Magic Johnson likely realizes he is one of the 10 best players in NBA history, and among the five most exciting to ever play. The evidence in his favor is overwhelming.
As is the evidence that he is not equipped for the vicissitudes that come with running an entire basketball operation, such as the Los Angeles Lakers. And he surely recognized that well in advance of submitting his resignation Tuesday night.
That’s why he looked so relieved when addressing the media. Magic Johnson can get back to the very full life he already had.
“I want to go back to having fun,” Johnson said at a hastily assembled news conference at Staples Center.
Johnson’s announcement shocked the NBA world because there was nothing close to a leak; he hadn’t told his boss and close friend, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. He hadn’t mentioned it to either of the team's general managers, Rob Pelinka (official) or LeBron James (unofficial).
Magic even stunned his own media relations staff, which he partly reorganized when hired 25 months ago, with the timing. He spoke 90 minutes before the Lakers were scheduled to tip off their season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers.
But at age 59, having spent nearly half his life coping with serious health concerns and the last quarter century running multiple businesses in his empire – his net worth is estimated to be north of $600 million – Johnson has been around long enough to have a keen sense of what’s needed to survive, much less succeed, at any executive endeavor, basketball or beyond.
All he has known is success. He’s not built to fail, won’t allow himself to fail, and he was failing spectacularly in his efforts to rebuild the Lakers into the elite franchise they’ve been for most of their 70-year existence.
Johnson didn’t so much as persuade LeBron James to join the Lakers last summer as greet the former Cavaliers superstar with a smile familiar to billions around the globe. Magic brought in a former agent, Pelinka, to be the general manager thinking the two of them, along with LeBron as the new centerpiece, would put air in the flat tires flopping beneath the Lakers.
And the three of them went out and collected a bunch of individuals with no chance on God’s green earth of becoming a solidified unit, let alone challenging the Warriors. Magic has played and seen enough hoops to know he was presiding over a disaster of a roster, with a coach that had little chance – none at all once LeBron went down with an injury against the Warriors on Christmas Day.
Remember, though, Magic did not crave this job. He didn’t embrace all the grimy details and personnel maintenance and ego massaging that comes with being a GM or a team president.
He simply was tired of seeing the Lakers as a broken franchise and thought he could fix it.
So, as something of a favor to Jeannie, Magic signed on, thinking that maybe, through sheer will and cachet and influence, he could make a difference.
Getting LeBron was the easy part. Everything after that was long hours and intense labor, inviting stress and more than a modicum of misery.
It wasn’t going to get appreciably better in the coming months. He probably would have fired coach Luke Walton, knowing that the former Warriors assistant was not the problem. Magic is perceptive enough to know that, even with money to spend, it was going to be difficult to find quality players to put around LeBron this summer.
There was no play to be made, even with time on the clock. He always was the smartest player on the floor, seeing action before it developed, playing as if eyes were in the back of his head, on the soles of his shoes and perhaps on both elbows.
Wearing a suit instead of a jersey, Magic surrendered. Doing so without at least consultation with Buss was graceless, unbefitting of someone of his status.
But we know why he left. He wants to be Magic again, allowed to smile and dap players and freely discuss basketball on any level, with anyone, and he reached the point when he realized that day wasn’t coming anytime soon.