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Eye for talent ‘unmatched’: Magic Johnson shares memories of Jerry West

Magic Johnson, left, and Jerry West in a black-and-white photo from May 16, 1979
Magic Johnson said he and Jerry West, pictured together in 1979, would meet once a week to critique Johnson’s previous three or four games. “I loved it because I’m getting this knowledge from the great Jerry West,” said Johnson, whose father “idolized” the coach.
(Associated Press)
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When Magic Johnson heard the news that friend Jerry West had died early Wednesday morning, he began to reminisce about their first lunch together at the Forum in Inglewood after the Lakers had selected him No. 1 overall out of Michigan State in 1979.

Johnson recalled how his dad, Earvin Johnson Sr., was at the lunch and how his father “idolized” West and viewed him as his favorite player.

Magic and his dad were excited about him joining a historic franchise like the Lakers, the two of them looking forward to what the future held for The Magic Man.

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“I soon realized that my dad was more interested in Jerry West than me being a Laker,” Johnson said, laughing as he told the story to The Times. “He told my father that he was going to take care of me. My father idolized him. It was like a great moment for my father, as well as me.”

After that first lunch, West took Magic Johnson down to the Lakers locker room.

It was just the two of them, and that was Johnson’s first lesson about the Lakers.

Jerry West took the Lakers to stunning heights season after season as a player, coach and general manager.

June 12, 2024

“He broke down the Laker history and the expectations and really helped me understand what I was walking into,” Johnson said. “He said that he would be here for me.”

It was the beginning of the relationship between Johnson and West, a bond that ushered in Showtime and a dynasty that saw the Lakers win five NBA championships during the ’80s.

As a 20-year-old rookie, Johnson said, he was in awe that West would pull him aside once a week to critique his game.

They would sit in seats not far from the famed Forum Club, just the two of them talking about Johnson’s previous three or four games.

“He would just give notes,” Johnson said. “He’d say, ‘OK, you need to do this, or you are short on your shots.’ Whatever it was. ‘If you probably would have made this decision, it probably wouldn’t have been a turnover. You had too many turnovers.’

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“So, he was just helping me out. He loved it, because it was his idea. ‘Let’s meet. I just want to help you out.’ I loved it because I’m getting this knowledge from the great Jerry West. So, I needed that.”

On Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson announced to the world that he had tested positive for HIV and was retiring from the Lakers.

Before he had his news conference at the Forum, Johnson went to West’s office so they could console each other.

Magic Johnson, left, talks to coaches Jerry West and Pat Riley during a game in 1981.
(Los Angeles Times)

“When I announced I was HIV positive, Jerry West and I sat in his office and cried for like 20 minutes together,” Johnson said. “He was just devastated. He called me every day after that. I knew how much he loved me when I announced that 32 years ago. It was almost like he had received the devastating news.”

Before the Lakers drafted Johnson, they had some key decisions to make. He was the flashy point guard with the big smile that was made for Hollywood, but the Lakers already had Norm Nixon playing that position.

So, the decision was whether the Lakers should select UCLA power forward David Greenwood or Arkansas shooting guard Sidney Moncrief.

“Jerry said, ‘No, I see something here with Magic,’” Johnson said. “And then I’m going to tell you another big decision: It was, ‘Should the Lakers draft Dominique [Wilkins], Terry Cummings or James Worthy?’ Well, it was James. Jerry’s eye for talent was unmatched.

“But also his eye for the role guy. Jerry was excellent on both. He could get the high pick, but also the guy like a Derek Fisher, A.C. Green, signing Kurt Rambis, Bob McAdoo, Mychal Thompson in a big trade, Rick Fox, Robert Horry. Oh, and Kobe! Hello! In that big trade.”

Losing to the Boston Celtics six times in the NBA Finals was the bane of West’s professional playing career. When the 1984 Lakers team he had put together lost to the Celtics in the Finals again, West was miserable.

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But the Lakers and Celtics met again in 1985 for the championship, another opportunity for the Lakers to right all those wrongs, for them to break that spell of having gone 0-7 against Boston for the ultimate prize.

LeBron James and Michael Jordan join others in the NBA saluting the late Jerry West, who became a star as a Lakers player and later transformed the league as an executive.

June 12, 2024

The Lakers did, winning Game 6 on Boston’s famed parquet floor to become NBA champions.

And where was Jerry West that night?

“Remember when Jerry said he couldn’t go to Boston. He told us to ‘go kick their ass! But I’m not going,’” Johnson said, laughing again. “But what was the first phone call we got after we won. It was from Jerry.

“I miss him. It’s a tough day. It’s a tough day for Laker Nation and for basketball fans around the world.”

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