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Scott Howard-Cooper

Was last season's championship the last one Magic Johnson will celebrate as a Laker?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson looking forward to one day running own NBA team

Posted Aug 17 2010 6:13AM

The topic, dismissed even in recent months by veteran Lakers insiders, is no longer couched in whispered possibility but openly discussed as probability.

Magic Johnson will probably be splitting with the Lakers.

That comes from Johnson himself, with corroboration from owner Jerry Buss, and if Magic and one of his closest confidants are talking about a strong likelihood that an icon of the franchise and maybe even the city is ready to pack, there goes all doubt he wants it to happen. Or, rather, that he needs it to happen, because Johnson wants a large piece in a franchise or at the very least the chance to run a front office and neither of those will happen as the Lakers remain a Buss family operation.

There is even the contrast of how his public approach has changed. Trying to avoid speculation that he was ready to break with the only NBA home he has known, Johnson responded to a question in March that he was not part of a group looking to buy the Warriors when, in fact, he was very much involved with the credible bid of former 24 Hour Fitness head Mark Mastrov. By last week, though, the same Johnson, a Michigan native, was admitting his interest in becoming a minority owner of the Pistons and his openness to a prominent role in the front office even without a stake in his hometown franchise. And that was without being part of any interest organizing a bid or so much as having serious talks with any titan putting up most of the money.

Johnson, by all accounts very successful in private business, has become that aggressive in wanting to move into a leadership role with an NBA team.

"Life takes many turns," he said.

Including those away from the Lakers.

"I'll still be a Laker forever," Johnson said. "If there's a chance for me to go run a team, if I felt that's what I wanted to do, would I take it? Yeah, if the right situation came. I know one day that's gonna probably happen. I love being with Dr. Buss and the Buss family and working with them, but I know one day something is going to happen. I can definitely see me not being with the Lakers, yeah."

It's not just the thought of an all-time great leaving the franchise, and it's not even the fact that Magic was beloved as a charismatic player who defined the glam and clutch play of the Showtime era, or that he remains very popular and is cheered when his picture is flashed on the video board. That's Hall of Fame players in a lot of places.

This is someone whose relationship with Jerry Buss has always been more father-son than executive-player. Indeed, one of Buss' brightest memories in 31 years of running the Lakers is being a new owner in 1979, taking rookie Johnson to the Coliseum for a USC football game and hearing various people in the stands shouting "Magic!" as the pair walked to and from their seats. That was when Buss began to really comprehend the potential electricity of the teenager from Michigan State, and they have remained very close friends through the decades.

When Johnson was trying to build a portfolio and had business questions, he took many of them to Buss. (Classic Magic story: Given the chance to meet Hollywood mega-power broker Michael Ovitz, he choked and barely spoke, about the only time Magic has been intimidated by anyone.)

And when Johnson learned he was HIV-positive, Buss spent many hours researching the disease and looking for new information to send his friend.

Johnson is been part of the franchise almost nonstop since 1979, as a superstar player and emotional leader, regrettable stint as coach and, since 1994, part-owner and vice president. He is believed to have about five percent of the Lakers and responsibilities, the team says, in personnel and marketing. But Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak run basketball operations and Jeanie Buss runs the business side.

"I think he would always have a temptation to run the show," Jerry Buss said. "He's a pretty aggressive guy. On the other hand, he loves the Lakers. It's such a hard decision for him. I don't know which way that's going to go."

Johnson speaks of leaving the next as inevitable. The fact that anyone speaks of it at all, with any strong leaning, is a noteworthy change and one difficult to have imagined a few seasons ago and maybe even a calendar year ago.

But happen it may.

They're not whispering it anymore.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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