Just beyond the edge of the court, a group of reporters clogged the tunnel that leads back to the locker rooms. They had surrounded a tall, handsome, well-dressed man with countless cameras and microphones, and there was nowhere for him to go — not that he was trying to escape.
The Lakers and Clippers were still two hours from tipping off their seasons at Staples Center — a game the Clippers would win easily by 16 points — but the conversation was well underway. Lots of topics were discussed, and the main subject was the one you’d expect: Lonzo Ball. The much-hyped rookie was about to make his debut. In a city obsessed with stardom and publicity, Ball had become one of the most-talked-about people before shooting a single professional shot.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be him.”
It was a perfectly reasonable thing for anyone to think and say, except it wasn’t just anyone who thought it or said it. It was Magic Johnson. He is a celebrity who has circulated among other celebrities his entire adult life, and even he couldn’t help but shake his head at the show unfolding before him in Los Angeles on Thursday evening. Not figuratively, either. He literally shook his head while he marveled at the scene.
“I can’t even describe what it’s like for him,” Magic said, recalling his first game as a Laker and adding that Ball was facing far more pressure. Johnson also made his debut against the Clippers. They played in San Diego then. This was back in 1979. Magic had 26 points. The Lakers won on a hook shot by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the buzzer. Magic hugged Kareem so tight and so long that Brent Musburger said it looked like he was “out there celebrating like they’d just won the NCAA championship.”
“We didn’t have social media,” Magic continued. “We didn’t have sports talk. We didn’t have TV shows. We didn’t have ESPN. Fox Sports. All this stuff that’s happening now.”
Here, again, he took the opportunity to shake his head about the turnout. A lot of stars were on hand to watch the game. Gal Gadot was there. Floyd Mayweather and Jack Nicholson were, too They sat courtside, just a few seats apart. It is how Lakers games go. Magic Johnson, a Hall of Famer and one of the most famous people in a town full of famous people, finished his thought on the subject:
“I mean, this is like, it’s crazy.”
Crazy was a good way to put it. It is a crazy time in Los Angeles — for Lonzo Ball, for the Lakers, for Magic Johnson, too. It has been just eight months since Magic took over as president of basketball operations during a messy Buss family feud that played out in public. He is also a part owner of the Dodgers, who were in a critical Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cubs on Thursday.
As he talked about the Lakers and his rookie point guard, Johnson craned his neck upward. While the Lakers and Clippers warmed up, the giant Staples Center scoreboard played the NLCS for everyone — but mainly for Magic.
“I’m going crazy,” Johnson said. “This is crazy both ways. I’m looking up, and then I’m looking down there. Is Lonzo OK? I’m looking up. Is [Clayton] Kershaw pitching good? Is Lonzo OK? Kershaw you striking them out? That’s how I’m doing it right now. I’m sweating it like I’m playing right now.”
Did he mention things are crazy? Crazy is good. Crazy means people are interested in what you’re doing, and crazy certainly beats being ignored. That’s not something Johnson has dealt with very often in his professional life. He didn’t much like it when the Lakers fell on hard times these last few years and the rest of the NBA turned its attention elsewhere. As he conceded, the Lakers have “been down for a long time.” They won 26 games last year. They won 17 two years ago, 21 three years ago, and 27 the year before that. Those four seasons were the worst stretch in franchise history, but Magic was certain that was all about to change.
“One thing about L.A., if you win they embrace you,” Johnson said. “That’s what it’s about. This is a Dodger town. This is a Laker town. … This is exciting. I’ve got two things going on. I’m too excited both ways. I want to go to the World Series in the worst way. And I’ve got my first game this season, really, with a team that we — [general manager] Rob [Pelinka] and I — put together. This is not me taking over [with] two months left in the season.”
While he took questions and watched the Dodgers game, he signed basketballs and T-shirts for adoring fans. He loved it all. “This is a great time for me,” Johnson said. “I think the city, it’s great for the city, too. They want to see what they have. It’s really interesting. This is a great day. They want to see what the Clippers have, because it’s a new team. They want to see what we have, because we’re a new team, basically. And then the Dodgers are going on. It’s great for all L.A. fans.”
At one point, a Lakers staffer whispered to him that he should wrap up. Luke Walton was about to give his pregame press conference, and they wanted to make sure that, you know, someone actually attended.
“That’s right, I don’t want Luke mad at me,” Magic said. “You guys have to go talk to Luke.”
“Don’t tell him I’m his boss,” Magic chuckled. “Don’t tell him that.”
Then he kept right on talking to everyone and watching the Dodgers game and enjoying himself. Long after Walton and Clippers coach Doc Rivers had spoken briefly to a reduced number of reporters, Magic Johnson was in the very same spot, doing the very same thing, for the very same crowd. He couldn’t turn off his Magic Johnson–ness even if he tried — and you wouldn’t want him to, anyway.
Toward the end of the second quarter, while the Clippers were well on their way to thumping their more popular rivals, a Lakers staffer came along to convey an important message: Magic Johnson would address the media at halftime. After talking to reporters for well over an hour before tipoff, Magic had more to say.
To make sure we fully understood, the Lakers also handed out a piece of white paper with giant black block letters on it that said “EARVIN ‘MAGIC’ JOHNSON WILL ADDRESS THE MEDIA AT HALFTIME IN FRONT OF THE BACKDROP SET UP OUTSIDE THE CHICK HEARN PRESS ROOM.” Got it. The only surprising part was that there wasn’t a map scribbled on the back to make sure we didn’t get lost.
This will surely shock you, but when Johnson materialized he was in a good mood. A really good mood. Like, noticeably good, even by Magic Johnson standards. That was understandable. Just a little while earlier, while Lonzo Ball was struggling through the first half of his first NBA game, the Dodgers had dispatched the Cubs without compunction, 11–1, to reach their first Fall Classic in 29 years. Before you could even see Magic, you could hear him — he came down the hallway screaming, “Woooooo, we’re in the World Series.” The Lakers were down 11 at the break. No one cared.
“I’m so excited,” Johnson said. He’d talked to Dodgers owner Mark Walter on the phone after they won, and they celebrated by yelling happy thoughts to each other. “This is a great moment. First of all, for the players. For the fans. For the ownership team. This is a moment I will never forget. I was torn, because I wanted to be here for Lonzo Ball’s first game, and I’m glad that I’m here, but my heart is all the way in Chicago.”
Johnson said it meant a lot to him. As “a little kid from Lansing, Michigan,” he said he “never even thought I’d own a baseball team let alone being in the World Series.” It was a bit weird to hear at first — a five-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP, three-time league MVP, 12-time All-Star — waxing poetic about childhood baseball dreams come true. But damn if he didn’t sell it.
“It’s been a tremendous evening,” Magic beamed. “And then I hope my Lakers get it together here to make it even better.”
The Lakers did not get it together, of course. They did not make it better. Meanwhile, Ball’s big Hollywood premiere was a flop; he finished with just three points to go with four assists and nine rebounds. It was supposed to be Lonzo’s night. Magic was at the basketball game and not the baseball game specifically for him, after all. But while Magic did his Magic act and had himself another grand time in a life full of them, it became clear what the truth was, something we’ve known all along but momentarily forgot: It was really Magic’s night. It is always Magic’s night.