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Scott Howard-Cooper

Magic Johnson (second from left) no longer has a piece of the Lakers, but he could own an NBA team soon.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Healthy Magic aiming to find permanent home as NBA owner

Posted Nov 8 2011 9:21AM

Magic Johnson is not going away. Twenty years to the week after announcing he was retiring after testing HIV-positive, the Hall of Fame guard is nearly 13 months past selling his 5 percent stake in the Lakers and has not made formal proposals toward buying another franchise. But he is tracking several ownership possibilities around the league.

Johnson's NBA future is clouded by a heavy involvement in bringing pro football back to Los Angeles with a proposed downtown stadium near Staples Center. He loves the NFL and had grown close to recently deceased Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who sent Magic hand-written notes of appreciation for what Johnson meant to sports. If an opportunity came there first, with the Raiders or another organization, that would take precedence over any basketball possibility.

Plus, the Los Angeles Dodgers are about to go on the market. Johnson is following those developments as well.

The NBA is obviously his greatest passion, though, and where he feels his background would have the most impact. He envisions heading basketball operations, but even without that lead role (if Johnson feels it would be impossible while also maintaining many high-stakes business ventures), he would at least have a voice in a team's personnel decisions. He would also be comfortable on the corporate side and an obvious benefit in closing deals and generating fan interest.

His decision to sell the minority share in the Lakers in October 2010 came as no surprise. Johnson had concluded months earlier that his plan to have a much bigger voice with a larger stake in ownership would not happen with the only professional home he had known. So he sold, at what was described at the time as a sizeable profit, and went franchise shopping.

The Lansing, Mich., native expressed interest in the Pistons, but that didn't go beyond talk. The Warriors were his first real target, as part of a group with 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, but Joe Lacob and Peter Guber won the bidding. Johnson then became involved in the exhausting challenge of getting the NFL to Los Angeles.

Now, there are two clear opportunities in the NBA and a third, distant possibility.

The Hornets, currently owned by the league, will be sold at some point. Chairman Jac Sperling told the New Orleans Times-Picayune last month that "we've started having conversations with potential owners already" despite the lockout, adding, "The number of potential owners has grown. I think the commissioner mentioned there were four or five, and I think the number has increased a little bit. There are some potential owners who live in New Orleans and some who live outside of New Orleans."

David Stern would not only love to have Johnson in a prominent role in the NBA again -- Magic remains a Lakers vice president, but with little day-to-day involvement -- but the commissioner has said he expects Johnson to one day be part of an ownership group.

Atlanta is an unexpected option again after the sale to Alex Meruelo fell through last week. Bruce Levenson, one of the heads of the ownership group that would continue to run the team, quickly said the Hawks are no longer for sale. That is either true or, just maybe, what he has to say. Either way, Johnson will probably find out for himself.

The Sacramento Kings may be longshots. The owners of the Kings, the Maloof family, have so far turned down several inquiries to sell. But the situation is rich with intrigue.

Johnson and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson are friends, and the former Suns All-Star point guard previously worked to find a new owner who would keep the team in town. The mayor knows the infusion of energy that would come if Magic bought the Kings. But KJ also knows the Maloofs' stance against selling and has turned publicly supportive of the family interests.

Still, Magic has ties to Sacramento that could make a purchase of the Kings attractive, if the Maloofs were to look for a buyer. Magic is involved with Anschutz Entertainment Group to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles. AEG is part-owner of the Lakers, and Johnson is close with AEG president Tim Leiweke. AEG is also tight with Stern and the NBA, and AEG has become involved in talks for a new building in Sacramento. The connections are endless.

The counter, of course, is that the Kings aren't moving if they get an arena deal before March 1, 2012. If the Maloofs didn't sell at the height of uncertainty with the potential relocation to Anaheim and all their financial woes, the argument goes, why would they cash out with the new cash stream of a building and a new collective bargaining agreement expected to make life easier on small-market teams?

Magic is watching anyway, because it doesn't hurt to be ready and because he wants to own some team in some sport. Most everyone assumed the retirement announced some 20 years ago was the beginning of the end, yet here he is. The future that looked so cloudy back then seems brighter than ever now.

PREVIOUSLY: Magic stood tallest in darkest hour.

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

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