EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Magic Johnson strolled into the conference room wearing his trademark smile, television-ready in a trim black suit, light blue shirt and black tie. All along the walls surrounding him were photos of the Los Angeles Lakers’ glorious past, from fellow legendary players to snapshots of iconic games and championship parades — all moments that have felt very distant as the franchise has slipped into dysfunction and irrelevance.
On one wall, a photo of Dr. Jerry Buss peered outward. In the frame, the Lakers’ late patriarch, who orchestrated their rise, is celebrating their 1987 championship win over Boston. Dr. Buss is beaming, holding a trophy, the fourth of the Lakers’ five titles during their Showtime 1980s era. His hair is soaked in champagne. Johnson was his star point guard, and it was beneath that photo that Johnson sat, at the head of the table, just as he always wanted.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if it was a good situation,” Johnson, the Lakers’ new president of basketball operations, said Tuesday afternoon at the team’s practice facility, speaking to a small group of reporters who cover the team. “I understand what I’m up against, but I’m here, and I’m here for the long haul, and eventually we will turn it around.”
Johnson said he had originally planned to meet with longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss on Tuesday. Instead, the team announced those two had been fired and that Johnson had been elevated to his new role.
Johnson said he had just been in the team’s “war room” with other Lakers executives, including Ryan West, Joey and Jesse Buss, and head coach Luke Walton, working the phones as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches. Johnson said he’d been in touch with 10 opposing NBA general managers, “wheeling and dealing and seeing what’s out there and what’s not out there.”
At the time, the Lakers lacked their own general manager, but Johnson said they hoped to announce a new one soon. Perhaps an hour later, multiple outlets reported the team was finalizing a deal with Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, to fill that post. And an hour or so after that, Johnson made his first move, agreeing to send the Lakers’ spark-plug reserve guard Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick, sources told ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes and Calvin Watkins.
Johnson is competitive and will move fast and aggressively to help turn around his beloved Lakers, an organization that has missed the playoffs for three straight years and is coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 record. But for all his credibility, charm and success both as a player and a businessman, Johnson knows that repairing the Lakers will take time and perhaps more effort than any endeavor he has so far taken on.
“I’m not naive to that,” he said, “but I’m excited about that.”
Johnson calls this position his dream job and said if he were scared of the daunting task ahead, he would’ve joined the Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons or New York Knicks, all teams that he said offered him positions.
He said he wants to empower his general manager, Pelinka, to make decisions, but also noted, “Anything to do with trades, [the] draft, is, of course, going to end with me.”
He added later, “You don’t know that I’m a control freak. You don’t get to where I am without being one. I’m going to make sure that I set the strategy, that I set the tone and that this organization is going to be about excellence on and off the court. That’s what we’re going to be about. And then everybody will have a clear role, and, of course, I’m a point guard, so I like to work with everybody.”
Johnson emphasized that he needs to learn the nuances of the NBA’s latest collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap, analytics and more — key elements of today’s game that weren’t as important when he starred in the 1980s.
“Those days are over with,” Johnson said, adding that he’ll accept NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s offer to visit New York City soon to learn more about the CBA. “The salary cap and the new CBA has changed the game of basketball.”
Johnson has said that he will help lure free agents back to the Lakers after four straight offseasons of being turned down by their top targets, but how he plans to do so remains unclear. When pressed about his pitch to free agents, Johnson only smiled and said, “They’ll just have to wait and see.”
The Lakers have always chased stars, but in recent years, they have struck out, in part because they didn’t have much to sell beyond their history and location, which clearly isn’t enough. Indeed, for the Lakers to succeed, they must forge a new way forward and accept that they can’t build championship-caliber teams as they once did, such as in the Showtime era.
“It was easier then,” Johnson said, “because free-agent movement or even making trades were easier back then, but now it’s a little bit more difficult with the new CBA. And then with the new CBA, everybody is really trying to keep their young talent. So player movement is not going to be as easy as it used to be.
“Players today, whether they’re coming to us or any other team, have got to buy into that vision and have got to say, ‘Look, I can see it. This organization is about winning.’ We’ve always been about winning. And you’ve got the right coach, you’ve got the right management team, you’ve got the right ownership, and so we’re looking forward to going out and pitching to free agents.”
Johnson bounces around Los Angeles and the country, making speeches and attending meetings on behalf of his various ventures, such as being a part owner of the Dodgers. But he stressed that the Lakers will be receiving his full attention.
“Everything is going smooth in my businesses,” he said. “I can step away now. If it had been five years ago, 10 years ago, I couldn’t do it, but the timing was right.”
And he stressed that he would still like Bryant to be involved, somehow.
“Whatever he wants to do,” Johnson said. “There’s no certain role.”
Myriad questions remain about Johnson’s ability to lead an NBA franchise, considering his lack of front-office experience and all that has changed not just since he played but in the past 10 years alone. By accepting this role, Johnson is no doubt risking his legacy, one that has been filled with success.
“I’m putting it all on the line,” he said. “But I knew that, also, when we got the Dodgers. I knew that when I bought the Sparks, but we won the championship. One thing about me is that I’m a risk-taker. If I didn’t think I could turn this thing around, you think I’d be sitting in this seat? I think that we can do it. It may take us some years to do it, but I’m here.”
At one point, Johnson was asked what he imagined Dr. Buss might have thought of Tuesday’s moves. Sitting beneath that photo of Dr. Buss, Johnson said he imagined that Dr. Buss would be smiling, knowing that Johnson was working with Jeanie, Joey and Jesse.
“Now, it’s probably tough for him to look and see Jim get removed from his position,” Johnson said. “It’s not a good thing for anybody, siblings [having] to remove another sibling. But one thing that happened here is that the Lakers have been losing, and we’ve made critical mistakes. It’s not like nobody was given a fair shot at this. All right?
“What I’m looking to do here is to move it forward. I can’t think about the past. I inherited this. I knew what I was getting into. I’m just going to move this thing forward and do the best job I can, but also, I’m going to include these people. I’ve got to work with some good people, talented people, and we’ll have a good pitch. Don’t worry about my pitch. It’s going to be a good pitch. But I will say this — it’s going to take some time, but I’m up for the challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.”