It’s Quitting Time (Los Angeles Times Headline, April 10, 2019)
The press conferences, the one in 1991 and the one last night, share very little in common other than Magic delivering news that was stunning. In 1991, the press conference wasn’t hastily arranged in a hallway on the last day of the season and although Magic was teary then he had a right to be. Not only was his career over, but his life was in jeopardy, and no one knew what was to happen next after HIV-positive.
Yesterday’s impromptu media gathering was an impulsive Magic wanting to avoid confrontation with the person who he calls his “sister”. He knew she would talk him out of it and he didn’t want to be talked out of it so he was unprofessional at the very end. It’s not a good look when your boss has to hear about your exit from a lot of people not named Earvin Johnson, particularly when she went out on a limb to hire you and fire her brother.
Magic wanted to fire Luke Walton. Jeanie Buss didn’t. But she deferred basketball decisions to Magic. Still, he could never go against what Jeanie didn’t want. His relationship with Jeanie is just as important as his love for the Lakers and last night the Jeanie relationship triggered his decision to quit.
One Sunday morning after church I was in a brunch spot and guess who walked in? Magic Johnson. It was a surprise because it wasn’t his side of town, wasn’t the Westside. It was a South L.A. black place you go on Sundays for chicken and waffles and smothered steak and greens and mac n cheese plus peach cobbler. Magic walked in and his family went to their table and he worked the room. He went around to every single table, not just shaking hands, but talking. Asking how was church. Who preached? What was the message? Did the choir sing Order My Steps, so on and so forth. By the time he got to his own table 30 minutes had passed. But that’s classic Magic, the energy transfer of his happiness and everyone else’s adoration.
President of Basketball Operations is a tough job. The first requirement is establishing an identity. What type of team is this? Then once the identity is in place, analyzing the roster. Who fits where and with whom. And then drafting to that identity. Most importantly, it is staying calm. Don’t overreact to losing or winning. Follow John Wooden’s advice. Be quick but do not hurry.
It was a job Magic Johnson wasn’t equipped for, not because he wasn’t smart enough but because he wasn’t competitive enough. He wasn’t 100% dug in and why should he be? He’s Magic. He wanted to save the Lakers just like when he coached the Lakers as a favor to Dr. Buss and lasted 16 games. When it didn’t go like he planned, meaning the team was losing, he up and quit like he did last night. People do not change. They don’t.
When he was first hired as President of Basketball Operations, Magic promised to turn the Lakers around in two years. That was a similar prediction of his predecessor Jim Buss. Both were naïve in how difficult it is to go from losing to winning, particularly with the rules, salary cap, free agency restrictions, the lottery, the one and done system, and the impact of social media on a fanbase. This isn’t 1984.
Magic’s two years have expired. The Lakers are still miserable albeit with a shiny toy they trot out to try to manufacture an ending that even LeBron James could not master, and so it blew up in an epic way.
I’m glad Magic had to be Magic. I’m glad he looked in the mirror and said I can’t. Or, I won’t. Or, I’m mad. Or, I want to hang out with NBA players and Jimmy Kimmel. Whatever analysis he did that led him to crash the night Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki played their last home game was egoism on steroids. Dirk and Wade deserved to have the talk be about them last night but the Lakers have a way of ruining plans. That ‘s why they are hated and that is why they are beloved as a brand.
For the past 9 days the city of Los Angeles has been paralyzed in grief. The murder of Nipsey Hussle has devastated the city and nothing much has penetrated the fugue. The Lakers stink. The Clippers playoff stint will be short. The Dodgers are yakking balls out the yard but Kershaw is out. But on day 10, everything L.A. came to a halt because the most beloved celebrity quit his job.
As an executive, Magic had some highs and lows and a lot of nothingness. He traded D’Angelo Russell and in exchange received Kyle Kuzma. He drafted Josh Hart. He and Rich Paul bungled the Anthony Davis almost a Laker fantasy. He should have re-signed Julius Randle. He and Luke Walton were never on the same page. And his acquisitions to help LeBron were a disaster.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Magic came to this epiphany at the Final Four while watching his beloved Spartans advance to the championship game. Their loss in the final game wasn’t 24 hours old before Magic crushed the Lakers in half. Rome is burning. It is. But it’s the Lakers so a new drama is on the horizon.
Like, is Phil Jackson coming back?