Magic Johnson walked away from the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, quitting as the team’s general manager in a surreal announcement that overshadowed a poignant night for some great players on the eve of the end of the NBA’s regular season.
The Lakers’ Hall of Famer explained his rationale to one reporter, saying, “I’m free, my love.” Along the way, he revealed that he hadn’t informed Jeanie Buss, the team’s owner/president and a woman he called “my sister” because he knew both would cry, and he left in his wake a shambolic franchise that ESPN reported Wednesday morning was in chaos, with the future of Coach Luke Walton and the coaching staff up in the air.
How wild was it? LeBron James, the man Johnson lured to Los Angeles, left without speaking to reporters and had security stop them. On his phone, he could be heard to say, “Crazy, crazy, crazy.”
While Johnson’s drama was drawing all the attention, here’s what you missed:
- Dwyane Wade, one of the most popular players in the NBA, played in his final game in Miami — a momentous end to a great career and a development that Johnson cited while riffing on his attention-grabbing decision.
- Dirk Nowitzki, another surefire future Hall of Famer, finally confirmed that he is retiring from the game in a massive spectacle in Dallas that drew heartfelt goodbye speeches from Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.
- At 39 years and 20 days, Jamal Crawford scored 51 points, becoming the oldest player to top 50. It came on 18-for-30 shooting in 38 minutes in the Phoenix Suns’ loss to the Mavericks.
- Thanks to Magic, no one was talking about how the Detroit Pistons overcame a 19-point halftime deficit for the first time in more than 30 years in a must-win game, beating Memphis and keeping their playoff hopes alive as the last day of the regular season arrives.
When we should have been talking about, oh, first-round playoff matchups perhaps, Magic Johnson’s really weird, impromptu, 45-minute encounter with the media before the Lakers’ 104-101 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers sucked all the air out of the room. It was vintage Magic, with flashes of his megawatt smile and teardrops as he spoke outside the locker room, with players and coaches coming and going “uncomfortably,” as Yahoo’s Chris Haynes put it.
He started by professing that he loves Buss “like a sister” and then swiveled to: “So today I’m going to step down as the president. Her and I have such an amazing relationship. She gave me full power to do what I wanted to do. But I think, with her and I, I want to always preserve our relationship. I think I had more fun when I was able to be the big brother and ambassador to everybody. I thought about Dwyane Wade retiring tomorrow and I can’t even tweet it out or be there.”
Yes, it’s definitely easier to be genial Magic, the guy with the electric smile — the guy no one dislikes or second-guesses. He may be comfortable making hard decisions as a successful businessman, but doing this with his beloved Lakers was another matter. ESPN reports that Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka had met with LeBron James and his agent, Rich Paul, on Saturday and gave no hint of what to come.
“This is good times for me. Tomorrow it’s going to be, ‘Ugh, Magic this.’ I hope it comes out right,” he said. “I had a great time. I want to thank my sister [Buss] for allowing me to do this. I couldn’t face her to tell her so I had to do it this way because we love each other so much.”
Oddly, he mentioned that “somebody” was going to have to tell Buss. “What the . . . what am I doing? I got a beautiful life. I’m going back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it. Somebody going to have to tell my boss because I know she going to be sick, but I know I couldn’t face her, face to face, and tell her,” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “Even though I was just with her yesterday. We had a three-hour meeting about the direction of this great organization. So today, Rachel, I’m free, my love.”
Johnson said he “had more fun on the other side,” which may have been an allusion to his dalliance with Anthony Davis, the latest in a string of tampering incidents including James, Paul George, Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He could not, he explained, stand the loss of freedom.
“Now with the fines and the tampering and the this and the that, I can’t help young men who want me to help them,” he said. “Or I can’t tweet out. Like Russell Westbrook, that was a great feat the other day. I couldn’t even tweet it out to say, ‘Hey, congratulations’ [after his rare 20-20-20 game]. If I had did that, everyone would have said, ‘He’s tampering.’ I don’t like that. I like to be free.”
Johnson said the Davis fiasco “had nothing to do with it. We want to improve the team. That’s what my job is to do. Then you guys made it like, ‘Oh, the young guys.’ The young guys better grow up quick. Because this is a part of basketball. This is a part of sports. This is a part of life. When you enter into professional sports and you enter to the NBA, your name will always be mentioned sometimes in trades. And you have to deal with that. Just play your ass [off] and go play. Credit to them, they did that. It took them a week or two to get over it, but before Brandon Ingram got hurt, he was playing unbelievable. He put together what, three weeks or two weeks, that’s the Brandon, if he can get to that level and stay there consistently next year, he’d be like an all-star.”
Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times raised the possibility that a negative story may be in the works from ESPN, with some wondering, as she wrote, “whether Johnson’s departure was related to a yet-to-be-published article by ESPN that is said to address allegations about Johnson’s conduct with employees.”
“That story is wrong,” Johnson told the Times.
Later, he added to a group of reporters: “Never disrespected anybody. Never did anything bad. Am I tough? Hell, yeah! You work for me, I’m demanding. But at the same time I’m fair. They’ve been talking about that article for how many months? Everybody running, ‘Oh, they’re writing an article.’ I’m going to say, why didn’t they interview anybody at ESPN? If I was doing something wrong to employees disrespecting, this or that, think they would’ve hired me twice?”
Now, by his own choice, it ends badly for Johnson, who can pursue his twin goals of fun and freedom as he leaves his beloved franchise, which has not reached the playoffs since 2013. “From Johnson’s scattered reasons and ramblings, one could only construct theories that, taken together, probably come close to painting a full picture,” the Los Angeles Times’s Bill Plaschke writes. “It is not a pretty portrait.”
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