Sports-minded and restless 26 years ago, God surely mused: "I've created Ruth, Nicklaus and Secretariat. Why not the perfect basketball player?" So he did, blessing his work with a common surname -- Johnson -- and poetic nickname -- Magic.

This is speculation, for the highest beings who occasionally allow me entree to their sporting wisdom are Jack Kent Cooke and Howard Cosell. And Cooke only made certain Johnson played professionally for his Lakers.

If how and why aren't certain, I'm convinced that Magic Johnson is the best player in the history of basketball, the man who has lifted the game to its latest lofty plateau.

Among the other enlightened, the only surprise about now is that it took so long, even for a cerebral scribe, to reach such a clear-cut conclusion. Pretty keen sense for the obvious, they'll twitter. Next you'll write that Stradivarius made decent fiddles.

Some still stumble in darkness. A magazine that shapes our minds argued persuasively in a cover piece for some Bird named Larry. A few cling to fossils: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, George Mikan, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and a few more.

Or Bill Russell.


This debate is not exclusively about winners, for Russell very likely retired that trophy with two NCAA and 11 NBA titles in 15 years. Still . . . Magic won an NCAA title his final collegiate season (with Michigan State) and the NBA championship his first pro season, same as Russell.

Had the finances been as fantastic for Russell in the mid '50s as they were for Magic in the late-'70s, he also might have left San Francisco with eligibility remaining.

But Magic's resume as an NBA winner hardly is skimpy, his Lakers winning two titles his first three years and making the finals four of his first five. They are ever so close to the championship round his sixth season.

While Russell stirred a pot of gold and caused banners to flutter in dank gyms, Magic excites the imagination. He plays every position in his sport -- and splendidly.

At either guard, at either forward and at center, Magic can control a game. Sure, the Babe pitched and hit and patrolled the outfield with the best. To be the Magic of baseball, however, he would have had to have caught and played shortstop now and then.

Had Jim Brown passed, Johnny Unitas received and Dick Butkus blocked, they would have been semi-Magic in the NFL. Can Gretzky play goal?

You may detect additional prejudice here. Indeed, I would sooner watch a layup drill than most title fights. To my way of thinking, any excuse for extra basketball games is reasonable; all excuses for more hockey games and fistfights are lousy.

Etched in stone is the belief that basketball players are the most well-rounded and best-conditioned athletes in our major popular sports.

At close to 6 feet 10, Magic is taller than any of the mythic Hogs. He also is faster and in better shape than most of the double-knit gang that needs oxygen after a triple. His sport doesn't require shifts, or encourage the sick notion that the bloodier the bout the better.

Many basketball junkies my size in my youth considered Bob Cousy the ultimate in playmaking and sleight of hand. We would ape his moves, on courts no fancier than a barn, where shots through a netless hoop often ended up in a hayloft and ones with too much arc got thrown off course by tobacco leaves.

In reverie, we were Cousy. Any fool could score, after we told him where to go and then slipped the ball through four or five hostile hands to his. In reality, we were thick-legged and slow, exactly the sort of point guard a friend two decades later would call "the cancer of basketball."

Until March 1979, Cousy remained the ultimate in what might be called selfish altruism. He controlled the offense, even if someone else got the points.

In Indianapolis during an NCAA regional, I got hooked on Magic. Here was a fellow at least eight inches taller than The Cooz equally clever and swifter.

The kid couldn't shoot very well, either, but at least he released the ball off the proper foot. Here was the rocket who doomed prop planes to fond memory.

In Philadelphia more than a year later, Magic threw a thrill like none before or since. Injured, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a continent away, watching what figured to be a Laker giveaway to the 76ers before Game 7 of the finals with him back in the lineup.

That night, the rookie point guard played center -- and lit up the Spectrum and everyone who saw him with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. L.A. won by 16.

He was just human during the finals last season, against Bird and the Celtics. Some cosmic foulup caused messages that normally went from his brain to his hands faster than any ever to get muddled.

When he should have passed on the game's crucial plays, he didn't. When he shouldn't have passed, he did. Bird's guys won.

Both are running toward a rematch. They have gone head-to-head so often, been compared through their teams and their skills. Bird is the popular choice now. I'll take Magic, for style and by a smile.

I know Bird is as driven. But Magic lets us know his pleasure level with each uncommon play. It's important to the NBA that his finest assist might be passing that smile to Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. So many don't seem to enjoy play.

Great explorations in basketball excite me: 6-9 point guards, 7-4 small forwards. I would love to see Magic, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing on the same court sometime.

If the right bad team wins the Ewing lottery, that'll probably be possible during next season's NBA all-star game.