Skip to main content

Magic Johnson's 1996 NBA Comeback And What Could've Been: Superteam With Shaq And Kobe

Magic Johnson's 1996 NBA Comeback And What Could've Been: Superteam With Shaq And Kobe

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is one of the best basketball players to ever play this game. He's certainly on top of most people's best point guard list.

This isn't hard to see why, with career averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game.

On top of his averages, Magic won 5 championships in the 1980s, including 3 Finals MVPs.

Magic was also a 3-time regular season MVP, as well as a 4-time assist champion, and 2-time steals champion.

As one of the biggest stars with one of the brightest smiles we've ever seen in the NBA, it came as a complete shock when Magic announced his retirement from the game on November 7, 1991.

Magic Johnson announced he had contracted HIV and that he would no longer be able to play. At the time, HIV was thought to be only a homosexual disease, as well as a death sentence.

Magic initially claimed that he did not know how he contracted the disease, which he later admitted to having numerous sexual partners throughout his playing career.

Magic admitted to having “harems of women” and he decided to openly talk about his sexual activities to try to educate heterosexuals. He wanted them to know they weren't safe from the disease.

Magic felt fine after the 1990-91 NBA season, where his Lakers fell to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, 4-1, in the NBA Finals.

It was during a routine physical before the 1991–92 season, where he discovered he was HIV positive.

Magic's wife, Cookie, was pregnant at the time, but luckily she and their unborn baby were not infected.

In 2004, Magic's retirement announcement was named as ESPN's seventh-most memorable moment of the previous 25 years.

Magic was praised as a hero in many articles and the then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush said, “For me, Magic is a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports.”

Just when Magic's career seemed all but over, he was selected to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, in Orlando.

Not everyone seemed happy about this selection, including former teammates Byron Scott and A. C. Green. They stated that Magic should not play.

Utah Jazz forward, Karl Malone, argued that they would be at risk of contamination if Magic suffered a wound while on the court.

This didn't stop Magic as he would play, and he delivered one of the greatest All-Star Game performances, scoring 25 while handing out 9 assists.

Magic hit a three-pointer over Isiah Thomas with about 14 seconds remaining. The game was called, as the West was destroying the East, 153-113.

Magic won the All-Star MVP and after the 1991-92 NBA season concluded, Magic made the roster to the USA Olympic basketball team.

The Dream Team, as they were known, dominated the competition, winning the gold medal with an 8–0 record. They beat their opponents by an average of 43.8 points per game.

Magic averaged 8.0 points per game during the Olympics, and his 5.5 assists per game was second on the team behind Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen.

Magic dealt with a knee injury that limited his playing in the Olympics, but his performance inspired HIV-positive people.

The experience of playing in the 1992 All-Star Game and the Olympics gave Magic the idea of making a comeback to the NBA in the 1992-93 season.

This attempt would ultimately end before the season started, as NBA players around the league felt concerned with playing alongside Magic.

So, that November, Magic officially made his second retirement:

“I just felt all the controversy, people saying different things, not people outside of the NBA, but people within the NBA,” Johnson said. “I just felt that it was gonna be like this all year. And so, it wasn’t worth it because I played basketball for two reasons, the love of the game and to have fun. I have fun doing it. I was seeing that the fun part wasn’t gonna be there. And it wasn’t worth playing, then, if I wasn’t going to have fun and enjoy it.”

The casket appeared to be shut on Magic Johnson's playing career. So, he tried his hand out at coaching.

In 1993-94, Magic began his coaching career for the Lakers when he replaced the fired Coach Randy Pfund, and Bill Bertka, who served as an interim coach for two games.

Magic's coaching career would only last 16 games. His Lakers went 5-11. Magic would resign at the end of the season.

After the season, Magic would purchase a 5% share of the Lakers. It looked like Magic would stay in the office for the remainder of his career.

Magic would not stay in the office for long. The temptation to play was too strong. So, at the age of 36, Magic attempted another comeback as he re-joined the Lakers during the 1995–96 NBA season.

Magic entered the season at the heaviest weight he's ever been, at 255 pounds. This was because of his efforts to fight his HIV.

On January 29, 1996, Magic officially announced his return to the NBA, and he'd play his first game the following day against the Golden State Warriors.

Magic came off the bench to play 27 minutes, and the energy he brought to the Lakers was surely needed.

The Lakers beat the Warriors 128-118, as Magic put up 19 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals.

This performance by Magic was great, but he wouldn't get to enjoy it long. The Lakers' next game was against Michael Jordan and the 40-3 Chicago Bulls.

Magic played well against the Bulls. He scored 15 while grabbing 3 rebounds, and dishing out 3 assists.

The problem was the Chicago Bulls were striking from all angles. Michael Jordan pushed Dennis Rodman to attack Magic throughout the game, which Magic was appreciative of:

Magic's comeback unfortunately wasn't liked by everyone. Lakers' small forward Cedric Ceballos did not like the fact Magic's return diminished his role to a degree.

He also didn't like how Magic's abrupt comeback messed up the chemistry he and his teammates worked for all season long.

Ceballos would leave the team unexpectedly, showing his distaste for the entire Magic show.

Lakers' guard, Nick Van Exel appeared to be a little bothered by the return of Magic, though he tried to remain positive:

“I know there are a lot of people checking it out to see how I'm going to respond,” Van Exel says. “And I know there are probably going to be times when Magic and I are both standing there with our hands out, calling for the ball. Believe me, I'm not going to change my game. Nick is going to be Nick. But I'm not a selfish player, and I know Magic's not. It won't be a problem.”

On April 9th, that season, Van Exel bumped referee Ron Garretson during a game and received a seven-game suspension.

Magic publicly criticized Van Exel, saying his actions were “inexcusable.”

Five days later, Magic would himself bump referee Scott Foster, causing him to be suspended for three games.

Ceballos would eventually make his return to the team and denied that Magic's comeback was the reason for his sudden disappearance. But it was obvious that this wasn't Magic's Lakers any longer.

Despite being overweight from his former playing days, a calf injury, and team chemistry that wasn't there, the Lakers still managed to finish the season 53–29.

Magic finished the season averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. In his 32 games, Magic led the Lakers to a record of 22–10.

Magic also finished tied for 12th place with Charles Barkley in voting for the MVP Award.

One thing that didn't sit too well with Magic on his return was the fact he wasn't able to play his normal point guard position. The Lakers had him playing as a power forward.

The Lakers would play the defending champion Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers struggled in Game 1, losing 87-83.

Magic scored 20 while grabbing 13 rebounds, but he expressed frustration with his role in Lakers' coach Del Harris' offense.

After the season, Magic expressed interest to play the following season. He even hinted at playing for another team, since he didn't like how the Lakers coach played him in his comeback.

Game 2 saw a charged-up Magic Johnson. He led everyone with 26 points. Magic also added 7 rebounds and 5 assists in the Lakers' 104-94 victory.

Magic struggled in both Game 3 and Game 4, only averaging 7.5 points for the two games.

The Lakers also struggled to handle the defending champs, losing both games and the series 3-1.

After the season, Magic expressed interest to play the following season. He even hinted at playing for another team, since he didn't like how the Lakers coach played him in his comeback.

After the 1995-96 season ended the Lakers led by General manager Jerry West went right to work.

Before the NBA Draft, West brought a young high school kid named Kobe Bryant in for two workouts where he dominated the older and bigger competition.

“We've got to do everything we can to get this guy,” West said after Bryant's second workout.

West needed to act fast because he knew the New Jersey Nets were looking to select Bryant with their 8th pick.

The Lakers held the 24th pick, which they would use to select Derek Fisher. West knew Bryant wouldn't fall to 24th, so he decided to throw out trade ideas.

First, West offered Lakers' center, Vlade Divac, for the 8th pick, but the Nets declined.

On draft night, the Nets were up for their 8th pick and decided against drafting Bryant, due to a rumor Bryant didn't want to play in New Jersey.

By the time the 13th pick in the draft rolled around, which belonged to the Charlotte Hornets, West sprung into action.

West offered the Hornets Divac for the 13th trade and the Hornets accepted it. Laker fans were furious at West for trading their center, but he'd make up for it shortly.

With the 13th pick now belonging to the Lakers, the Hornets selected who West wanted, Kobe Bryant.

Seventeen days after the draft, West and the Lakers filled their now-vacant center position with Shaquille O'Neal.

If Magic Johnson hadn't retired after the 1995-96 season, he would have teamed up with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The year Magic came back the Lakers finished 4th in the West. In 1996-97, the Lakers won three more games than the previous year but still finished 4th in the West.

If Magic came back and played, could he have helped push the Lakers over the hump?

Would there have been a rematch of Magic vs. Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals?

We will never know of course, but Magic playing alongside O'Neal, the game's most dominant force, and Bryant, the up-and-coming brash star, would've been the hottest ticket in the NBA.

Magic was asked if he did want to return to the Lakers in the 1996-97 and he responded by saying:

“I want to come back, yes. If I come back to the Lakers, I have to come back in January.”

The Lakers had renounced Magic's rights at the end of the 1995-96 season. This meant Magic could not return until 54 days into the season, which would have been in January.

Ultimately, Magic was happy with his decision to retire stating:

"I am going out on my terms, something I couldn't say when I aborted a comeback in 1992."

For that, we're all happy as NBA fans, knowing one of the game's greatest, retired on his own terms, and not from a serious illness. 


GOAT Squad By Position: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Charles Barkley Says Magic Johnson And Larry Bird Are Two Most Important Figures In NBA History: "They Saved The League"

22-Year-Old Magic Johnson Was Already A 2-Time Finals MVP: We Might Never See This Again

Los Angeles Lakers Retired Numbers: NBA Legends And Superstars Wore Purple And Gold

75 Best NBA Players Of All Time: Michael Jordan Is The GOAT, LeBron James Is Second Place