In his first public comments since being hired as an advisor to Lakers governor and co-owner Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson tread softly about the Lakers executive of whom he has been most critical through the years.
His role, he said, was simply to help in any way he could.
“Jim [Buss] is calling the shots,” Johnson said during an interview with Spectrum SportsNet, the station that holds the rights to Laker broadcasts. “I want him to understand I’m just here to lend advice.”
The Lakers hired Johnson on Thursday, two weeks after Johnson and Jeanie Buss were seen having dinner before watching a Lakers game together. Johnson's duties will include “collaborating with coaches, evaluating and mentoring players, assessing future franchise needs, and helping ownership to determine the best path for growth and success,” according to a release on the team website.
He will report directly to Jeanie Buss.
Johnson, who was not available to other media outlets, described a versatile role, where he will advise team executives and employees on everything from business to basketball should they want it.
He also indicated he did not want to force his way into any situation. He said he was open to helping Lakers Coach Luke Walton in working with players, but also open to being uninvolved in the players’ day-to-day development if Walton was comfortable with that.
“What I want to do is try to just, little by little build the Lakers back up to where they should be,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent 13 seasons playing for the Lakers, winning five championships and three MVP awards. During that time, he grew especially close with late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Jeanie and Jim’s father.
The elder Buss sold an ownership stake in the organization to Johnson after he retired from playing. Johnson, who also has an ownership stake in the Dodgers and Sparks, sold his share of the Lakers in 2010.
He maintained an honorary position with the team until last summer. In June, the team removed his name from the Lakers’ staff listings, which had named him as a vice president. The Lakers said the move was made at Johnson's behest to eliminate any confusion concerning whether he was advising the team.
Still, he and Jeanie Buss have remained friends. He joins her at a pivotal time for the organization.
The Lakers are 17-35 under first-year head coach Walton, having already won as many games as they did last season. Although that shows improvement, it might not be enough improvement to avoid seismic changes at the highest levels of the organization.
In April 2014, Jim Buss told The Times that he would step down if the Lakers were not in contention for a Western Conference championship in three or four years. Jeanie Buss has the power to remove her brother from that role if he does not remove himself.
Johnson has been critical of Jim Buss in the past, but he took a much softer tone Thursday.
He met with General Manager Mitch Kupchak, whose fate has often been tied to Jim Buss in the past, and said he planned to have a longer meeting with Kupchak to break down the roster, its strengths and weaknesses. Johnson said he hoped to do the same with Jim Buss.
“I know every Laker frontwards and backwards,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to talking basketball and how can I help you whether you’re making a decision and just give you some advice. Whether that’s again going on the floor, or just giving you notes on what I see game to game on every player. I’ve watched every Laker game, so I’ve known every guy.”
News of Johnson’s hiring spread slowly to Washington, where the Lakers played the Wizards on Thursday. Before the game most of the players didn’t know Johnson had been hired yet.
“He’s one of the few players that every player automatically respects without even knowing him, because of what he’s accomplished as a player and the way he’s seen the game,” Walton said. “So having a set of eyes like that and a guy they can talk to about what it’s like and what it takes, I’m hopeful it will be good for these young guys.”
Lakers guard Nick Young said he hoped to talk to Johnson about the joy with which he played, and if he too received criticism for smiling too much. Larry Nance Jr. said he’d be sure to ask his father, former NBA player Larry Nance, for stories of playing against Johnson.
“You surround yourself with success, good things are bound to happen,” Nance said. “I’m excited to hear it. Looking forward to seeing what he’s got in store.”
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