LOS ANGELES — Magic Johnson’s blustery tenure as president of the Los Angeles Lakers has ended with a bang.
The charismatic five-time NBA champion promised to deliver superstars to Southern California and return the Lakers to greatness, but he ended up shocking the basketball world by announcing his resignation during an impromptu gathering with media members that lasted more than 40 minutes before Tuesday night’s season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Johnson, who announced he was HIV positive in 1991, said his health is “wonderful” and was not a factor in his decision. The business mogul and Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner sounded relieved while delivering the news, noting that he was going to return to his other interests and wanted to set up the Lakers for what will be a busy summer.
“If I’m going to step down from the Lakers, this is the best time,” Johnson said. “The draft is not here. Free agency is coming up. Somebody can be in here to recruit. ... I’m looking forward to my life. I want to go back to being a businessman and helping the black community and the Latino community. I get to go relax and watch my Dodgers. ... I want to be me. I knew if I stayed in the role, I’d be giving up a lot of me.”
Johnson, 59, was hired by owner Jeanie Buss in February 2017 as part of a front-office restructuring in which her brother, head of basketball operations Jim Buss, and general manager Mitch Kupchak were deposed. Joining Johnson was General Manager Rob Pelinka, a former agent best known for representing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
While Johnson took the unusual step of announcing his decision to the media before delivering it to Buss face-to-face, he referred to the Lakers owner as his “sister” and said he would continue to advise her and offer free agency pitches on behalf of the Lakers if she asked.
“There is no greater Los Angeles Laker than Earvin Johnson,” the franchise said in a statement. "We are deeply grateful to Magic for all that he has done for our franchise — as a player, an ambassador and an executive. He will always be not only a Lakers icon, but our family. As we begin the process of moving forward, we will work in a measured and methodical fashion to make the right moves for the future of our organization.”
During their two-year tenure, Johnson and Pelinka scored a huge victory by landing LeBron James in free agency but have drawn criticism for numerous polarizing moves and the Lakers’ failure to return to the playoffs, which they have not reached since 2013. Chief among the complaints: a salary cap-clearing move that sent all-star D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets, a puzzling 2018 summer strategy that surrounded James with unreliable veterans and a desperate failed pursuit of an Anthony Davis trade in February.
“What’s tough for fans to understand is there’s going to be misery before you can get good,” Johnson said. “Everybody wanted the Lakers to turn around tomorrow, and I explained [it’s not that simple] that when I took the job.”
Johnson said his inability to speak freely about rival players was a contributing factor, calling himself a “free bird” who didn’t like being “handcuffed.” He drew the wrath of the league office, which fined him $500,000 for tampering with Paul George in 2017 and $50,000 for tampering with Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018. The league also investigated contact with Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons but ultimately ruled that Johnson had not violated its tampering rules.
“I love the NBA so much," he said. "I’m looking forward to going back to being an ambassador. Now I don’t have to worry about [talking about players].”
The decision to step away comes at a turbulent time for the Lakers, who battled numerous injuries and missed the playoffs for a franchise-record sixth straight season despite entering the year as one of the league’s most-hyped teams. James played just 55 games during his first season in Los Angeles because of a long-term groin injury, and he was shut down in late March.
Coach Luke Walton has been on the hot seat for months and was widely expected to be let go following the Lakers’ season finale. Reports indicated that Johnson had confronted Walton early in the season, but that their communication had cooled in recent weeks. Johnson expressed discomfort at the idea of firing Walton.
“That’s going to be up to Jeanie,” Johnson said. “People think we’ve had problems. We haven’t had any problems. He has to get better. The team has to get better. Everybody had to be better.”
The Lakers face a make-or-break offseason as they search for a second star to pair with James in their quest to vault back into the Western Conference’s upper echelon. They continue to be linked to Davis, who is represented by agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, a longtime friend of James. They are also expected to pursue a summer free agent class that includes Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler, but Johnson’s departure represents an ominous start to those recruiting efforts.
Pelinka’s role was also suddenly thrust into question with his colleague’s resignation, although Johnson said he “worked well” and "had no problems” with the general manager.
Since making his NBA debut in 1979, Johnson has been affiliated with the Lakers as a player, coach and minority owner, in addition to his run as president.