CHICAGO -- The rivalries have become a game of fill-in-the-blanks.
Magic and Julius. Magic and Larry. Magic and Isiah.
And now, finally, Magic and Michael. The constant is obvious: a 6-foot-9 point guard who answers to Earvin, and who has assumed the role of the NBA's goodwill spokesman.
Along the way, he and his Lakers teams have fought off challenges from the Sixers, the Celtics and the Pistons and are now fighting the Bulls. Whether or not Los Angeles beats Chicago in the 1991 Finals, Magic Johnson's reputation will remain one of resilience and longevity at the game's highest level.
"It has been really fun," Johnson said yesterday, as his team prepared for Game 2 tonight (9, Ch. 2) at Chicago Stadium. "And you know what the best part about it is? I've played all those greats in the Finals.
"I'll only be around a couple more years in this league, but when I'm done, I'll have a chance to say something not many other guys can say. I've played and won against the best.
"And now I've finally got Michael. That was my dream."
For Michael Jordan, the dream has nothing to do with Magic. He just wanted his chance at the brass ring, regardless of the opponent. Unlike for Johnson, the outcome of this series will play a big role in how history views him.
"I want [championship] No. 6, and Michael wants No. 1," said Magic. "I want to win, but he wants to win bad. We talk about it all the time. He kids me, 'Man, you've got enough,' and I tell him, 'No, I don't.'
"He says, 'I want one so bad,' and I tell him, 'Not at my expense.' "
Johnson understands Jordan's urgency, recognizes all the symptoms. But while Jordan's path has often been a lonely trek, Magic always has had valuable company on the road to the championship.
"People say I've been lucky, and I had the cast surrounding me, and this and that, but I haven't been lucky," Johnson said. "No other guy had to come onto a team like I did and make all the egos work together. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was the hardest ego to please.
"When I first got to the Lakers, I said to myself, 'I'm going to be a piece of the puzzle. I'm going to do my best to keep Jamaal [Wilkes] happy and Kareem happy.' The next year, it was someone else, and the next year James Worthy.
"Then, finally, it was my time. I finally got the chance to do what everybody said I couldn't do -- score.
"Now I've had a chance to do everything in this game. I've had a chance to score, to be a playmaker, to be a rebounder. It's a very satisfying feeling."
For Jordan, the satisfaction remains only personal. He, too, can rebound, pass and score, but points are always his measuring stick. Worse, scoring more points doesn't always translate into more wins, as evidenced in Game 1, when he poured in 36 and saw his team lose.
"The biggest pressure for me is you guys," said Jordan, pointing to the media. "I play the game, and it's still fun to me. I try to take some of the pressure off my teammates.
"I've played on an Olympic team, I've won a national championship in college. Because of those experiences, I've been able to deal with the pressure a little better."
Pressure is what makes rivalries thrive, and Johnson said his rivalry with Jordan has a much deeper significance.
"When Julius [Erving] left the NBA, he passed the torch to me," said Johnson. "He told me, 'You're the ambassador now.' And when I'm done, I'm passing the torch over to Michael.
"We've discussed it a lot. He understands what's expected. But he keeps telling me, 'Don't leave. Who will I turn to for the great rivalry?' "
Jordan smiles when apprised of Magic's comments. Then he shakes his head.
"I've always said it should never be one person that speaks for the league," he said. "When Dr. J was in his prime, he carried the torch all by himself.
"But today you've got so many other people that can do it. There's Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, David Robinson, Michael Jordan. Those people all carry the torch for the NBA now. Not one person. Not one player."
Could he handle the burden of serving as the players' spokesman?
"It's a major responsibility," he said. "The one thing I always admired about Dr. J was people respected him not only for his basketball, but the way he was perceived as a person away from the game.
"Once I walk away from the game, I'd rather have that over anything I've done on the floor."
Of course, it didn't hurt Julius' image to finally grab that ring. And Michael will, too, predicts Magic.
Just not this year.
"I may be the old man of the NBA," said Johnson, 31, "but I'm still an old man who's in the Finals."