Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

In lieu of the regular season, Laker Nation has decided to take you back through Laker history to recap important games, record-breaking performances and memorable news from the past 64 years of the franchise. We understand that it’s not the basketball you may have been hoping for, but for the time being, it’s the closest we’ll get to reading about the Lakers on a basketball court.

NOVEMBER 18, 1981

It doesn’t seem possible to think about Laker history without a number 32 jersey hanging in the rafters. After all, Magic Johnson has helped bring more championships trophies to Los Angeles than any other Laker not named Kobe Bryant (remember: Mikan’s five Laker trophies in the 1950s went to Minneapolis). So while we remember Magic Johnson fondly as the man who sank the baby sky-hook to beat the Boston Celtics, the man who dazzled as the headliner of Showtime, the man who holds multiple regular season and postseason assist records, it’s easy to forget that at one time Johnson was fully committed to packing his bags and leaving Los Angeles.

Following a 113-110 win over the Utah Jazz in 1981, the Lakers were then riding a five-game win streak. While one would assume the visiting locker room at the Salt Palace would be jovial after their narrow victory, the Lakers were fuming – they were expected to be much better than this. Of their seven wins to that point, six of them had been by three or less points, and the playing pace of then-coach Paul Westhead was frustrating many of the Lakers. Johnson was no longer the clear focal point of the offense, and while he was leading the league in assists and steals, the flow of Westhead’s offense was limiting Johnson’s scoring chances to fast breaks and steals. Former Laker Hot Rod Hundley put it best that night when he commented to an Los Angeles reporter:

Where’s all that behind-the-back stuff? Where’s all that fancy stuff? What happened to that guy? He’s dull. You have to work to make all that talent dull.”

After the game, Johnson would be pulled aside by Westhead into a private room. The two would emerge five minutes later, neither of them commenting on their conversation. However, when reporters went to Johnson for post-game comments, Johnson dropped a bombshell – that he wasn’t happy in LA, that he wanted to be traded, and that he wanted to be traded as soon as possible. As reporters scrambled to take in the news, Johnson continued that Westhead was his reason for leaving, saying that they “didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things” and that “it was time for [Johnson] to go.”

With owner Jerry Buss needing to make a decision, Buss chose Magic over Westhead, and with a 7-4 record, Westhead wouldn’t coach another game for the Lakers, being fired the following day and replaced with Laker assistant coach Pat Riley. Riley’s temperament would light a fire under the Lakers, as the team would go on to win 17 of their next 20 games and would later go on to win the 1982 NBA Finals, with at-odds star Magic Johnson winning the Finals MVP award. Most Laker fans know how the story goes from here, as Magic and Riley would go on to win three more championships with the Lakers, cementing the two as hall-of-famers in basketball history. What most fans forget, however, is that one of the team’s great stars almost left Los Angeles, and, in turn, would’ve swung four Laker championships with him.

Quote of the Night: “I can’t play here anymore. I want to leave. I want to be traded. I can’t deal with it no more. I’ve got to go in and ask him (Laker owner Jerry Buss) to trade me.” – Laker icon Magic Johnson, following a 113-110 victory over the Utah Jazz. Johnson’s problems stemmed from then-coach Paul Westhead’s offense, which limited Magic’s play-making abilities. – From the LA Times, Nov. 19, 1981

  • Anonymous

    This is very enlightening for me. I was fairly new to following the Lakers at the time. There was no internet then, or satellite TV and I had very little access to more than the games that were on regular TV, so while I knew there had been a feud between Magic and Westhead which led to the advent of Riles and Showtime, I had never seen this particular detail.
    Thanks for posting this.