Earvin (Magic) Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers presses the red button marked DISCO, activating the mammoth sound system in his Bel Air mansion, then waits a moment as the music begins to swell. When he is sure that the beat is just right, he rises from behind his control console and moves out onto the dance floor. Slowly, tenderly, he wraps his arms around the shoulders he has been longing to hold, and with a first step that is a kind of caress he begins to glide around the room. Each song is more romantic than the last, and in the fading light of the late afternoon he tightens his grip and draws a breath that is heavy with the musk of exertion. The game is three hours away, and the world will have to wait to cut in. Magic Johnson is slow-dancing with himself.
"You play to a beat, on a stride, sort of," he says when the music stops. "Sometimes if I've been listening to a song, it will come up in my mind during a game. I always listen to music before a game. It gets me going, pumps my blood up. I'll always be more sweaty when I leave home than I am after warmups. I'm thinking about the game, but I'm into the music. You get too uptight if you're thinking about the game all day. It's there, but I'm not focused in on it. Cool. By the time I hit my car, I want an up beat, because by then my adrenaline's flowing."
On this night, April 30, against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals in the Forum, Johnson kept time to Jeffrey Osborne and Luther Vandross, and among the three of them they made all the right moves. Magic scored 19 points, passed off for 18 assists and grabbed nine rebounds as the Lakers routed the Blazers 134-118. On Friday, in a 130-126 win at Portland he had 13 points and 23 assists, one short of his own NBA playoff record. In Game 4, Sunday, Johnson had 31 points and 13 assists in a 115-107 loss. If he continues at his present rate and the Lakers reach the NBA World Championship Series for the fourth straight year, Johnson, at the age of 25, will become the league's alltime leader in playoff assists in only his sixth season.
"The thing about Magic is that it's hard to tell if he's getting better, because he just does what he wants to do," says Portland guard Jim Paxson. "He can score six points and totally dominate the game, which he's done against us. Or he can decide they need points, and go out and score 39, which he's also done against us. He just reads the flow of the game and decides what he's going to do that night."
After each of the games in L.A. Johnson would return to Bel Air Place, a gated enclave in which most of the homes are as well illuminated on the outside as they are on the inside. To soothe his aching back, he would slip into the Jacuzzi in the master bathroom and stare out through a window into the canyon that is his backyard. "This is one of the best parts of the house," Johnson says. "I had always dreamed of having a sunken-in tub since I saw one in a Camay soap commercial on TV. This girl goes through some big white pillars like she's in a castle, and then she comes walking out of this sunken-in bathtub. So sharp. When things are on my mind I come here a lot."
During the NBA finals last spring, as the Boston Celtics first tormented Johnson and finally humiliated him, the newly purchased house in Bel Air was Magic's castle. No furniture had yet arrived, so he would often sit for hours in empty rooms, alone in the dark and riven with doubt, trying to figure out how his life had suddenly gone so dreadfully wrong.
After the Lakers lost the championship to the Celtics in seven games, Johnson found his reputation in such disrepair that L.A. fans were discussing his chances of making a "comeback" this season. "People say he has to come back this year and prove himself all over again, which is a joke," says Lakers coach Pat Riley. "When you play in the ultimate game, there's winning and there's misery. For us it was misery."
The nightmare of the final game last June so thoroughly engulfed Johnson that when it was over he was too numb even to move. He disappeared into the showers for so long after the game that Laker publicist Josh Rosenfeld became concerned and went in after him. "He and Michael Cooper were just sitting on the floor, all covered with soap, talking," says Rosenfeld. Later, in his Boston hotel room, Johnson sat through the night with his two closest friends, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks, avoiding sleep as if he feared the dreams it might bring. "We talked until the morning came," Thomas says, "but we never talked about the game much. For that one night I think I was his escape from reality."
Magic had failed in a way that seemed to diminish him so conspicuously that earlier this season even the Celtics' Kevin McHale referred to him as "Tragic Johnson." It counted for little that against Boston Johnson had set a record for assists in a playoff series with 95—averaging 15.2 over the last five games, including a championship series-record 21 in Game 3—and had averaged 18 points a game. The Lakers had kicked away chances to sweep the series with costly mistakes in Games 2 and 4, then bungled the job again at the end of Game 7. "We made five mistakes that cost us the series," Johnson says, "and I contributed to three of them."
The first mistake came with the score tied at the end of regulation in Game 2, when he dribbled the clock down until there was no time to get off a shot. Riley claims Johnson followed his instructions. "The other players never did anything to help him," he says. "They stood out on the perimeter and didn't get open. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] moved with 12 seconds left, which meant he was open too early. Magic got blamed." Boston won, 124-121 in overtime.