Seemingly out of nowhere, LA legend, Lakers all-star and literal big man at the Forum Magic Johnson stepped down from his position as president of basketball operations for the LA Lakers on Tuesday, April 9th. The announcement of his departure came less than two hours before the team’s regular-season finale against the Portland Trailblazers.
Johnson’s announcement caught many by surprise (apparently even to Magic’s superiors in the organization and owner Jeanie Buss and General Manager Rob Pelinka). The surprise move has journalists and fans scrambling to figure out what happened.
What Magic Says
Johnson gave a press conference on Tuesday where he announced his resignation, saying that “I was happier when I wasn’t president.”
Magic was visibly upset during the press conference, admitting “I’m about to cry now.” Reporters on the scene noted that he barely seemed to be keeping it together.
Magic’s reasons for leaving don’t seem to have to do with Buss, who he said he loved as “my sister,” but rather for nebulous other reasons. The NBA All-Star said that he was happy with what he’d done with the team in his two years in charge and said he was excited to see the Lakers contend for a championship.
In his press conference, Johnson did seem to allude to an upcoming confrontation when he said “tomorrow I would have to affect somebody’s life, ruin their life….that’s not fun for me, that’s not who I am.”
There doesn’t seem to be any clarity about what this confrontation entailed or with whom it had been scheduled, though some speculation holds that Johnson might have been in a position where he was asked to fire head coach Luke Walton after the team’s sixth consecutive losing season.
What was clear throughout his long and somewhat disorganized press conference is that Johnson has had enough and was ready to go back to “having fun.”
What the Organization Says
Jeanie Buss had only praise for Magic and tweeted: “Earvin, I loved working side by side with you. You’ve brought us a long way….we love you.”
The team as an organization also released an official statement on Tuesday saying that “he will always be not just a Lakers icon, but family.”
Players seemed shocked, and Lakers coach Luke Walton (with whom Johnson had differences) said he didn’t know until the press conference.
What the Speculation Is
Many think that the decision was in part due to Magic’s preference for mentoring players directly, an activity that is often construed by the NBA as “tampering” and therefore prohibited. The league’s fear is that mentoring players from another team could be used as leverage to entice that player away from the other team. This meant that as president, Johnson couldn’t mentor players such as the 76ers’ Ben Simmons.
Johnson has been investigated for this kind of tampering by the NBA four times and incurred a $500,000 fine for “impermissible contact” with Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Johnson chafed under these rules, stating that it bothered him that “I can’t help young men who want me to help them.”
In reality, the team has not done well under Buss and Johnson’s direction. The league respects Jeanie Buss and her family’s legacy but objected to her hiring of friends and insiders rather than tested professionals.
Criticizing the practice of hiring only within the “Laker-legend bubble,” one sports anchor recently called the president “Tragic Johnson” for the bad run. This suggests that more than freedom from tampering charges came into play.
What Happens Now?
Well firstly, Magic Johnson goes back to the kind of career that he prefers, schmoozing and working with players.
Also, the Lakers will clearly have to find a new president. Many are clamoring for Kobe Bryant to take up the job, though this would be following an arguably failed plan of only hiring within the “Lakers Legend Bubble.”
Speaking on television, Shaquille O’Neal voiced support for Jerry West to return to the position.
It’s not clear which way the Lakers will go. We will wait to find out over the offseason who the new president (and possibly the new coach) will be. It’s sure to be an interesting time. As one reporter with long experience covering the Lakers noted, “The Lakers are reality TV.”