For years, Magic Johnson’s brief and unspectacular coaching career fit within an easily digestible narrative. Magic, just a year and a half removed from retiring as a player and a year and a half removed from being unnecessarily shouted out of making a comeback with the Los Angeles Lakers, took over a lacking Laker team late in 1993-94 that was half made-up of Magic-era veterans and 1990s-generation whippersnappers.
Magic couldn’t get through to the kids, and he couldn’t squeeze much else out of the oldsters. Johnson went just 5-11 with the Lakers as they missed the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, he confirmed that he would not be returning to the team just ten games into his tenure, and he vowed never to coach again following the 16-game trial.
Infamously, Magic Johnson also reportedly destroyed a Laker’s cell phone after it went off during a team meeting, effectively acting as a symbolic expression of frustration at the chasm between two different generations.
In a column for Sheridan Hoops, however, then-Lakers center Danny Schayes revealed that it wasn’t exactly a cell phone that went off at the practice, and that the owner of the device wasn’t that of Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos, or any other member of that group of Punk Kids That Just Didn’t Get It:
Then Magic started off. He called guys out on how they just wanted to be Lakers for the parties and the girls. He reminded them how nobody at the parties cared about them, just that they were Lakers. Since they didn’t take care of business, next year they would be gone and the girls would be interested in whoever else was wearing the Laker uniforms. Right about then somebody’s beeper went off. It is 7:20 in the morning and a beeper goes off (remember it’s 1994). Magic stiffens up like a hunting dog and starts zooming in on the sound. It’s muffled like its in a gym bag but the room is pretty small and we can all hear what direction it’s coming from.
I’m biting my tongue trying not to laugh. This is going to be great! Luckily I didn’t have a beeper so I can just enjoy the show. The damn beeper won’t stop beeping. Finally Magic focuses in on Vlade Divac, who has his hand in his pocket trying unsuccessfully to turn it off.
“Vlade, hand me the beeper” says Magic. Vlade hands it over sheepishly. Magic holds it up and says, “See this is exactly what I am talking about” and he turns around and throws it like a fastball into the wall, WHAM. It shatters into a million pieces. Vlade looks like a fish on the dock. His gills are moving furiously but no sound is coming out.
At the next game I walked into the training room while Magic is telling the story to the long time trainer, Gary Vitti. He is howling with laughter when he gets to demonstrating Vlade’s expression. We all had a great crack up recounting the story.
It’s important to note that Magic’s ill-fated coaching tenure came during an NBA low point.
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird had retired just prior to the 1993-94 season, a new generation of NBA stars had yet to make an impact with the general public, a slow-down brand of defensively-minded ball was showcased weekly on the national airwaves, and his Laker return came just a few months prior to this infamous Sports Illustrated cover.
For a fair weather sports fan not ready to embrace Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning, and not quite smitten with the play of Patrick Ewing or Reggie Miller, Johnson’s frustrations …
… seemed typical and appropriate.
In regards to the pager incident, however, it’s probably just as important to note that while Vlade Divac may have been relatively young at age 26 during 1993-94, he had been a Laker for four years at this point and a teammate of Magic’s during Johnson’s final full year with the Lakers as a player.
Secondly, while 7:20 AM pages wouldn’t have been out of the norm in Los Angeles in 1994, it’s more than possible that Vlade Divac was receiving a call from friends or family in his native Serbia. The conflict in Divac’s former Yugoslavia was raging, and Divac was in constant contact with loved ones close to the front lines at all hours of the day throughout (sadly) the rest of the decade.
Johnson, Gary Vitti and (even in 2015) Danny Schayes might be having a bit of a laugh at the incident in retrospect, and Laker lore has always painted Magic Johnson as having crushed some ne’er-do-well’s cell phone, but it seems more than likely that the call that Magic was interrupting carried a little more gravity than, say, some pretty young thing attempting to see what Anthony Peeler was up to.
Then again, Vlade Divac always had game. Let’s not put anything past him. Or Magic Johnson, while we’re at it.
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