BOSTON, JUNE 6 -- Imagine having the success of Los Angeles Lakers guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson. He's already won three NBA championship rings and a fourth is ready to be fitted. He's at the top of his profession, with the most valuable player trophy en route to his parents' home in Michigan. He lives in a palatial California estate and his star shines as bright as any other in Hollywood.
Now imagine walking away from it all.
"It's not like you want to, but being up there, where you're considered one of the elite players, it takes a lot out of you," he said. "You have to perform all the time, even though you're getting double-teamed, bumped and banged up."
He is hardly ready to retire. But his aching body, weary from a season that began nearly 100 games ago in October, probably makes him speak what others would surely regard as the unspeakable. But to look at him is to understand. He doesn't walk anymore; he sort of rolls with a limp brought on by chronic Achilles' tendon problems. These days, his words are subdued and his eyes rarely flash before displaying his world-class smile.
"Your mind and body let you know they've been through a lot," he said. "When you get to the championship series or near it, you're not going to get the rest you need to let your wounds mend and it lets you know it don't like it."
And yet, perhaps in as quickly as three days, all the stress could be made worthwhile. Even if it's not a four-game sweep, it seems inevitable the Lakers will win the championship.
Then Johnson will know that he was right in ending his engagement before the start of training camp, when he called marriage "a distraction." He'll know that he was right when he chose to spend most of his off-the-court time at home, where the room with the regulation-size basketball court wouldn't let him get too far from the game even if he wanted to.
"I think I'm more mature now, as a person and as a basketball player," he said. "I'm not making the little mistakes anymore. I'm reading defenses and other teams better. I'm stonger; off the floor I'm not getting as frustrated with the game."
"He's almost become reclusive over the last two years," said Lakers Coach Pat Riley, who only calls his star Magic when the team is playing because "that's when he is Magic, on the floor when the game lights up his life. Earvin enjoys his tranquility and rest now.
"But that's it; he's not the same. When he was young, he'd hang out with the boys and have fun -- as well he should have. Now though, he understands more how to sustain his greatness."
Not that he has become a hermit. Just hours after the Lakers had defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 2 of the conference finals, he was seen linked arm-in-arm with Miami Vice co-star Olivia Brown at the world premiere of Eddie Murphy's movie "Beverly Hills Cop II."
"But I never look at it like I'm a part of it," Johnson said. "It's a part of life in L.A., but I'm just happy to meet the celebrities; it's like I'm a little kid sneaking in the back door to see them."
Now, the celebrities are flocking to the Forum to see the Lakers perform, with Johnson in the featured role.
After the Lakers were upended in five games by the Houston Rockets in last season's Western Conference finals, Riley and the Lakers' braintrust decided to change their offensive scheme, taking the ball away from center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the low post and spreading it around to Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper, among others.
Abdul-Jabbar ended the year with his lowest scoring average in his 18-year career, but the team, and Johnson in particular, thrived. He still led the league in assists with 12.2 a game but he upped his scoring to an average of 24 points, nearly seven more than his career average. In his previous seven seasons, he had scored 40 or more points in only two games; he did it three times this season.
All of this, his career-best season and subsequent MVP award should be made much sweeter with this season's championship, which will come at the expense of the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird. The consummate team player, Johnson won't come right out and say that he needs this year's title to justify his dream season.
In fact, he has said he'd give back the MVP award if it meant winning the title over Bird, the MVP the previous three years. But he also has said that winning the MVP has been a way of "evening the score" with Bird.
"I'll always want to beat him," Johnson said. "After this is over, I'll want to beat him in the all-star games in the summer and after we retire I'll want to beat him in the old-timers games and after that I'll be at the park and recreation centers trying to kill him."
Like Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier and Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova, Johnson and Bird have become linked in the public eye, one almost needing the other as a kind of self-measurement. It's been that way since 1979, when Johnson's Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird's previously unbeaten Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA final.
The next year, both men entered the NBA in what would be a scriptwriter's dream: on opposite coasts, with equally contradictory life styles. Bird is a folk hero, a certifiable legend in New England, a status that Johnson, despite his popularity, probably couldn't achieve in celebrity-loaded Los Angeles.
But that has only added to the allure of their matchups. That they play against each other only twice each regular season -- they're 8-8 -- makes the playoffs that much more intriguing.
And, what was once a harsh rivalry has developed into a special friendship, something that probably evolves only when two people reach a level that others can only remotely approach.
"When he leaves, I'll probably follow right behind him, because it won't be the same against anyone else," Johnson said.
In a sense, it's almost a pity this season's championship series appears so one-sided. It's conceivable this will be the last Johnson-Bird championship matchup. The Celtics, while perhaps still the savviest team in the league, were nevertheless lucky to get to the finals, and they're aging quickly.
The Lakers don't have that problem, but they do have to deal with such rising powers as the Dallas Mavericks, SuperSonics, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the west. Those teams probably won't be as easy to ward off once geriatric Abdul-Jabbar takes his sky hook into retirement in two years.
At that point, Johnson's body will undoubtedly have to undergo even more strain. Perhaps his present fatigue has been magnified by his already increased responsibilities. Toting the ball in the middle of the Lakers' devastating fast break is hard enough, let alone for a 6-foot-9 220-pounder.
In this series, the Celtics have tried to slow him down by littering the middle of the floor with bodies; for years it has become commonplace to shadow him with another player and to knock him down if he gets to the basket.
But few strategies have thwarted him, and Riley believes Johnson will continue to thrive.
"People throw all kinds of things at him, but the great ones shoulder it," Riley said. "They don't look upon their job as pressure; it's a challenge to them."
"After Kareem leaves, it'll be a challenge, a big challenge," he said. "I just have to figure this one out first."