Why Magic Johnson is the ultimate Sixers Villain

Why Magic Johnson is the ultimate Sixers Villain

All week at NBC Sports Philadelphia, we're debating the biggest villains in Philly sports history. Today, we look at the Sixers. You can vote here. 

When you think of the word “villain,” you probably see a snarl, sneer or other sign of menace.

When you think of Magic Johnson, you likely see a broad smile full of pure joy.

Johnson doesn’t align with our typical stereotype of a villain, but he does have a case as the biggest Sixers villain ever.

Sixers fans first got to know Johnson well in the 1980 NBA Finals. With MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by a sprained ankle for Game 6 at the Spectrum, it seemed the Sixers had an excellent opportunity to grab the title they “owed” their fans after the disappointments of the late ‘70s, or to at least force a Game 7 in Los Angeles.

Then the rookie Johnson stepped in, a 20-year-old prodigy taking the opening tip and devastating the Sixers with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.  

He beat them again two years later, winning Finals MVP and averaging 16.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.5 steals. 

Though the Sixers overcame Johnson and the Lakers in 1983, it was ultimately little more than a blip in the ‘80s, a decade mostly ruled by Johnson and Larry Bird. As the Sixers tried and failed to return to the Finals in the years after their championship, they knew that Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers were likely waiting in the event that they could earn another Eastern Conference title. It must have been a disheartening thought. 

Johnson also had an odd brush with the Sixers as an executive before his stunning, impromptu resignation last April. Never shy about publicly discussing stars across the league, Johnson had this to say when asked about Ben Simmons before a Sixers-Lakers game last January:

(Simmons) reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers, to find out if we can get together this summer. I said, you got to clear it with the league ... but if he wants to know how to play the position as a big guard, it's fine, I will do that. But if everybody doesn't sign off we can't get together.

It was a bit of a head-scratcher. Why did Johnson feel the need to let everyone know that Simmons asked about working with him? The interest was certainly logical, considering Simmons’ similar size and style of play, but it was curious that Johnson chose to reveal it. Sixers GM Elton Brand later said he told the Lakers “no.”

Aware of the mini-controversy around whether Johnson and the Lakers had engaged in tampering — the NBA concluded they did not — Simmons walked into the locker room before a February game and cracked a heck of a joke.

“That’s like the 10th time Magic has called me today,” he said in front of reporters with a deadpan tone. 

Part of what made the whole thing feel silly at the time was that Johnson seemed to be acting as a sincere admirer of the game's modern stars — albeit one who surely wouldn't have minded if they eventually became Lakers — not like a malicious villain.

However, after his resignation, the Lakers' culture during his tenure was described as "dysfunctional." ESPN's Baxter Holmes reported that Lakers staffers found the environment under Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka one that "marginalized their colleagues, inspired fear and led to feelings of anxiety." Johnson doesn't come across well. 

At least as far as mainstream perception is concerned, though, Johnson will likely always be the jovial, earnest star. He was better than anyone the Sixers had during his playing days, beat them twice on a big stage and was so legendary as a "big guard" that Simmons' desire to work with him made a ton of sense.

The Hollywood smile only amplifies the villainy. 

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Ron Brooks, virtual fans and what to expect for Sixers' 'home' games

Ron Brooks, virtual fans and what to expect for Sixers' 'home' games

The Sixers have yet to lose a home game this calendar year.

Monday night, they’ll look to maintain their home excellence, just not at Wells Fargo Center. They lost their seeding game opener at Disney World, a designated road matchup against the Pacers, and "host" the Spurs tonight.

The team has worked to replicate the environment in which the Sixers went 29-2 this season as closely as possible.

“We want to keep that going,” Sixers Chief Marketing Office Katie O'Reilly told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Paul Hudrick in an interview Monday. “Our fans are incredible. Our season ticket members are incredible, they’re loyal, they’re passionate. They really create that environment.”

For Monday's game against San Antonio, you’ll see on screens courtside “virtual fans," which will include, according to O’Reilly, “season ticket members, our marketing partners, our community partners, as well as friends and family of the players.” Those virtual fans have been given packs that have T-shirts, hats and noisemakers.

Several unique features of a typical Wells Fargo Center game night aren’t going anywhere. PA announcer Matt Cord has some pre-recorded segments, and, per O’Reilly, the beloved Ron Brooks — “the world’s first double amputee to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout,” as Cord always introduces him — will still be belting out the national anthem. 

“Even in-arena for our home games, we’ll have Ron Brooks, our guy, singing the national anthem,” O’Reilly said. “We’ll have our traditional bell ringing, we’ll have our player intros, we’ll have our open video. So that sort of entire pregame ritual that we have will run really exactly the same, just virtually on video.”

And the Wendy’s Frosty Freeze-out? 

“If someone misses two (straight) free throws, you will still be able to redeem for your free Frosty,” O’Reilly said. 

The roar of the crowd obviously won’t be nearly as loud or intense after a big play, but many of the “sounds of the game” should be familiar for players. O’Reilly didn’t mention the boos that both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hope to hear if the Sixers aren’t playing well, but player input factored into the new home gameday experience. 

“Our players are constantly collaborating with our marketing and game operations department on the look and feel,” O’Reilly said, “and they really feed off that home energy, so it was important for us to maintain as much of it as we could down in Orlando, and we’re excited to see it come to life tonight.

“Our players’ voices are always heard. We’re always receiving feedback from everybody, whether it’s front office, season ticket members, the players, the coaches, and we really take pride in delivering on that. … Every player has a song that they get to pick to play in-arena when they make a big play or a big shot. So it is really important to us that we sort of curate the experience based on everyone who is there, and we’re collaborating all the time.”

Given how invincible the Sixers appeared at home before the coronavirus pandemic forced the season to pause, the idea to essentially duplicate a normal home atmosphere that players feel comfortable in seems intuitive. We'll learn soon just how effective it is.  

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Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 1:48 p.m. 

The Sixers (39-27) and Spurs (29-36) will meet Monday over eight months after their first matchup this season, a 115-104 Sixers win on Nov. 22. It’s technically a home game for the Sixers, the team’s first since March 11. They were 29-2 at Wells Fargo Center. 

Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is out and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Kyle O'Quinn missed his coronavirus test on Sunday and is not eligible to play, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 
Where: Visa Athletic Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

An outlier opener? 

In several ways, Saturday’s defeat to the Pacers wasn’t like most for the Sixers this season.

The team outscored Indiana by a point in nine Joel Embiid-Al Horford minutes but saw their 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate when Horford stepped in at center, the opposite of the trend this year. The starting backcourt combined for four points on five field goal attempts. Turnover problems that had characterized seasons past resurfaced as the Sixers gave it away 14 times in the first half and 21 times in the game. They’d been 10th in turnovers (14.2 per game) before the hiatus. Ben Simmons’ defense was not anywhere close to as great as it’s been for much of the season. 

A loss is a loss, but perhaps the Sixers on Monday will look more like the team we saw in their first 65 games. 

Another size disparity 

Jakob Poeltl is the only traditional frontcourt player in San Antonio’s starting lineup, which means the Sixers will again have plenty of size advantages. With LaMarcus Aldridge out for the season after right shoulder surgery, DeMar DeRozan is the Spurs’ second-tallest starter at 6-foot-6. Shake Milton and Josh Richardson are the Sixers’ shortest starters at 6-5. 

The Spurs have opened well at Disney World, winning their first two games and moving into ninth in the Western Conference, but the Sixers will present a unique challenge. 

'Walking that line'

Brett Brown doesn’t generally have an endless level of patience with younger players. He’s sometimes quick to pull the plug when they make mistakes or have trouble adjusting to a new situation.

Following Milton’s poor first game in the new starting lineup (no points, three assists, three turnovers, five fouls), it will be interesting to see Brown’s approach if Milton struggles again early. 

“The tolerance level … whether it’s trying to persevere and grow Shake, whether it’s the distribution of how you actually use Ben Simmons, all of those things are always on my mind,” he said Sunday. “It’s the launching pad that we have now where you’ve got some games before you enter the playoffs. And life moves quickly where you get stuck in this current where you’re going to blink and the playoffs are going to be right at your doorstep. 

“Walking that line of persevering and patience vs. gut feel — you like it or you don’t — that ecosystem is my job.”

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