It’s been five weeks since Magic Johnson called an impromptu press conference in the tunnels of Staples Center and stepped down as Lakers president; five weeks since he tried unsuccessfully to find Jeanie Buss to hand in his resignation (after he had already publicly announced it!), and then walked out of the stadium before the Lakers’ final regular-season game—without saying a word to LeBron James. Since then, we hadn’t heard much from Magic, aside from a slew of AP-style recap tweets, full of exclamation points and opinions about the NBA playoffs, which LeBron and the Lakers are watching from home. But that all changed on Monday when Magic stepped onto ESPN’s First Take set and was asked a question we’d all been wondering about from the moment he bounced: “What the hell happened?”
This interview, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. We are getting Magic’s side of the story and no one else’s. And yet, when Jeanie and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka have largely avoided stepping in front of a microphone since the debacle to give their side of the story, or at least shed light on the direction of the team, the information void was too tantalizing to remain unfilled. And Magic’s comments sure restarted the spinning wheel of Lakers drama. This is beyond a reality show at this point.
Throughout the interview, Magic’s main target was Pelinka. Magic claimed Pelinka said things about him behind his back—specifically telling people inside and outside the organization that Magic showed a lack of work ethic. “Magic, you’re not working hard enough, Magic’s not in the office,” Johnson said on the show, quoting what he said he heard Pelinka was saying. The word “betrayal” was used, with Magic claiming that he had agents call and warn him to “watch out” for Pelinka (not a good sign when Pelinka, now the most powerful person in the Lakers’ front office, has to deal with agents on a day-to-day basis). When Stephen A. Smith asked Magic if there were other people involved in the “backstabbing” he was referring to, Magic cooly responded, almost matter of factly, “No, just Rob.” For a second, this interview felt like the kind of he-said, he-said argument that you’d see play out on a middle school campus—except it was happening inside one of the premier franchises in sports.
”These things are surprising to hear and disheartening. … They’re just simply not true,” Pelinka said at Monday’s press conference, at which the Lakers introduced Frank Vogel as head coach. Pelinka also said he and Magic talked about the Lakers’ no. 4 pick in the upcoming draft as recently as four days ago.
Here’s how Magic responded to Pelinka’s apparent criticisms. First, regarding his not being in the office enough, Magic said it shouldn’t have been a problem because he told Jeanie before she hired him that he was going to be in and out due to his other business ventures and that she was apparently OK with it. (This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the hiring process, but we’ll get back to this in a bit.) Also, he claimed he did work hard when he was in the office, though any judgments on the truth of that statement depend on your perspective. Magic was at LeBron’s house the first minute of free agency last summer and by all accounts helped seal that deal. That seems like working hard. But he also [extremely *watches the playoffs once* logic] signed Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Michael Freakin’ Beasley immediately after, which felt like a bizarre strategy in the moment and was a certified disaster by the end of the season.
When Magic did want to work—that is, by firing Luke Walton—he says he encountered enough pushback that he eventually decided he needed to get out. Per Magic, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was him wanting to fire Walton and Jeanie flip-flopping over the course of three meetings, one of which she brought Lakers chief operating officer Tim Harris to. Harris is known as “the business guy” in the organization, and his presence in basketball meetings perplexed Magic, whose condition to accept the job in the first place was having full decision-making power. “I didn’t like that Tim Harris was too involved in basketball,” Magic said. “He’s supposed to be running the Lakers business but he was trying to come over to our side. Jeanie’s gotta stop that. … It’s too many people at the table.”
Amid all the accusations, though, Magic did all but confirm what has become increasingly evident over the last month: that there are too many cooks in the Lakers kitchen. As the Lakers have gone about reshaping (or not reshaping) their front office—giving Pelinka full power—attempting to hire Ty Lue, and then scrambling to get Vogel when Lue backed out, no one seems to know who is making the decisions. And more names keep emerging as influencers: Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis, Phil Jackson (which Magic also confirmed), Pelinka (and Kobe Bryant by proxy), Joey and Jesse Buss (who Magic said wanted more decision-making say), and now even Harris. Short of drawing up an organizational flow chart and giving everyone nicknames, Magic laid out what he thought was the problem: “Jeanie needs to empower someone. … What happens is everyone has their opinions and there is so much information coming at her,” he said. “When I say, ‘We have to do this,’ she can’t make a decision because people are saying, ‘Don’t go Magic’s way, go left.’ … I said, ‘Listen you can’t run a corporation like this. You can’t let everyone think they can have a voice or opinion about the final decision.’”
Magic was clearly operating on the basis that he had the full scale of knowledge and expertise to run an NBA organization. As a one-time floor general, that used to be true on the court. But when it comes to front-office matters, he had no prior experience yet still acted as if this was all going to be as easy as running the fast break (he even said he liked bringing Kurt Rambis in because he was a former player). In his mind, why wouldn’t everyone kowtow to President Magic Johnson? Why couldn’t he run the Lakers, acting mostly in a recruiter role, and still take care of his own businesses on the side?
And so once again, the Lakers’ root issue isn’t what happened during Magic’s tenure—from not bringing back Brook Lopez (which Magic admitted was a mistake), to trading D’Angelo Russell because of the “Shaggy P” incident, to stepping down without telling LeBron, who was not a fan of the approach—but the process that got him there in the first place. He had never shown any signs of being able to perform the full job of a team president and didn’t have the background or expertise for it. But the Lakers were in dire straits wanting to hurry back to their glory days. And who better to signal that kind of aspirational pivot than Magic?
The hire was a shallow one, and it only took a few years for the facade to crumble. Now, whether Magic’s gripes are real or imagined, he’s out of the picture—and according to Pelinka, Jeanie has simply eliminated the role he once occupied. Even so, the Lakers’ image for the future isn’t much clearer.