COMMENTARY | Parents and teachers often ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. The irony is that many parents haven't figured out their own answer to that question. Neither has Magic Johnson.
There is an old adage that the average adult has seven careers in his/her lifetime. Maybe Magic has nine lives, because he's far ahead of the curve. Since he retired from the NBA (the first time), Magic has (i) been a talk-show host; (ii) dabbled as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for 16 games; (iii) owned movie theaters; (iv) owned a record label; (v) been executive and minority owner of the Lakers; (vi) been minority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers; and (vii) been an NBA studio analyst on ESPN. And those are just the experimental ventures I remembered without the help of searching online.
A standard Internet search reveals that Magic has also been (i) owner of a sporting goods store; (ii) a Starbucks franchisee; (iii) a motivational speaker; (iv) a fitness club sponsor; (v) a Burger King franchisee; (vi) an endorser of credit cards; and (vii) a guest NBA analyst/contributor on TNT. Are you still counting?
More important, do you still remember Magic's first job? I do, but not with the clarity a lifelong Lakers fan should.
Magic's admirers might praise him as entrepreneurial, whilst critics might say he's non-committal or desperate to stay in the spotlight. Regardless of what label you stick on his post-playing career, the real shame is it has begun to overshadow one of the best player resumes in NBA history.
For most great professional athletes, their accomplishments on the court become their legacy and continue to define their public persona long after retirement. I might see a Skechers commercial with Joe Montana this evening, but I remember him for the four Super Bowls he won as leader of the San Francisco 49ers.
Likewise, we don't associate Michael Jordan with Hanes underwear, even though a decade has passed since he last played. Even Jordan's abysmal Matt Millen-like tenure as head of basketball operations and majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats only appears as a footnote in the commentary on his championship legacy. Because of the reverence our society bestows on star athletes, a championship legacy is difficult to dilute -- unless you're Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson.
Wherever his executive path has taken him (the Toronto Raptors, the Continental Basketball Association, the Indiana Pacers, the New York Knicks or Florida International), Isaiah has proved to be a weapon of franchise destruction, and that resume has taken some of the luster off his accomplishments as a player. In Magic's case, the sheer volume of professional endeavors over the last 20-plus years has made his greatest accomplishments harder to recall. Any parent would be thrilled if his or her child achieves straight A's in his or her first semester in college, but if that same kid changes majors 10 times, the initial excitement wanes at some point.
Nor is Magic doing any favors for his legacy in his current studio analyst role at ESPN. When analyzing the Lakers, he's become the classic ex-player-turned-analyst curmudgeon that seems to forget his own disappointments when he critiques current Lakers' staff and players. Case in point: calling for Mike Brown's job in 2012 if the Lakers had failed to advance past their first-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets (ultimately, the Lakers prevailed in 7 games).
I'm not defending Mike Brown; I was happy to see him go early in the 2012-2013 season, but success or failure in that playoff series against the Nuggets had no bearing in the discussion of whether Mike Brown was a good fit as the Lakers' coach. In calling for Brown's job, Magic conveniently forgot (i) his own difficulties trying to coach the Lakers in 1994, and (ii) the shortcomings of his own team in 1986 when the heavily favored Lakers were upset by the Houston Rockets in five games. Of all people, Magic should understand that every season, and every postseason, brings new challenges, but his history with the Lakers clouds his ability to express reasonable, objective commentary on the current Lakers' squad.
Conversely, when analyzing teams other than the Lakers, Magic doesn't really offer true analysis. He simply gives audiences the Magic smile while taking a contrary view to the other talking heads. Often, he doesn't feel like being contrary, so he opts for being over complimentary of today's stars. Case in point: calling Dwyane Wade the second-best player in the NBA during the postgame coverage of Game 7 after the Miami Heat won the second of back-to-back championships. Mind you, this wasn't June 2006; it was June 2013. If we're all seeing LeBron 2.0, then we're also seeing Dwyane 0.5. That's not a criticism of Wade's game or effort, but it's simply an honest evaluation of his play down the stretch in 2013 when the cumulative impact of numerous injuries was evident to everyone. Everyone but Magic.
Depending on the conversation, Magic is either crusty curmudgeon or secret admirer, but he's not an analyst in any true sense of the word. Unfortunately, that's the role in which he is most familiar to the vast majority of the NBA's chief demographic audience. Any fan 30 or younger has, at best, a few fleeting memories of Magic in his prime running the Showtime Lakers. I'm lucky to have many more memories of the Magic the point guard. I just wish Magic the Renaissance Man would settle into retirement and let me enjoy those memories.
In the classic Larry Bird-Magic Johnson debate, most Lakers fans would side with Magic, but there's no contesting who has had the better career off the court. Following his retirement, Bird has been successful as both coach and executive of the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps he's had other business endeavors. I have no idea, because he isn't always in front of the camera or making headlines. He makes excellent basketball decisions for a living, so he has no need to espouse criticism on the decisions of others. Bird's post-playing career embodies the idiom "less is more"; less clutter in his retirement allows for greater appreciation of his playing accomplishments. Kobe, are you watching?
A total of 10,141 assists, nine appearances in the NBA Finals and five championships. Those accomplishments should have defined Magic for all generations. And perhaps they would have, if he were the average American with only seven careers. If you had asked all the students in my third-grade class what they wanted to be when they grew up, odds are at least half the boys wanted to grow up to be Magic Johnson.
But looking back 26 years later, none of us would have said we wanted to be a drifter.Lucas Tucker has been a Lakers follower since 1983, and is struggling to hold on to the many great memories of Magic Johnson, the point guard of Showtime.
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