It was a move that shook the entire NBA landscape, one of the most unprecedented and surprising in league history. Owners, executives, players and fans were absolutely shocked to see it happen, but none could’ve been more so than the culprit himself.
Magic Johnson couldn’t have predicted his own departure from the team he’s been synonymous with for the majority of his basketball life. He was the key cog in a string of runs throughout the 1980s that resulted in the Los Angeles being known as “title-town”, and ran the show as point guard of one of the most historic NBA franchises of all-time during a time when national media attention, and the star power of the Hollywood lifestyle was at its peak. And Johnson was at the epicenter of it. He was the perfect point guard to run Jerry Buss’ intended style of run-and-gun offense: athletic, fast and had one of the highest basketball IQ’s of all time; some thought he had the best vision they had ever seen on the court. One could expect to see no look passes, behind-the-back moves and a dazzling array of handles and dribble combos upon seeing him play, and he, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy turned in some of the most winningest seasons in NBA history. “Showtime” was what they called Johnson’s Lakers, and it wasn’t just their basketball play that produced the highly-received recognition, and resulted in their nickname. Johnson had the personality to boot, and a smile that could light up any camera, the ideal player and person for the spotlight at the time.
The Lakers won five championships during Johnson’s reign and he was a three-time MVP and 12-time All-Star. Sailing was not always smooth during his run there though and both Johnson and the Lakers stood by each other through losing seasons, trade requests and teammate and media turmoil. Johnson even made history as the first player to receive a contract worth over $1 million a year, signing a 25-year, $25 million contract, the first and only of its kind in NBA history. The most highly publicized controversy in his tenure as a player though, came after Johnson received news that he was HIV positive. At the time, the disease was still fairly new, as it just recently broke out and become a substantial problem in the 1980’s, and questions came in bunches surrounding its contagiousness, how he had contracted it, even on Johnson’s sexuality (AIDS was at times dubbed the “gay disease).
Johnson retired prior to the 1991 season and became an activist for the disease and other members of society who also contracted it, raising awareness and spreading light on it during the process. The Lakers stuck by their star, eventually offering him a coaching role, and even opening a roster spot for his comeback return during the 1995-96 season.
And so, it only seemed right when Johnson was hired as President of Basketball Operations in 2017 by Jeanie Buss. He’d been a part of the business for more than 40 years, and his time as coach, player, and basketball world-traveler, along with his relationship with the Lakers made him the ideal candidate for the job. And things looked to be going smoothly. The Lakers moved forward with former player Luke Walton as their head coach; the Walton family relationship with the team notoriously tenured. They signed free agent LeBron James this past summer in one of the biggest moves in their history. They drafted Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, all young pieces that looked to be a part of their core for years to come. They signed veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Javale McGee. And with LeBron leading the charge, the Lakers were predicted to not only make the playoffs, but also make a deep run.
The season started off just as they imagined it would. By Christmas, they were fourth in the western conference. But then LeBron got hurt. Their coaching staff began to have disagreements. Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka’s relationship began to falter. And the Lakers began losing, and losing, and doing more of the same, so much so that their playoff hopes were dashed as quickly as they had come.
Magic quit, leaving the entire basketball landscape with questions upon questions about his decision. “I’m just not having fun anymore,” he gave as reasoning for his departure from the team. The world would soon come to find out though, that there was much more to the story than what had first met the eye.
It was LeBron James who first spoke on the Magic turmoil after it took place. On his HBO show, The Shop, James and teammate Lonzo Ball revealed that they had no idea he was even thinking about stepping down from his duties. “My team is…getting ready for a game, and you decide to do that right now,” LeBron said. “There was no phone call, no, ‘Hey Bron, kiss my ass I’m leaving,’ nothing.” Ball echoed James’ surprise on the show, as did the rest of the team and organization after learning of the news. Johnson was one of the main people that had talked to LeBron about the process, about not winning right away and about grinding it out before going to the Lakers, and for James, his early departure was a slap to the face after feeling like they had reached an agreement on what was to come.
The players were not the only ones who felt left in the dark about Johnson’s decision, however. It was reminiscent of comments that came when Johnson was a player with grievances according to Jeanie Buss, and instead of going to father Jerry about his problems with the coaching staff, Johnson went to the press and publicly demanded a trade, forcing the late Buss to fire coach Paul Westhead on the spot. Jeanie said that President of Basketball Operations Johnson had behaved exactly the same way as player Johnson, and she was unable to get a word out of him about his decision, except for what he had stated earlier about feeling a lack of control and lack of freedom in being Magic. And for Magic, not being able to be Magic, and have the utmost power, was a price we was not willing to pay.
It wasn’t until he appeared on ESPN’s First Take on May 20 that everyone got answers about why he truly decided enough was enough. Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman asked him the hard questions on it all beginning with a Stephen A. vintage: “What the hell happened?” Magic, on national television, could do nothing but speak the truth, and LeBron, Jeanie Buss, the Lakers organization and fans and the rest of the basketball world finally got what they felt they deserved.
“When I first was hired, I told (Jeanie) I can’t give up my businesses, I make more money doing that than being the President of the Lakers, so I’m going to be in and out,” Magic said. “I said: do I have the power to make decisions, she said yes, and so I said okay.”
And so, their relationship began, with Johnson’s new assumed role. However, he began feeling discrepancies between what he was told, and the power he actually possessed. He talked about the Anthony Davis debacle, and the D’Angelo Russell chaos. He discussed hearing talk behind his back from GM Rob Pelinka about his absences from the team, and from others in the Buss family. “The straw that broke the camel’s back” he revealed, “was with Luke Walton.” Johnson wanted to fire Walton, voicing that he felt the Lakers’ needed better leadership at the top. It was when he was met with opposition that he knew it was time to go, that he truly didn’t have the power that he had been promised, and that what he had stepped into wasn’t at all what he envisioned it becoming. It was all too much for him, and as he had stated, if he wasn’t having fun anymore, he was gone. “I’m not concerned” was his response to how he would be viewed for leaving, “because I gave everything I had to get the Lakers going in the right direction. I’ll always be a Laker.”
There’s no bad blood or animosity from Magic towards the Lakers, and he’s stated he has no regrets. On the other side of the spectrum though, the same can’t be said. Many feel betrayed by their longtime hero. Jeanie Buss talked about the frays in their relationship. Players don’t agree with how he went out, and Magic himself will have some explaining to do when it comes to each of those parties. As of right now though, he is happy. Lakers fans just staged a protest outside of Staples Center to voice their anger about their season, and the team just hired their third choice for a new head coach, Frank Vogel. There is still turmoil surrounding the organization and its players, and some form of a rebuild is definitely in the works, with Lebron still clearly at the helm, and summer free agency and the draft looming. “Lifelong” Laker Magic Johnson though, will have some amends to make if he wants to be a part of any Lakers processes in the near future.
Justin Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Justin_JM12