Magic Johnson Always Set His Sights Beyond Basketball Express News
It is one of the oldest warnings in sports: Great athletes, they say, don’t often become great coaches.
In the case of Magic Johnson, the legendary former Los Angeles Lakers point guard, that maxim must be amended. For Johnson, neither the front office nor the bench proved to be a winning or even comfortable habitat like the hardwood he used as a launching pad to basketball immortality.
Johnson’s forgettable coaching career with the Lakers lasted just 16 games at the close of the 1993-94 season before he unhappily vowed never to return to that occupation. Then this week, Johnson’s two-year reign as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations ended even more ignominiously.
He abruptly announced his resignation before the team’s final game of an enormously disappointing season, then revealed that he had told the news media of the decision before he had informed his boss, Jeanie Buss, in order to deny Buss an opportunity to talk him out of it.
Johnson, of course, has stunned the world before, with his announcement and early retirement in 1991 because he was found to be H.I.V. positive, followed by his brief return to basketball in 1996. He spent the ensuing two decades constructing a business and entertainment empire replete with a highly successful chain of movie theaters and an ownership stake in the storied Los Angeles Dodgers. But Johnson always insisted that he was, first and foremost, a Laker.
Handling his exit in such a haphazard manner has earned Johnson untold amounts of criticism in the days since, given how much the Lakers mean to Southern Californians and how unexpected this news was. Yet he seems prepared to take the hits in exchange for the opportunity to return to his more customary post-playing life “on the other side,” as he described it — forever a Laker but officially unattached to any team.
“I like to be free,” Johnson said.
But his freedom comes at a steep cost — to Johnson, to the Lakers, to a Hollywood belief in, well, magic.
It turns out Magic Johnson, who piloted some of the greatest teams in N.B.A. history, will not be the savior who helps the Lakers escape their longest run of futility.
After last summer’s blockbuster signing of LeBron James, Johnson proclaimed the Lakers to be “back” — with the promise of a return to full “back back” status this summer once they acquired at least one superstar sidekick to James. Johnson has instead fled just when the most crucial work was about to commence, with no clear path to bringing that second star to a flailing franchise that last reached the playoffs in 2013 and last won a championship in 2010.
When he convened an impromptu news conference Tuesday night, rather than reveal his updated plan to restore the Lakers to title contention and placate a frustrated fan base, Johnson did just the opposite. Describing himself as “happier when I wasn’t the president,” he explained that the conditions and pressures attached to building a championship team around James meant that the real Magic “couldn’t come out.”
In a series of rambling interviews with a number of news outlets while the Lakers were in the process of losing their regular-season finale to the Portland Trail Blazers, Johnson spoke of how he had longed to send a congratulatory tweet to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook or to tutor Ben Simmons, the rising Philadelphia 76ers star, without inciting a storm of tampering allegations.
“I knew if I stayed in the role,” he said, “I’m giving up a lot of me.”
Such disclosures, of course, only served to validate much of the skepticism that greeted Buss’s decision to install Johnson as the new face of the Lakers’ basketball operations in February 2017.
Rival front-office executives questioned Johnson’s lack of experience in the modern game and his willingness to embrace the all-encompassing nature of the job from the moment he was named to replace the much-maligned Jim Buss (Jeanie’s brother) and Mitch Kupchak, the longtime Lakers executive. Those questions only rose in volume when Buss named as Magic’s sidekick another front-office neophyte, Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s polarizing former agent.
There were red flags from the start. In taking on his first active role with an N.B.A. team since his second retirement as a player in 1996, Johnson admitted that he had much to learn about navigating the ins and outs of the N.B.A.’s complex salary cap and the rhythms of a job that had evolved so much in his time away.
“The main part for me is really learning the other part that I didn’t know, and that is to understand the C.B.A., the salary cap, where we are in terms of the salary cap and who’s a free-agent-to-be,” Johnson told USA Today of the challenges he faced in building a roster and understanding the collective bargaining agreement.
Part of the issue might have been that Johnson could never just be a basketball executive. He is a mogul and a cultural force. While other N.B.A. teams primarily lean on decision makers focusing solely on basketball, Johnson seemed to always have his eye on something bigger than the game itself — reaching with his business tentacles to as many corners as possible.
Johnson acquired a 4.5 percent share of the Lakers in 1994 before selling his stake in 2010. He even once hosted a syndicated late-night talk show, 1998’s “The Magic Hour.” And he was never just about one game either, acquiring a minority stake in the Dodgers in 2012 and one in the Los Angeles Football Club of Major League Soccer in 2014.
Business had clearly been on Johnson’s mind when he took the Lakers’ front-office job in 2017. He told “CBS This Morning” in an interview at the time that he had turned down other offers to run a franchise, including the embattled Knicks, but that he felt it was the right time to rejoin the Lakers.
“At this point in my life, you know, I think that I can do it right now because my businesses are running smooth,” Johnson said. “I can turn them over to my executive team that I have.” In that same interview, he said, “I always wanted to be the male Oprah.”
Johnson was one of the first athletes to build an empire for himself outside professional sports. He went from whipping behind-the-back passes and being the engine that made the 1980s Showtime Lakers rev to investing in more than 100 Starbucks and Burger King locations, among many other business investments, all while flashing his famed charismatic grin. According to a Basketball Reference estimate, Johnson made about $23 million from N.B.A. salary alone, not including endorsements. Now his net worth is in the hundreds of millions.
The business of reviving the Lakers, however, proved beyond him. Buss, as a result, is already facing pressure to rebound from her nostalgic faith in Johnson to pursue a more accomplished executive this time — such as Golden State’s Bob Myers or San Antonio’s R. C. Buford — to plot the team’s recovery from a season soaked in drama and dysfunction.
Bizarre as the timing seemed, Johnson insisted to reporters that there were no hidden reasons for leaving other than the desire, as he put it to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, to stop “letting myself down by not being Magic Johnson.”
What’s clear is that walking away when he did spared him from firing Coach Luke Walton — something Walton and his assistant coaches, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to discuss it publicly, had been bracing for this week. Walton’s culpability for the Lakers’ 37-45 record is a matter of debate, given all of this season’s injuries, but Johnson’s desire to make a change had been widely anticipated in league circles for weeks, if not months. Buss’s well-chronicled fondness for Walton is thought to be the only thing that had kept him in place throughout Johnson’s reign.
“I would have to affect someone’s livelihood and their life,” Johnson told reporters Tuesday night, seemingly confirming that he was poised to fire Walton. “And I thought about that. That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am.”
There had never been a player like Johnson before he was drafted out of Michigan State as the first pick in the 1979 N.B.A. draft. His court vision, quickness, length and versatility made him a dominant presence and led to his winning three Most Valuable Player Awards and five N.B.A. championships. He became perhaps the defining face of what it means to be a Laker — no easy feat given the deep well of great players who have worn their familiar purple-and-gold jersey.
But the fact that Buss has yet to address the news media, beyond a brief statement insisting that the organization still believed “there is no greater Los Angeles Laker than Earvin Johnson,” speaks to the team’s level of shock that he would step down without warning.
At a speaking engagement at Chapman University on April 3, Buss acknowledged that the Lakers “haven’t lived up to the brand my father created,” referring to one of the most successful owners in the history of American team sports: Jerry Buss. The signing of James in free agency last summer — for which Johnson is sometimes subjected to claims that his “closer” role was overstated — could not prevent the Lakers from extending their playoff drought to a franchise-worst sixth consecutive season. That figure matches the Knicks for the league’s third-longest active drought behind Sacramento (13 seasons) and Phoenix (nine).
Now, the onus falls squarely on Buss to find a successor to repair a roster in need of overhaul.
To Johnson’s relief, such issues are no longer his concern. He returns now to a world he may have felt increasingly more comfortable with anyway in recent years: the one outside basketball. As he told The Los Angeles Times in 2008, Johnson hoped to go down in history as a better businessman than an athlete.
“That’s my dream,” Johnson said. “And I’m going after it each and every day.”