This has been, Earvin "Magic" Johnson agreed, a real blow to the ego. "You don't know how frustrating it is," said Johnson, who either wouldn't or couldn't flash one of his trademark smiles for the assembled photographers and minicams during a tough run of questions Monday afternoon.
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time, to finally meet up with Michael Jordan. I thought this was going to be one H-E-L-L of a show. As a competitor, I'm upset. I'm disappointed. Upset. Frustrated. Mad. All of them."
Less than 24 hours earlier, Jordan's Chicago Bulls hammered Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers 97-82 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Prominent among the celebrity fans at the Great Western Forum was actor Jack Nicholson, who probably hadn't seen anything this bad since The Two Jakes.
Meanwhile, Johnson, silently fuming over the Lakers' inability to shoot the basketball, also was pleading for his teammates to do what used to come naturally. The Lakers shot 36.6 percent from the floor Sunday, their low for this year's playoffs.
"We can't make nothing. We can't generate anything. The first half was like a nightmare," Johnson said.
"The third quarter _ Whooo! It got scary, sort of. "Man, are we going to hit one shot? Somebody?' "
Johnson is an old 31, with sore knees and 12 long seasons in the NBA. He has played for all kinds of teams, but mostly he has played for winners. Only three times has Johnson missed the finals.
And here he is again.
Jordan is appearing in his first championship series.
The headlines everywhere said it was Magic vs. Michael.
Michael's team is winning.
And Magic is taking it all very personally.
Jordan has more assists (47-42) than Johnson, the NBA's all-time assist king. Jordan also has more points and steals despite playing fewer minutes.
Jordan is three years younger and three years quicker than Johnson, and he has caused considerable damage on defense by hounding Johnson down the court all series long.
"They've done it very successfully," Johnson said. "Of course, I never dreamed this would happen, or even thought about it."
Johnson does not guard Jordan when the Bulls have the ball, which is another plus in Jordan's favor.
"He's raised his game up another level," Johnson said. "I tip my hat to my competitor because he's doing the job. He's going great and so is his team."
A Chicago victory in Game 5 would give Jordan the championship he craves and put an end to a few of those Magic vs. Michael debates. For years, Jordan has heard the same argument: He wins scoring titles (five in a row); Johnson wins championship rings (five).
Jordan had a career playoff-high 13 assists Sunday (Johnson had 11), which also helped explain why the Lakers were suddenly looking very confused, very frustrated and very close to elimination.
"Everybody wanted this one to go seven games," Johnson said, "and then me and Michael would go one-on-one. That's what I dreamed. That's what I envisioned."
Instead, the Lakers have found Jordan at the height of his game. He has risen above the competition, even above Johnson, and he has taken his teammates along with him.
Just like Magic used to do.
"Michael's not trying to take the torch from me," Johnson said earlier in the series. "He kind of wants me to stay around so he can go out with me, but I can't stay that long.
"He needs somebody that he can have to compete against. I needed Larry (Bird) and Larry needed me. And now it's Michael and I. After a couple of years and I'm gone, Michael's going to have to look for somebody that he can measure his game against, who can get his juices going."
Now, that's a scary thought.