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In Game 4 Magic threw away a crucial pass with the game tied four seconds from the end of regulation, then missed two free throws late in the overtime. "I thought the free throws more than the pass were mistakes," he says. "Those were things I—not the team—I should have taken care of. When you miss the shots, you go home and you sit in the dark." Again the Lakers lost, 129-125.
In Game 7, at the Boston Garden, Johnson shot 5 for 14 and turned the ball over seven times. Twice during the last minute and a half, as the Lakers tried to mount a final charge, Johnson dribbled down the floor and was stripped of the ball without even getting off a shot. He says he is still haunted by a recurrent image of forward James Worthy standing alone under the Lakers' basket just before Boston's Cedric Maxwell slapped the ball out of Magic's hands the second time. "I'll be sitting somewhere relaxing," Johnson says, "and here it comes right up in my mind. I can still see Worthy open."
When the team returned home, Johnson closeted himself in his Culver City apartment, not leaving for three days. "When I called to see how he was," says his mother, Christine Johnson, "he said, 'Momma, I just can't talk about it.' I guess he was just so filled with hurt."
Whatever hurt Johnson felt then was only to intensify as the summer went on. He was stunned at the way he was carved up by the press that had once doted on him. He was particularly wounded by the suggestions that, with the championship at stake, he had choked. "I sat back when it was over," Johnson says, "and I thought, 'Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time, or didn't we?' This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was." A headline that appeared on a column in The Los Angeles Times asked EARVIN, WHAT HAPPENED TO MAGIC? A month later, a columnist for The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner referred to Johnson as "the tarnished superstar" and "the goat of the series," and pointed out that with the world watching him, and "right there against his arch rival, Larry Bird, he failed."
"Those wounds from last June stayed open all summer," says Riley. "Now the misery has subsided, but it never leaves your mind completely. Magic is very sensitive to what people think about him, and in his own mind I think he heard those questions over and over again to the point where he began to rationalize and say, 'Maybe I do have to concentrate more.' I think the whole experience has made him grow up in a lot of ways."
"If you noticed, before when he was playing he used to smile a lot," says Christine Johnson, "but now he doesn't smile as much. It's just a sign of his new determination. I see him settling down now and becoming more of a man."
People always seem to be deciding that Magic Johnson has finally grown up, anticipating the arrival of his new maturity as if it were a long-overdue bus. And yet growing up and settling down are matters about which Johnson has remained largely ambivalent.
He came into the NBA in 1979, a magnificent child of 20, charming and funny and, in the way of most children, almost oblivious to any world other than his own. "I'll never forget walking through airports with him," says L.A. Clipper guard Norm Nixon, who played with Johnson on the Lakers for four years. "He'd have his Walkman on and all of a sudden you'd hear somebody singing, and there he'd be—stopped in the middle of the airport, singing his song and dancing with himself."
Johnson is well aware of the effect his luminous presence has on a crowd. At a friend's engagement party recently, he went out of his way introduce himself to every middle-aged guest in attendance, figuring that they would be the most reluctant to approach him first. Later he assured his host that he had "worked the room" for him. Magic moves smoothly through any kind of crowd, clearly at ease with himself, a star intent on enjoying—and sharing—his privileges. He might show up at a Madonna concert one night—giggling at teenage girls dressed like tarts, while dancing alongside them in the aisles—and catch a concert by saxophonist David Sanborn the next. Magic is as much at ease with friends like Michael Jackson as he is being interviewed by elementary-school children. He intimidates no one. Everywhere he goes, people call out to him as they might to an old friend. "His appeal is universal," says Laker forward-center Mitch Kupchak, "and being able to communicate with everybody is a talent in itself."
But sometimes when Johnson appears to be out there dancing with the whole world, you realize that he is really dancing with himself—all alone in a crowd. "Usually I'm up and people see me as up," Magic says, "but people don't know me really. I'm a quiet person who likes to have a lot of time to himself. Sometimes when you want to get away from that crowd, that's when you don't want to be Magic at all."