynamic sport, something that baseball and football are not.
Arguably, Magic Johnson was the breakout superstar that made basketball, if not the most popular sport, at least the coolest. His popularity would only be eclipsed by Michael Jordan, who in many ways built on Magic's success.
So it is probably Magic's charisma and the way he transformed the sport that are his legacy, more than anything that could be captured in numbers. Not that Magic was not a great player. One of the unique things about Magic is that despite his height (6'9"), he played the point guard position--usually reserved for much smaller people. Magic was one of the few players ever who could credibly play every position on the court. And because he played for a team that made many trips to the playoffs and finals, there aren't many players who had a chance to shine in the playoffs the way that Magic did.
Other than transforming basketball, Magic Johnson made a much larger transformation to American society. In the fall of 1991, Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV, which was a great shock to many. In fact, before Magic Johnson's announcement, the term "HIV" wasn't widely used. And before Magic Johnson's announcement, HIV (or, as we called it, AIDS) was still a "gay disease". Growing up in the 1980s, AIDS was a matter of whispers, fears and taunts. Even though people knew that it was transmitted through blood contact, and that heterosexual sex was a risk factor for it, this was mostly academic knowledge. Magic Johnson's announcement that it was possible to get HIV through heterosexual sex really woke people up to the dangers of the disease. Younger people might not believe me about this, but before Magic Johnson's announcement, condoms were somewhat of a taboo subject, and it was briefly after his announcement that condoms begin to be advertised in magazines.
Magic Johnson's diagnosis led him to retire from basketball, although he did play on the 1992 Dream Team in the Olympics. He also tried to return briefly some years later, but on the whole, he was retired from basketball. He did try various other things, such as being a talk show host, but has done nothing to eclipse his stellar basketball career. He has also, after almost 20 years of being infected, not progressed from HIV to full-blown AIDS.