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Magic Johnson recalls a failed three-peat season

August 3, 2011 |  2:36 pm

Every time talk centered on the current Lakers or the ongoing NBA lockout, Magic Johnson simply flashed his signature smile.

It turned out to be an effective defense mechanism. See, Johnson may have sold his 4.5% ownership stake in the Lakers to billionaire season-ticket holder Patrick Soon-Shiong last October, but he kept his title as vice president. So that means he isn't immune from the NBA's wrath of issuing petty fines for team officials discussing players or personnel during the league lockout.

The issue angered plenty of fans Saturday at Loyola Marymount University in a one-on-one conversation with Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who warned the crowd he couldn't ask specific questions about the current Lakers thanks to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

But even if he couldn't address his belief that owner Jerry Buss should "blow this team up," what he thinks of the new Coach Mike Brown or assess the Purple & Gold's chances to win a championship, Johnson sure was free to talk about his own teams. In the effort to tie into this current Lakers roster, I was interested in Johnson's perspective on when the 1988-89 Lakers failed to three-peat and how the 1990-91 team handled a coaching change from Pat Riley to Mike Dunleavy.

"A lot of times, it's just not your year," Johnson said of the team's four-game sweep to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals.  

The circumstances between that year's team and the current Lakers team were completely different, however. Though the 2010-2011 Lakers were considered one of the favorites to win the title, it wasn't exactly surprising that they lost, considering Kobe Bryant's extensive injuries and the team's overall inconsistency. During the 1988-89 season, the Lakers finished first in the Pacific Division and entered the NBA Finals with an 11-0 playoff record.

"We were playing on top of our game," Johnson recalled. "We hadn't lost a playoff game. We were playing really well. Then of course, in Game 1 Byron [Scott] pulled his hamstring and in Game 2, I pulled mine. We just didn't give ourselves a chance to compete against Detroit."

The Lakers didn't go through a transition period the next season like the team is now, but a Western Conference semifinal loss to the Phoenix Suns in five games the following season set the table for a coaching change. Out went Pat Riley. In came Mike Dunleavy. The Lakers' measure of success always points to whether or not it wins a championship, but the fact they were able to get to the 1991 NBA Finals impressed Johnson enough given the transition period he said took all season to adjust to Dunleavy. 

"We went from one system, which was up and down and running and gunning to Mike's system, which was half court and him calling all the plays," Johnson said. "It was hard for us to get used to that. It took us a full season to get used to Mike. One day we had a meeting, I said, 'Coach Dunleavy, let me run the offense, I know what to do. Put trust in me.' Sure enough, I think we came in fourth, we wound up upsetting Portland and going to the '91 Finals. The Bulls beat us, but we caught fire at just the right time in the playoffs."


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--Mark Medina

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