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After All His Success, Magic Hasn’t Learned How to Cope With Loss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time on his hands now, Magic Johnson sat in an otherwise deserted Forum locker room Wednesday and said he will feel a void for the next month or so.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the Laker guard said. “It’s like a big blank, and I don’t know how to fill it in. I never plan anything until after June. I think we’re always going to be around in there. It’s tough for me to swallow, not being there.”

Johnson, particularly vulnerable following a sleepless night after the Lakers were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns, spoke at nearly a whisper.

This, of course, is not the first time in his 11 seasons as a Laker that Johnson has had to deal with losing.

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In 1981, the Lakers were eliminated by Houston in a miniseries, and the Rockets repeated it in the 1986 Western Conference finals. The Lakers’ championship-round loss to the Boston Celtics in 1984 hit Johnson particularly hard. Last season, his left hamstring was most painful after a four-game loss to the Detroit Pistons in the finals.

Johnson says losing doesn’t get any easier. He said he would not want it any other way.

“Once you learn how to lose, then it’s time to get out,” Johnson said. “If I learned how to be a good loser, I might as well not be playing. I might as well go to the YMCA to play. Then, I can really accept it. That’s not me. I’m not ever going to change. I don’t like to lose in anything else. Not just basketball. If I’m playing softball, backgammon, anything, I want to win. That’s the bottom line.”

That does not mean, however, that Johnson enjoys being miserable all summer. He said each of the Lakers’ playoff losses have affected him in different ways. This one, coming in the second round, figures to be among the most irritating.

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“I think this is the same (situation) to what happened in ’86,” Johnson said. “Last year, you can’t really say we (were beaten). We didn’t have the full squad. That was a different disappointment. I think we were disappointed we didn’t have a chance to see if we were better than (the Pistons).

“This is harder, because we had the full squad and we didn’t get the job done.”

Johnson did his job--a few other players’ too--against Phoenix. He set his career playoff high with 43 points in Game 4, a 13-point loss at Phoenix. Then, in Game 5, Johnson scored 43 again, but the Lakers still lost by three points.

Johnson’s offensive exploits may have been of Jordanesque proportions the last two games, but he said he doesn’t want to make it a habit.

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“My whole thing is whether we win or lose,” Johnson said. “If what I do out on the court doesn’t register a win, then it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t a great performance.

“People always say this and that about me. But I know I can do that. That’s no problem. If I was on a team where they say, ‘You go out and do that,’ that’d be no problem. You give me the plays and I’d score 30, 40 points a night. That’s no problem. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want it where I’ve got to score 30 to 40 points. It’s better for us, at least since I’ve been here, for me to spread it around. That way, they can’t just zero in on one guy.

“You win more games with more guys. I just had to do that because it wasn’t dropping for other guys.”

James Worthy and Byron Scott, in particular. Worthy, normally accurate in the playoffs, made 43.2% of his shots against the Suns (and 10 of 40 the last two games); Scott 45.9%.

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"(Worthy) definitely was trying too hard,” Johnson said. “He was trying to take over the game. I love him for that. I mean, you talk about effort, he did it. It just didn’t go in. He was out there battling every night. Byron, it was tough for him all season, just one thing after another. Hamstring, his other injuries. When you have injuries and aren’t shooting well, it doesn’t help that you have to guard Kevin Johnson.”

Magic Johnson and his teammates will meet today to divide playoff money and say their goodbys. For some, it might be for good.

“I think that Jerry Buss and (Jerry) West will have to decide on changes. I don’t know how, who or what,” Johnson said. “You know, That’s entirely up to them. I’m sure there’s going to be changes. It’s just that way. But I don’t know if it’s going to be major trades. That’s up to them.”

About all Johnson said he will do between now and June is watch the other teams in the playoffs.

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His predictions: The San Antonio Spurs will beat the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games, then lose to Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. The Chicago Bulls and Detroit will meet in the Eastern Conference finals, Detroit winning. And, the Pistons will beat the Suns in the finals.

“That would almost be a tossup (Chicago vs. Detroit),” Johnson said. “I’m thinking Detroit is the favorite, but right now Chicago is playing well. It could be a big upset there. (The Bulls) hadn’t been able to win on the road, and now they are winning on the road.

“But I’d pick (the Pistons) to win, because of experience and depth and defense. They can match up with (Phoenix’s guards). You got Isiah (Thomas) and (Joe) Dumars for those guys, they know what it’s like. They got (Dennis) Rodman, who can play whoever. If they make the championships, I gotta go with (the Pistons).”


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