The Los Angeles Lakers couldn't lose for losing. They had been without Earvin Johnson since Nov. 7, when he announced that he was HIV-positive. They were without forwards James Worthy and Sam Perkins, who were injured. Moreover, for most of the season the Lakers had lacked vitality. They weren't much better than a .500 team, and they had been overtaken by the crosstown Clippers. As if to further underscore their free-fall from grace, the Lakers had lost five of their last seven games. Just lost them. Yet they remained in the playoff picture, needing only to beat the Clippers on Sunday, the final day of the regular season, to qualify for a postseason berth. They couldn't lose.
The Laker faithful filed into The Forum with their customary confidence. The Houston Rockets, who needed only to win Sunday to earn the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, had just self-destructed at home against the Phoenix Suns. So, almost unbelievably, the Lakers, who had been to the playoffs 15 years in a row, still had a chance. If this season was so different, why was it that nobody could put them out of the playoffs? They couldn't lose for losing.
It was almost comical the way the final scenario played out. The Clippers, who had already clinched a postseason spot for the first time in 16 years, played fiercely on Sunday. The few among their fans who had gained admission to The Forum were operating under some false assumptions. "Pass the torch!" one of them yelled when the Clippers led 62-53 in the third period. There didn't seem to be any question as to which team was better. But we all know how it goes, how it always has gone. The foundation of success is painfully slow to crumble, and anyway, which team would you bet on in overtime?
Following Magic's retirement, the rest of the world began recalculating the Lakers' possibilities. Owner Jerry Buss recalled that the Boston Celtics had won 42 games in 1988-89, when Larry Bird suffered season-ending injuries to both of his heels after only six games. Even though Bird had a better supporting cast than Magic would have had this year in Los Angeles, Buss began thinking about a similar season for the Lakers.
This was a generous notion, but it also reflected a terrible downswing in the Lakers' fortunes. After a trade brought point guard Sedale Threatt to L.A. from the Seattle SuperSonics, the preseason Lakers seemed much improved on the team that had reached the NBA Finals last year before falling to the Chicago Bulls. The Threatt deal appeared to be another of general manager Jerry West's white-collar crimes (three No. 2 draft picks for a shooter-defender to spell Magic). "The players knew this team could beat Chicago," says Laker coach Mike Dunleavy. That was in October. By the first week of November, Buss was hoping for a .500 season.
Neither Dunleavy nor his players gave up on the season when Johnson retired, but it was obvious that the Lakers were going to struggle. Guard Byron Scott summed up the crucial difference between having and not having Magic: "It wasn't ever going to be as much fun."
It was, as forward A.C. Green says, "crazy-weird" instead. After Johnson's announcement and an ensuing lopsided loss to Phoenix, the Lakers reeled off nine straight victories. Then on Dec. 4 reality hit again when center Vlade Divac left the lineup with a back injury that would sideline him for 46 games. Nevertheless, two weeks later the Lakers stunned the Bulls 102-89 at Chicago Stadium. But by the time December was over, Los Angeles had suffered its first losing month since March 1979—in the pre-Magic era. Thus was established a season-long rhythm of violent mood swings. West blasted the players. "Maybe some guys have been around here too long," he said.
The calamitous chronology continued in the same manic-depressive way. In March, Worthy, the Lakers' leading scorer and, with Magic gone, their best player, left a game against Houston with a season-ending injury to his left knee. But shortly after they lost Worthy, the Lakers put together a successful road trip during which they won in New York, Atlanta and Washington. Then they returned home and lost to the Portland Trail Blazers. Every time euphoria gave way to despair, despair would immediately yield to hope. Then, soon, the Lakers would start losing again.
The thinness of their roster could not be disguised over the length of a season. The final blow came on March 18, when Perkins went down for the season with a left-shoulder injury. Four starters, including Magic, from the 1990-91 Lakers would miss a total of 175 games in '91-92. "It finally occurred to me," says Scott, "that we weren't an elite team anymore."
With Scott, Green and Divac, who returned to action on Feb. 26, the Lakers could still present a lineup that could beat any other team on a given night. But the bunch that Scott remembered could beat any other team any night. Even so, these Lakers appeared to be good enough to make the playoffs. You have to go back to the 1975-76 season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first in L.A., to find a Laker team that couldn't do it.