Harry How/Getty Images
Magic Johnson said he didn’t want to cry. The tears started to well up anyway Tuesday, as Johnson stunned the basketball world with his sudden resignation as president of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The impromptu press conference at Staples Center was by turns strange, meandering and emotional. But sadness was not the predominant emotion. No, it was happiness. Relief, even.
Magic smiled that trademark smile, the one that endeared him to Lakers fans all those decades ago. And then he kept smiling, as if the words had freed him from some invisible burden.
“I had more fun on the other side than on this side,” he said, flashing that smile.
“I like to be free,” he said, and the smile crept out again.
“I was like, damn, I’ve got a great life outside of this!” he finally blurted, half-speaking, half-laughing at this wondrous realization. “What am I doing? You know? I’ve got a beautiful life. So I’m going to go back to that beautiful life, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The more he spoke, the more joy emerged. Smile. Bigger smile. Laughing smile. Magic smile.
Yes, that was happiness we saw streaming across our Twitter feeds, and it made all the sense in the world. For all his basketball genius and all his passion for the Lakers, running an NBA franchise never suited him. The job was too limiting, too constrained by NBA red tape, for such an outsized personality.
So now he’s gone. It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to the Lakers in months.
That’s a difficult sentence to type, because Magic Johnson has meant everything not only to the Lakers but also the basketball community at large. He’s one of the game’s greatest living ambassadors. But he is not a team president and never should have been.
When Lakers owner Jeanie Buss hired Johnson two years ago, she did so for all the obvious reasons but none of the most critical ones. She wanted someone she could trust after a bruising battle with her brother Jim Buss and a fractured relationship with former general manager Mitch Kupchak. She wanted someone loyal. Someone steeped in Lakers tradition. Someone with instant credibility.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Magic checked every box, in thick, indelible ink. They’d been friends for decades—since Magic’s rookie season in 1979-80, when Jeanie was 18 years old and studying at the feet of her father, Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
“It’s about relationships and it’s about trust,” Jeanie told me last year, in explaining the decision to hire Johnson as team president. “He and I see things the same way. We were brought up by the same person, Dr. Buss, in terms of how we saw the game and how we saw the business.”
Lost amid the familial nostalgia was that Johnson made no sense for the role in any practical sense. He hadn’t worked in the league, in any capacity, since retiring in 1996. Though he once held a minority stake in the Lakers and a ceremonial title, Johnson was hardly ever around the team.
So much had changed in those 20 years—the emergence of sports science and analytics; the evolution in training, conditioning and skills development. There was a lot Johnson didn’t know or didn’t know well enough: the salary cap, NBA bylaws, the scouting schedule. Nor did he have the necessary network of contacts in NBA front offices and the power agencies.
What Johnson needed most was an experienced general manager. Instead, he hired Rob Pelinka, the longtime agent to Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, as his GM—one rookie leading another.
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images
For all his cap knowledge, Pelinka brought his own baggage: strained relations with some team executives, as well as the agents he once battled for clients.
Many rival executives considered the Johnson-Pelinka duo overmatched. There were whispers that Johnson didn’t spend much time trying to master the job—that he didn’t spend much time on the job, period.
“You got Magic Johnson, who is not even present,” an Eastern Conference team official said.
No, Johnson had little patience for the details of the job or the NBA’s pesky rules. That’s how you get fined twice for tampering in a year. Nor did he show much grace in his day-to-day management—whether he was undermining coach Luke Walton with an ill-timed lecture or publicly questioning the character of a player he’d just traded.
None of it was intended to be malicious. It was just Magic being Magic—a big, bold personality who loved to talk and entertain.
The tampering fines were expensive. The more costly mistakes came within the rules: the baffling free-agent signings, the hasty trades, the repeated misreads of the market as the Lakers failed to land their desired targets—Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis. All culminating, of course, in the most massive failure of all: missing the playoffs with LeBron James on the roster.
James’ arrival last summer seemed like a massive coup, an affirmation of the Lakers’ leadership and of Johnson’s magnetic pull. In truth, James simply wanted the Lakers’ legacy and their location. He wanted L.A.
And the Lakers squandered this gift by failing to acquire shooters to maximize James’ playmaking, instead loading the roster with ball-dominant veterans. The flaws were obvious to everyone, it seemed, but Johnson and Pelinka.
By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late and resulted in arguably their worst decision to date: a bizarre trade-deadline swap of promising center Ivica Zubac for journeyman shooter Mike Muscala.
Would a more seasoned executive have landed Davis in February? Perhaps not. But a more polished front office might not have allowed itself to get sucked into that drama, either. In the view of many rivals, the Lakers overplayed their hand and overestimated their ability to acquire Davis from New Orleans, just as they overestimated their chances of landing George and Leonard last summer.
“Nobody will call Magic or Pelinka out,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “It’s mismanaged. They let Rich Paul run them in circles,” the executive added, referring to the agent for both Davis and James.
Yet the Lakers do have James, who at 34 remains a potent force. They have promising young talent in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. They have cap room. Snag one All-Star in July, and they’re back in title contention.
The Lakers need the right person leading that charge. With Johnson out, Buss has a second chance to get it right, to hire a seasoned exec. Maybe David Griffin, who constructed the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ title team. Or Arturas Karnisovas, who has helped build a powerhouse in Denver. Or Gersson Rosas, the understudy to Daryl Morey in Houston.
What the Lakers need, one prominent agent suggested, is an exec who isn’t deluded by a belief in “Laker exceptionalism” but rather recognizes that the glory days are long gone, that the franchise is lagging in critical areas and falling behind smarter, more progressive teams.
“Find someone that understands the power of the brand but also where they are in the overall hierarchy of the league,” the agent said.
Last time, Buss opted for familiarity. This time, she should choose competence.
Sam Wasson/Getty Images
Johnson obviously cares deeply about the Lakers. The anguish in his face Tuesday night was real. He clearly felt terrible walking out on Buss (who he had not yet informed of his decision). He seemed tortured at being caught between Walton (who he admittedly wanted to fire) and Buss (who was loyal to Walton).
But Johnson seemed just as frustrated at not being able to mentor Serena Williams, who had recently reached out to seek his counsel. Or to attend Dwyane Wade‘s final game in Miami. Or to tweet his congratulations to Russell Westbrook after his latest statistical achievement. Or to tutor Ben Simmons without drawing suspicions—and another tampering fine.
What drives Magic, what gives him the most joy it seems, is just simply being Magic. It’s a job that suits him much better than the one he just left.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
ESPN NBA data analyst Kirk Goldsberry joins Howard Beck to discuss why the NBA needs to get rid of the corner three-pointer, who deserves to be MVP and what it’s like to go to a Broadway play with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. All that and more in The Full 48.