I just finished watching “The Announcement” on ESPN. It revisited the time when Magic Johnson had announced he was HIV positive and the massive ripple effect it had on the world. Yes, the world, not just sports. I’m not going to get into the impact that The Announcement had because I think we already kind of get it.
Instead, I need to tell a story. It’s a story that I’ve told roughly 1,583 times and I will continue to tell until I can’t talk anymore. It’s a story that I literally don’t care how much time I take telling it because I love it so much. It’s a story that will grow and I’ll be making my grandchildren listen to me as I reminisce with a tear in my eye while exaggerating every moment by 100. It’s a moment that was written in my journal as incoherent blabber and random flashes because I couldn’t hold a thought. As far as I’m concerned it’s the greatest basketball story of all time.
- The Time I Played Basketball With Magic Johnson - Pre Game:
It was a weekday in the afternoon and my friend Evan aka “The Swed” called me to play some basketball at 24-hour fitness in Hollywood. Good thing we work in the entertainment industry because that translates to: Our afternoons are completely free because we didn’t have jobs at the time. Anyway, he picked me up in his old school pick up truck and we proceeded to head to the indoor court.
We played ball there pretty regularly, I probably would look back at this period of my life and say I was in my basketball prime, which isn’t saying much, but Its something. We were comfortable in the gym; it wasn’t one of those places you’ve never played before so you’re reluctant to hop in a game. We were at the point that when we walked in we’d see familiar faces and would be able to jump into a game pretty easily. Fortunately for us when we walked in there weren’t many guys so we called “next game.”
We assembled a team of random guys and when the current game ended we were ready to go. It was typical as usual and the scattered play of gym basketball was in full force. I specifically remember feeling pretty good that day and my buddy Swed seemed to be on his shit to. I always felt bad for Swed because he’s roughly 6’3 so everyone expected him to play under the basket like he’s Shaq but in reality he had a really good jump shot. Any time he wanted the ball passed to him everyone would force him under the basket, where… I might say he’s not at his most comfortable (Sorry Swed!) But on this particular day… he was feeling it.
Not sure if it was our fresh legs but we were rolling. Our team was leading 7-4 (the game plays up to 11 by 1 and 2 point shots). Somehow the other team started to chip it’s way back into the game…
7-5: No problem we’re still winning.
8-5: We’re going to win!
8-6: We’re good.
8-7: Fuck it’s 8-7!
I could sense our team feeling a little un-easy and the play was getting sloppy, and then it happened…
At the far end of the gym a guy walked in that had a presence of a human who probably won 5 NBA championships and 3 MVP’s. In about 6 seconds everyone’s heads turned and Magic Johnson was in the building. Swed came up to me and said, “Dude, that’s Magic Johnson” I said, “I know!” He put his bags down and went to a side hoop with his friend to start shooting.
Meanwhile we had a close game to finish but nobody could focus. I think there was an understanding that Magic could potentially say he wanted to play. Holy shit! In the blink of an eye my current game was tied 9 – 9. I seriously don’t remember what happened or how it got there. I was to focused on looking really fucking cool in front of Magic by making sound bounce passes.
Suddenly, the basketball Gods spoke as we heard Magic say: “I have next game.”
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Okay, it’s official. Magic Johnson has next game. So, what does this mean? It means that whomever WINS this game stays on the court and plays against Magic. Suddenly I felt like I was playing for Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, and to add to the moment, Wonka, I mean Magic, was just staring at us on the sidelines sizing up his future competition.
At this point the game score was 10-10. First team to 11 wins. I repeat, first team to 11 wins.
Our ball. Like I said I was having a good game so I dribbled the ball up court, passed it to someone and then ran around like white guys do in pick up basketball, and then the ball came back to me. I was holding the basketball that would potentially send us into the next game - this was my moment.
I dribbled to the right and had a step on my guy – I noticed Magic looking at me, probably thinking “He reminds me of me” or he was actually thinking, “Hurry up white dude.” I flew to the basket in suspended reality and suddenly realized I had an open lay up, I can win this game! Directly to my right I see Swed flying next to me probably going to get my rebound (if there is one) in anticipation of me going in for the lay up.
I know I just said that time was suspended but I’m not kidding… God had actually slowed things down for me.
I’m up in the air going for the basket… A few guys next to me jump but I know I can lay it in if I need to… I still see Swed to my right… I know Magic is watching… I can make this… But… Wait… Magic is looking at me! I’m not going to score the game-winning basket, I’m going to facilitate just like him!
I proceed to pull the ball back and toss it backwards behind my body to Swed flying in. I think it’s the greatest pass of all time. My logic at the time was: Since I have these people up in the air, I’m going to pass it to Swed for an easy lay up and we’re playing Magic in basketball.
The moment kept moving and I passed the ball and for a second I thought we were going to win, then another second passed and I realized that I missed Swed completely and threw the ball out of bounds. Wait, what? Yes, I threw the ball out of bounds in front of everyone. The other team picks up the ball very quickly and runs down the court to score the game-winning basket. We just lost.
What the fuck just happened?
The other team celebrated like I was planning to. Magic’s assembled team came on the court and proceeds to play against … well, who cares because it wasn’t me. Swed and I were left to mope on the sidelines. Many Many Apologizes:
People had filed in to watch Magic play basketball, we tried to get into the next game but it was hopeless, everyone had announced they wanted next, next after next, and so on. To top it off Magic had said: “I have one game in me.” This was horrible. Swed and I sat with our backs to the wall watching Magic Johnson play basketball directly in front of us. On any other day just the sight of him playing would have been enough, but knowing I just blew the opportunity to play against him was like watching my girlfriend happily hook up with my best friend in front of me… it sucked.
Swed said, “Hallman, I thought you were gonna lay it up.”
Me: “Me too, but then I thought I’d toss you a great pass.”
It wasn’t a great pass and I knew I fucked up. We sat there sweaty and depressed watching Magic smiling in his street clothes torching people in a gym, and then like Magic Johnson’s vote into the All Star game in 1992 we were given a glimmer of hope. Some random dude who we didn’t know but were facially familiar with came up to us.
“Hey, my buddies aren’t coming and I only got 2. You guys want in the next game with me?”
And just like that we were back in, we had next game, but we needed to bank on two things going our way.
1) Magic’s team had to win, which in our minds was inevitable.
2) Magic had to be swayed into sticking around another game.
As Magic’s game was going we could tell his team was winning and Swed and I were on a side hoop warming up. I wasn’t doing much talking; just hoping Magic plays the next game… and secretly building up my confidence to be awesome on a basketball court.
His game finished, and of course his team won. Everyone on the court went to shake his hand and the new team (my team) walked onto the court asking him to stick around another game. Magic had a big ol’ smile on his face and said he’d play another, and when I heard that I looked to Swed and nearly kissed him out of happiness. Magic said he was instantly ready to go, which translates to: We’re playing right now.
As we were pairing up with which guys we’re going to cover, the dude who asked us to play came up to us and said, “My friends are here.” Huh? I said “Okay” and then the friends assumed they were going to play, one even said “You can have next game.”
Okay – typically I’m a pretty nice guy in these situations and try to find a happy medium, but I knew in the back of my head there was no fucking way I was leaving that court. I don’t even think Swed acknowledged the guy. I ended up telling one of the guys, “Dude, we’re not leaving.” At this moment I think I would have actually fought to stay on the court and fortunately these guys had 2 things working against them.
1) It’s poor pick up game etiquette to pull this late arrival shit.
2) Magic was ready to go, he didn’t care who was going to play, he just wanted to play, and on a court you listen to Magic Johnson – it was go time.
So we stayed on the court. Game time with MAGIC JOHNSON!
Truth be told, I don’t remember as much as I should from this game but remember odd specifics -
I remember that Magic had singled out a Asian kid on his team to be his go to man and I was slightly jealous of that, I remember Swed’s height allowed him to GUARD Magic (lucky bastard), I remember I missed my first shot and was scared Magic was judging my decision making, I remember everyone on both teams tried to be fancy, I remember Magic doing a behind the back pass and everyone being faked out and really happy we were faked out, I remember the 20 plus people who filed in to watch the game, I remember the looks of the 2 friends whose spots we took, but most importantly I remember “The Play.”
Although “The Play” is not a recognized moment in basketball history, I may argue that it should be.
Magic took a few dribbles towards the hoop from the 3-point line then backed off a little. Everyone was running around being insanely proactive. Magic passed the ball to Asian Kid and he eventually passed it back to Magic. Magic started to dribble to the hoop and in unselfish fashion he proceeded to pass the ball behind his back. Only thing he didn’t know is that my adrenaline was rushing like I was on a Red Bull bender and I telegraphed his pass. I jumped right in front of the guy he was passing to and stole the ball.
I immediately dribbled the ball and started sprinting down the court to my hoop with one guy to beat currently backpedaling and about 15 feet ahead of me. Here’s the thing I need to clarify; I’m a stereotypical white guy on the basketball court. I feel much more comfortable shooting a jump shot than I do trying to make a contested lay up, because I always seem to screw up or look funny when I have a contested anything. Usually I’m okay with looking stupid but when you just stole a pass from the greatest point guard of all time and he’s suddenly running behind you, not to mention a road block of a dude in front of you, you can get a little nervous.
Somewhere in this moment there is a metaphor for life, I’m still kind of searching for it, but it was the perfect set up for exposing weakness. I had no choice but to face this head on because if I didn’t I would’ve had to banish myself from being a Man in the human race.
I dribbled towards the guy in front of me… I got closer to the basket… I was going fast… Suddenly the guy did another stereotypical white guy move and stood still with his hands in the air daring me to charge into him. On any given day I would have pulled up for a jumper but I channeled my inner Bob Cousy and made the greatest move of all time:
I faked right with the ball then dribbled left, the guy brought his hand down to swat the ball and somehow he missed, I suddenly had a step on him and I was going towards the basket. The guy jumped towards me as I was going up with the ball and in mid air I contorted my body and went under the hoop for a reverse lay up. If felt perfect, the ball left my hand and by the time my momentum carried me to the other side of the hoop I looked up to see the ball effortlessly falling in. HOLY SHIT!
I didn’t know what I just did but it felt awesome and I reacted as though I do it all the time. As I turned to run up the court Magic “the greatest point guard of all time” Johnson patted me on the back and said “Good Move.”
I knew at that moment I could retire from pick up basketball a happy man, and I think I almost did, but we still had a game to play.
It may sound unbelievable but we were winning. Swed was playing pretty well, I hit a few more shots and we found ourselves with a nice cushion, that cushion faded quickly when Magic decided to take things into his own hands and drop back to back 2-pointers to bring the game to within 1. The score was 10-9, and once again we were playing first to 11. We ran down the floor and missed our shot… Shit! In my mind I was thinking we might have just blown the chance to beat Magic.
As Magic dribbled down the court I wondered what he would do, would he pull up for another 2 pointer and end this thing? But then he did the second most unbelievable thing of the day and something that’s essentially banned during a pick up game. He dropped the ball and said, “Time out.”
Time out? Who calls Time out during a pick up game? I guess Magic Johnson, that’s who, and who would stop him? He proceeded to huddle his team together and draw up a play!
As he was drawing up his play everyone just kind of looked at each other thinking, can he call a time out?
He broke the huddled and we resumed. There was constant movement but you could tell the play was screwed immediately because Magic was visibly frustrated. He tried to find an open man… he couldn’t. Standing roughly 3 feet behind the 3-point line he casually took things into his own hands and put up another 2-point shot. Swoosh. Game Over. 11-10. Magic won. Post Game:
Immediately handshakes were exchanged and Magic packed his things up and left. Everyone sat in awe at what just happened. I proceeded to tell Swed about the pat on my back and comment he gave me. He didn’t care because he had his own story, but I didn’t care about that either… So we were basically just talking to ourselves…
As we drove home we were crazy.
As I went into my apartment I told every human I could.
I finally chilled out a little as everything sunk in. Hands down the greatest basketball day of my life. He was the nicest guy ever.
I know there is only one thing that can happen to this story: It’s going to be vastly exaggerated over time. But, I don’t care. As long as I mention the game, the play, and the Magic time out - then I know I’ve done justice.
As I watched “The Announcement” I contemplated making a documentary of my own called “The Play” … I wonder if I could get Magic? Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if he did it and then pretended to know what I was talking about. The guy is awesome, and not just on a basketball level. For the few moments I was around him he was nothing but genuine and probably very happy to leave everyone with a good memory… It’s basically how he left everyone in the NBA.
Final stats of the game:
3-6 with 3 points … I think. Ask me this in a few years and it will be 5-7 with 8 points.