February 16, 1991
HE STILL HAS MAGIC TOUCH
He remembers being shocked by the criticism leveled at Larry Bird his first few months back from heel surgery. Magic Johnson was both angry and dumbfounded.
How much can people expect? Don't they understand we are human?
The answer, he knows firsthand, is no. The curse of the superstar is the day when he loses a step, lets down his guard for the moment.
"The price of fame is tremendous," said Johnson. "The trick is to remain constant, to do it again and again and again. But you must also remember that as fast as you can get up there, you can go the other way just as quickly."
For most of his storied NBA career, Johnson -- like Bird -- avoided the sting of criticism. Both were champions, MVPs, elite players on elite teams.
But then Los Angeles began the 1990-91 season with a 2-5 mark, and all bets were off. The Lakers were under fire, and the snipers were aiming for Magic Johnson from all sides.
"They looked at the record," he said, "and it was a reflection of me. Everything the Lakers do is a reflection of me."
Perhaps that is why, then, the Lakers have been able to post the best record in the NBA since their inauspicious start. Perhaps that also explains the 16-game winning streak, which was finally snapped Tuesday night in the final seconds by Phoenix. It was LA's second-longest winning stretch in 19 years, and its point guard was the architect.
Magic Johnson may be shooting only 47.5 percent, but he is not ready to let down his guard. Nor, he adds hastily, is his team. First-year coach Mike Dunleavy has a plan, and the Lakers are learning to implement it.
"We have a great basketball team," Johnson said. "Everything is clicking now, both offensively and defensively.
"In preseason, we had no identity. People were still making us out to be a running team, and when we weren't doing that, they said, 'Oh-oh, what's wrong with the Lakers?'
"Nothing was wrong other than adjusting to a new coach and a new style. That takes time."
Johnson had questions in the early going about Dunleavy's style; questions that were made public, and subsequently caused a furor. Yet Magic now advertises himself as a Dunleavy backer.
"We know what he wants now," Johnson said. "He's got us believing that we can't just run, run, run. Detroit has proven there are other ways.
"Mike is a player's coach. He's a guy who has been through it, and he understands what players go through.
"But that's not to say he isn't tough. We hear from him when things don't go right."
To fully appreciate the difference in the Lakers' style, you must first realize they are relinquishing only 99.3 points a game. LA and Detroit are the only teams in the league holding clubs under 100 points. In comparison, the last season they won the title, 1987-88, the Lakers gave up an average of 107.0 points a game (11th in the league), while averaging 112.8 points a game (fifth in the league).
These days LA looks vaguely familiar to the team Dunleavy came from -- Milwaukee. Like the Bucks, the Lakers are stressing defense and a controlled, ball-movement offense.
"But the difference between us and Milwaukee is we have players who can post up," said Magic. "Sam Perkins can do it, and James Worthy makes a living of it, and I have good success with it. Vlade Divac is growing more comfortable with it, too."
The names Divac and Shaw and Gamble and Perkins do not belong to original members of the LA-Boston rivalry, a battle that has lost some of its luster in recent years.
Both the game and those who played it have undergone significant changes since Bird and Magic bounded onto the scene. In the old days, people adjusted to them. Now they must be willing to make the adjustments.
"As an old man, you know you have to change," said Johnson. "You have to keep yourself going, but you can only do that for so long.
"Me? I need new things. The way we are playing now is new for me. That's what's keeping me going.
"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is retired now. Michael Cooper is gone. I would be retired, too, if there wasn't something here to keep me interested."
The goal is no different than in any other season -- to win the NBA championship. LA is nearly three seasons removed from that now; Boston is five. Detroit and Portland have stuck their noses in, and proven there is more to the NBA than the Celtics and the Lakers.
And yet the rivalry lives on, as long as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird can breathe and run and throw look-away passes.
"Sam told me after we beat the Celtics he had never won a game in Boston Garden before," Magic said. "That was a really big thing for him. To see him enjoy that, it brought out a lot of joy in me. There are some things you never get tired of."
For Magic, beating Boston is one of those things.