Why Magic Johnson is the ultimate Sixers Villain

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All week at NBC Sports Philadelphia, we're debating the biggest villains in Philly sports history. Today, we look at the Sixers. You can vote here. 

When you think of the word “villain,” you probably see a snarl, sneer or other sign of menace.

When you think of Magic Johnson, you likely see a broad smile full of pure joy.

Johnson doesn’t align with our typical stereotype of a villain, but he does have a case as the biggest Sixers villain ever.

Sixers fans first got to know Johnson well in the 1980 NBA Finals. With MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by a sprained ankle for Game 6 at the Spectrum, it seemed the Sixers had an excellent opportunity to grab the title they “owed” their fans after the disappointments of the late ‘70s, or to at least force a Game 7 in Los Angeles.

Then the rookie Johnson stepped in, a 20-year-old prodigy taking the opening tip and devastating the Sixers with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.  

He beat them again two years later, winning Finals MVP and averaging 16.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.5 steals. 

Though the Sixers overcame Johnson and the Lakers in 1983, it was ultimately little more than a blip in the ‘80s, a decade mostly ruled by Johnson and Larry Bird. As the Sixers tried and failed to return to the Finals in the years after their championship, they knew that Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers were likely waiting in the event that they could earn another Eastern Conference title. It must have been a disheartening thought. 

Johnson also had an odd brush with the Sixers as an executive before his stunning, impromptu resignation last April. Never shy about publicly discussing stars across the league, Johnson had this to say when asked about Ben Simmons before a Sixers-Lakers game last January:

(Simmons) reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers, to find out if we can get together this summer. I said, you got to clear it with the league ... but if he wants to know how to play the position as a big guard, it's fine, I will do that. But if everybody doesn't sign off we can't get together.

It was a bit of a head-scratcher. Why did Johnson feel the need to let everyone know that Simmons asked about working with him? The interest was certainly logical, considering Simmons’ similar size and style of play, but it was curious that Johnson chose to reveal it. Sixers GM Elton Brand later said he told the Lakers “no.”

Aware of the mini-controversy around whether Johnson and the Lakers had engaged in tampering — the NBA concluded they did not — Simmons walked into the locker room before a February game and cracked a heck of a joke.

“That’s like the 10th time Magic has called me today,” he said in front of reporters with a deadpan tone. 

Part of what made the whole thing feel silly at the time was that Johnson seemed to be acting as a sincere admirer of the game's modern stars — albeit one who surely wouldn't have minded if they eventually became Lakers — not like a malicious villain.

However, after his resignation, the Lakers' culture during his tenure was described as "dysfunctional." ESPN's Baxter Holmes reported that Lakers staffers found the environment under Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka one that "marginalized their colleagues, inspired fear and led to feelings of anxiety." Johnson doesn't come across well. 

At least as far as mainstream perception is concerned, though, Johnson will likely always be the jovial, earnest star. He was better than anyone the Sixers had during his playing days, beat them twice on a big stage and was so legendary as a "big guard" that Simmons' desire to work with him made a ton of sense.

The Hollywood smile only amplifies the villainy. 

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