LOS ANGELES — Magic Johnson had the title he’d always wanted. He had the power to guide one of the most important franchises in sports, carte blanche.
Anything he wanted to do as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, he had the power to do. Fire the coach. Trade any player. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss told him that repeatedly.
But the only thing he really wanted was to go back to being Magic Johnson.
Beloved civic leader. International celebrity. Lakers legend. Basketball ambassador.
It’s awesome being that guy. And Magic Johnson is great at it.
Being president of basketball operations for the Lakers is hard. Really, really hard. And Magic Johnson never figured out how to be Magic Johnson in that role, so he abruptly quit Tuesday night.
As stunning as his decision was for everyone in the NBA, he was remarkably clear in explaining himself.
“I was happier when I wasn’t the president,” Johnson said. “When you gotta make trades, you’re not happy.”
Johnson enumerated all sorts of unsavory things about the job during an hourlong media session that spilled out into the hallways and corridors of Staples Center before the Lakers’ final game of the season.
He didn’t like: “the backstabbing, the whispering. I don’t like that. I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on.
“The fines and the tampering and the this and the that, I can’t help young men who want me to help them, 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.’ If I had did that, everyone would have said, ‘He’s tampering.’ I don’t like that. I like to be free.”
He really didn’t like having to make the decision on whether to retain embattled coach Luke Walton.
“She gave me the power; that is the same page. I could have done anything I wanted to, tomorrow. But I decided to step down,” he said.
But what he really didn’t seem to like was the negativity he has faced this season. Negativity he couldn’t charm his way out of.
There aren’t many situations in life that Magic Johnson hasn’t been able to charm, compete or fight his way out of. The ones he couldn’t — talk-show host, Lakers coach and now Lakers president — he got away from quickly.
Who needs it?
Magic Johnson stared death in the face when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and decided he was going to beat it. And he did. So then he decided that whatever was left of his life, he was going to spend exactly as he wanted to. As he said, “I got a great life. Damn, I got a great life outside of this. What the F … what am I doing? I got a beautiful life. I’m going back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it.”
That’s a beautiful sentiment.
But it was also a cruel thing to do to a woman he considers to be family.
“I want to thank my sister for allowing me to do this,” Johnson said of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. “I couldn’t face her to tell her, so I had to do it this way because we love each other so much.”
They might love each other, but telling the world before telling your family — not to mention your boss — is weak.
Yes, being the Lakers’ president is hard, and if Johnson didn’t want to keep doing it, he didn’t have to keep doing it. But he could’ve talked it through with Buss and planned his exit, instead of leaving the franchise in an embarrassing lurch.
Leaving the way he did, with the franchise approaching one of the most important summers in recent history and with the situation with Walton still so unsettled, feels a lot like bailing when things got hard.
People have jobs they don’t want to do and can’t do. They find a way to do them, or an acceptable way out of them.
Those close to Johnson say he was “deeply offended” by the constant accusations of tampering that followed him and essentially forced him into the shadows this season.
When he did talk, he always said too much. That’s how he always has been and part of the reason he has been so beloved. There’s literally an NBA award named after him, the Magic Johnson Award, given to the player who has the best cooperation with the media. Magic was always that guy, as a player and later as a public figure. He’s great at it.
But that’s not what being an executive is. Not in a league for which information is not only commodified, but weaponized.
Magic never figured out how to play that game. He’s best when the cameras are on. In the shadows, he lost his way — and his identity.
Jeanie Buss was just as stunned as the rest of the world to hear Johnson’s resignation. A few hours later, she put out a classy statement and tweet, even as she and the Buss family processed the situation. In addition to being stunned, those close to the family said they were sad, angry and disappointed.
She spent the rest of Tuesday night huddled with general manager Rob Pelinka and several close advisers at the team’s headquarters in El Segundo.
Johnson’s quotes about Pelinka fell far short of a ringing endorsement, which left many wondering whether that factored into his decision to step down. Lakers sources strongly shouted that notion down even as Johnson’s quotes suggested otherwise.
“Do I think Rob is the right GM?” Johnson said. “That’s a decision Jeanie has to make. I worked well with him. I had no problems with him. Now they say he had some bad, I don’t know about that. A lot of my agent friends had called, but Jeanie has to make all the calls, that’s not calls for me to make. This is her organization.”
In a three-hour meeting Monday, Buss had once again made it clear that she was giving Johnson the power to make the basketball decisions for the franchise, including the power to fire Walton and hire whichever coach with whom he believed he’d have a better rapport.
He either didn’t want that power or couldn’t handle it.
So now that power is right back to where it always should have been — with Jeanie Buss. She has to start using it, instead of looking for someone else to pass it to.