It’s hard to believe that it was just a year ago — especially with what’s happened in the world in recent months — that Magic Johnson flipped the NBA world upside down with a few sudden, very unexpected words.
Without warning, his time with the Los Angeles Lakers had come to an end.
Magic Johnson abruptly steps down | April 9, 2019
After officially making up his mind just hours before, Johnson was done. He just wasn’t having a good time as the team’s president of basketball operations any more.
“I had more fun when I was able to be the big brother and the ambassador to everybody,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who played 13 seasons for the Lakers himself, said one of the biggest issues he had with the job was the rules that came with it — specifically regarding tampering, something he was fined by the league for. He even gave an example in his farewell media conference, saying he was upset that he couldn’t congratulate Russell Westbrook after he dropped 20 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists in a game just a week before.
“That was a great feat the other day, and I couldn’t even tweet it out and say, ‘Hey, congratulations man,’” Johnson said. “If I had did that, everybody would have been, ‘Oh he’s tampering!’ I don’t like that. I like to be free.
“I got a great life. I was like, ‘Damn I have a great life outside of this. What am I doing? You know, I have a beautiful life.’
“I’m going to go back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it.”
Magic left without warning
While Johnson had plenty of valid reasons to leave his job, the news came without warning to seemingly everybody in the basketball world — including his boss.
Johnson hadn’t told Lakers owner Jeanie Buss of his plans to step down before he told the media, and even participated in a three-hour meeting with her about the future of the organization the day before.
He said he would have been “crying like a baby in front of her” had he told her the news in person.
“Somebody going to have to tell my boss,” Johnson said. “I know she’s going to be sick, but I knew I couldn’t face her face-to-face and tell her, even though I was just with her yesterday.”
A stunning interview on ESPN’s ‘First Take’
Six weeks later, Johnson made an appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” to talk about his resignation.
He dropped some stunning comments, too, and claimed that then-general manager Rob Pelinka had stabbed him in the back.
“I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I’ve got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position,” Johnson said of Pelinka on the show.
“You know how many agents called me and said watch out for him?”
Johnson didn’t stop there.
“If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob,” he said.
The interview was truly surreal, as Johnson spoke about Buss repeatedly and confirmed several anonymously sourced reports about major missteps made by the team throughout the year.
“I told them not to take it personally,” Johnson said. “What happened was, that first week, they did take it personally.”
Leaving with the organization on the right track
Johnson took over in his post in 2017, and accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the team’s front office.
Most importantly, however, he landed LeBron James.
Johnson helped facilitate the deal to get James to sign with the Lakers ahead of the 2018-19 season, one of the highest-profile deals in NBA history.
While that season didn’t go as planned — James’ Lakers missed the postseason and he only played in 55 games while dealing with a multitude of injuries — the move still changed the trajectory of the organization.
The Lakers, after trading for Anthony Davis last summer, were leading the Western Conference this season with a 49-14 before the league suspended operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were a full 5.5 games ahead of the Clippers, who sat in second place, too, clearly on pace to claim the top seed in the playoffs.
Though his departure perhaps wasn’t handled the best, came out of the blue and left the organization in disarray for a few months, Johnson seems much happier now.
And, he said felt the organization was in a good place when he walked away.
“I’m happy about the direction,” Johnson said. “If the young guys mature the way we feel they can mature, I think that this team will be outstanding, especially if we add one superstar to this bunch that we already have.”
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