In a stunning and impromptu 40-minute news conference before the Los Angeles Lakers’ season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers, Magic Johnson announced he was stepping down from his role as the team’s president of basketball of operations. The decision comes a little more than two years after he took on the position in an effort to restore one of the league’s most storied franchises to championship contention.
Johnson made the announcement immediately after coach Luke Walton’s pregame comments, adding that he had not yet informed team owner Jeanie Buss of his intentions to step down.
“I like to be free,” Johnson said. “I’ve got a great life… what am I doing? I’ve got a beautiful life. I’m gonna go back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it. Somebody is going to have to tell my boss, because I know she’s going to be sick. But I knew I couldn’t face her face-to-face and tell her.”
Johnson didn’t directly tie his decision to the future of Walton, but the third-year coach was widely expected to be fired by Johnson. Without using names, Johnson repeatedly mentioned Buss’ affinity for Walton, who was in place before Johnson got his job in February 2017, and Johnson’s desire not to cause upheaval between the owner and her chosen coach.
“(On Wednesday) I would have to affect somebody’s livelihood and their life,” Johnson said. “And I thought about it and I said, ‘That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am.’ And then I don’t want to put her in the middle of us, even though she said, ‘Hey, you can do what you want to do.’ I know she has great love for him and great love for me.”
Johnson and Buss had a three-hour meeting Monday about the direction of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers, who haven’t made the postseason since 2013. Magic claimed he didn’t finalize his decision until Tuesday morning.
Buss didn’t attend the Lakers’ season finale, although Johnson waited by the executive parking area at Staples Center in hopes of seeing her. Buss tweeted her reaction at halftime.
“We thank him for his work these past two years as our President of Basketball Operations,” the team said in a statement, “and wish him, Cookie, Andre, EJ and Elisa all the best with their next steps. He will always be not only a Lakers icon, but our family.”
Via Twitter, Buss said: “Earvin, I loved working side by side with you. You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you.”
Earvin, I loved working side by side with you. You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you 💜💛 https://t.co/ofmQl6BtBz
— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) April 10, 2019
Johnson repeatedly cited the need for freedom of interaction and expression with other players as a key reason behind his decision. The Lakers were fined more than once for tampering that stemmed from Johnson referencing pending free agents or discussing off-court interactions with players of opposing teams under contract.
“I want to be free and not have handcuffs on me,” Johnson admitted.
Walton, who is 98-148 in three seasons, refused to say much about Johnson’s announcement after the loss to Portland: “I found out when you guys did. It was 80 minutes before the game … and I haven’t had any time to really process it.”
Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports later reported that Buss had given Johnson her permission to fire Walton before the Lakers’ president of basketball operations ultimately decided to step down instead.
“It’s the right move to make,” Johnson emotionally added, “then, that way, he can stay in place, hopefully coach the team the right way.”
I’m gonna go back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it. Somebody is going to have to tell my boss, ’cause I know she’s going to be sick, but I know I couldn’t face her face-to-face and tell her.”
Johnson’s desire for his old life wasn’t the only reason for his departure. He also said he is tired of being investigated or fined by the NBA for tampering when he comments on basketball on Twitter or even speaks to another organization’s player.
Johnson, a longtime broadcaster and respected basketball figure before moving into the front office, has been investigated four times for tampering after everything from a joking comment about Paul George on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show to his response to an email sent to him by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.
🎥 Luke reflects on the season and what he’ll take away from it. pic.twitter.com/StxcD2lMnc
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 10, 2019
“I thought about Dwyane Wade retiring (Wednesday), and I can’t even tweet that out or be there,” Johnson said. “Serena Williams called me a week ago and said, `Will you mentor me and be on my advisory board?’ And I said, `Yeah, I’m going to do that.’ So when Ben Simmons called and we went through the proper channels and they made me look like the bad guy out of that situation, but I didn’t do anything wrong … I was thinking about all those times, all those guys who want me to mentor them or be a part of their lives, and I can’t even do that. I had more fun on the other side.”
The legend-turned-executive was a key figure in the Lakers’ recruitment of LeBron James last summer as well as an initial supporter of former No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball. Yet Johnson and the Lakers’ front office faced scrutiny for their other moves, including the role players they signed around James, their inability to acquire Anthony Davis at the trade deadline, and the emergence of former Laker D’Angelo Russell after being dealt to Brooklyn in 2017.
As for his own team, Johnson remained adamant that the Lakers are already “headed in the right direction.”
“Next year we’re going to be good. If we get one of these [free agents], we’re going to be really good.
“I’m good with where I am,” a relieved Johnson acknowledged. “I’m happy. I want to do the things I used to do. I had to weigh both situations and this is better for me.”
Johnson, who will turn 60 in August, also has many thriving business interests along with ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles FC.
Johnson’s sudden decision ends another chapter in the remarkable life of the star point guard from Lansing, Michigan, who won an NCAA championship at Michigan State before claiming five NBA titles and three league MVP awards during his 12-year playing career as the leader of the Showtime Lakers.
Johnson retired in 1991 after he tested positive for HIV, but later returned briefly to the Lakers as a player and a coach. Johnson says his current health is ideal, and he insists no health concerns were part of his decision to quit the job that seemed to be his ultimate destiny.
Johnson was hired along with Pelinka when Buss dismissed her brother, Jim, and GM Mitch Kupchak just 26 months ago. The Buss children’s father, Jerry, had long envisioned Johnson in a powerful role in the Lakers’ front office, and Jeanie put Magic in charge of shaking up her storied franchise in decline.
The Lakers compiled their best record in six years this season, but were eliminated from playoff contention by Russell’s Nets back on March 22. Los Angeles had never missed the playoffs in more than two consecutive seasons before this six-year drought.
Johnson remained publicly supportive of Walton, but Magic also was widely known to agree with Walton’s detractors who aren’t impressed by his offensive game planning and rotations. Johnson’s decision to step down likely means the Lakers won’t make a decision on Walton’s future until a new front office is in place.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.