With the continuation of HBO’s NBA history based drama about the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980’s, we are diving into the basketball facts of each episode to understand the true historical context behind the events in the show.
What happens in Winning Time: The Magic is Back? Winning time season 2 episode 2 is titled The Magic is Back and centers around the return of Magic Johnson from the lengthy injury he suffered in the previous episode. Specifically it centers around conflict. The conflict between Magic Johnson and fellow point guard Norm Nixon and the growing conflict between Lakers head coach Paul Westhead and his assistant Pat Riley. The catalyst for the conflict in both cases is a potential trade that would see Norm Nixon sent to Denver for David “Skywalker” Thompson. Westhead doesn’t want to disrupt his team chemistry by bringing in another star, especially when his system is working so well in Magic’s absence and Nixon is running the point and making it work. Riley is keen to get rid of Nixon for Thompson who is an established All-star and more of a wing scorer, which would compliment Magic more on court. Johnson for his part is shown as being keen for the trade when looped in, Nixon hears from a reporter about the proposed trade and hammers Magic after they lose on his first game back, telling the reporter that in 15 years no one will remember who magic is. The Lakers do not make the trade for Thompson and go on to lose to the underdog Rockets in the first round of the Playoffs.
So, that’s the basic layout for episode 2 of the second season of winning time. Below we dig into some key basketball questions to understand how true to history it is. Let’s start with the David Thompson trade.
Who was David Thompson?
David “Skywalker” Thompson was 5x NBA All-star who played for the Denver Nuggets (6 seasons) and the Seattle Supersonics (2 seasons) between 1976 and 1984. He had previously played 1 season in the ABA, also for the Denver Nuggets. Listed at 6ft4 and almost 200 lbs, he was an incredibly athletic shooting guard that had the physical presence to play up a spot as a small forward. Known as ‘Skywalker’ due to his incredible vertical leap he was seen as an innovator in the game, who relied on aggressive rim attacks to score, rather than pulling up for shots. In the 1977-78 season he finished 3rd in MVP voting and second in scoring. Posting 73 points in the final game of the season to climb to 27.2 points per game, only to lose out to George Ghervin by 0.1 points.
In the 1980-81 season when the Lakers were interested in trading for him he was just 26. In theory, from an on court fit, he would have worked much better than Norm Nixon alongside Magic. Nixon was also a point guard and wanted to have the ball in his hands, like Magic. Thompson was a perimeter player, so would have been out of Kareem’s way and would have been more than happy to let Magic dominate the ball and find him in easy spots to get up and throw down on defenders. It could have added an entirely new dimension to the LA showtime offense.
In reality, like in the show, the Lakers never traded for Thompson. He would remain the following season in Denver before leaving for Seattle, gaining an All-star selection his first season there. Unfortunately for Thompson, like many basketball stars of the 80’s his talent was derailed by off court incidents.
- 1983 he entered drug rehabilitation
- 1984 he suffered a career-ending injury after a fight in a New York nightclub
- 1985 an attempted comeback with the Pacers failed when he was arrested for public intoxication.
- 1987 Thompson was sentenced to 180 days in jail after assaulting his wife.
Later in life Thompson got back on track, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and has worked around the NBA in years since. The aborted Lakers trade could be a huge crossroads for him, could it have been a more focused path that set him on the straight and narrow, or could the LA lifestyle have accelerated his decline?
In reality the trade was proposed and aborted much earlier than the show indicates. Not taking place immediately before Magic returned to action, but instead taking place much earlier in the season in December 1980 while Magic was still back in Michigan with his parents recovering from his knee surgery.
Westhead would state the following in his book:
“The deal was all but complete, except I still disagreed. I sensed the others were annoyed with my dissent. But I had some strong doubts, so I said no, Buss decided to consult Magic, who was back in Michigan. I thought it was dangerous to bring Magic into a matter concerning a fellow teammate, Magic’s answer was trade Nixon, it would allow him to handle the ball all the time, versus sharing.”
So despite a time shift in order to better frame the story, the events seem to line up well with the real world.
Did Norm Nixon really attack Magic in the press?
This one is incredibly accurate. On Tuesday 31st March 1981 the LA Times quoted Nixon as saying “Anyway, 15 years from now, everyone will have forgotten Magic.” in response to questions about the potential trade involving Nixon and Thompson. As in the show Nixon was obliged to try and walk these comments back, however the damage was done. Nixon was an outspoken person, who often failed to apply the brake when talking to the press.
Unlike the show the comments didn’t come after Magic’s first game back from injury. They happened in game 82 of the regular season. Magic had posted 33-17-15 against David Thompson and the Denver Nuggets. Nixon himself had posted 24 points and 9 assists, however the two combined for 18 turnovers (8 for Magic, 10 for Nixon) and the Lakers would lose the game.
Despite the success Magic and Nixon had achieved together in winning a title in 1980, the two young players were destined to clash. They played the same position and both carried themselves with confidence and bravado. Nixon believed he had seniority and Magic believed he was the best player for the job of running point on the Lakers.
It is depicted in the show that Magic & Nixon’s feud derailed the Lakers. This is fairly accurate as the 58-24 Lakers with Magic back to his best, were heavy favorites to defeat the 40-42 underdog Houston Rockets.
Despite the collapse in the first round of the 1981 playoffs, Nixon would remain on the team the following season, starting 82 games and making the All-star team. Averaging 17 points and 8 assists as the Lakers won the 1982 NBA title. He would play a final season for the Lakers in 1982-83 before the Lakers traded Nixon, Eddie Jordan and future second-round picks to the Clippers in exchange for Byron Scott and Swen Nater. Nixon would continue to have individual success earning his second All-Star selection in 1984-85.
Was Jack McKinney named 1981 coach of the year?
As shown when Paul Westhead looks at a Newspaper in Winning Time series 2 episode 2, former Lakers head coach and mentor to Paul Westhead Jack McKinney did indeed win 1981 coach of the year. He guided the Indiana Pacers to a 44-38 record. Something that didn’t sit well with Westhead who had piloted the Lakers through an injury plagued season post title to a much better record.
Did Westhead really bring Magic off the Bench?
Yes, Magic Johnson returned to action on 27th February 1981 against the New Jersey Nets.
He put up 12 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists in 24 minutes off the bench. He also had 4 turnovers. The Lakers won 107-103, Magic would play 33 minutes off the bench in the next game, a loss to Western Conference leaders the Phoenix Suns. Magic was restored to the starting lineup for his 3rd game back with a win on the road to the Kansas City Kings.
Magic was hesitant on his return to action and wasn’t putting up the numbers he was accustomed to. However his 33 point triple double in the final game of the regular season showed he was on his way back to his best.