A day after Lakers’ title victory, a smiling Magic Johnson can’t shut up, and is willing to put up
You could sense Magic Johnson smiling broadly as he spoke into the phone and looked over the city — his city — from his Beverly Hills office.
The Lakers had defeated the Boston Celtics the previous night in the NBA Finals, and the pioneer of such success was ready to hand over the torch 2 1/2 decades later.
“That was Lakers-Celtics at its best,” Johnson said, and he was just getting started, glad to finally be joined in the five-ring category by Derek Fisher and, of course, Kobe Bryant.
Before Bryant could ever match Michael Jordan’s six championships, he had to get to Johnson’s level, which he did Thursday in the Lakers’ tense 83-79 victory in Game 7.
Johnson was there “enjoying every minute of it,” and still ecstatic a day later, his affection for the Lakers’ success extending to Bryant.
“I think that he earned a right to have a statue out front,” Johnson said Friday, referring to the Staples Center plaza. “When you win five championships for the Lakers, that’s what you’re judged by, is championships. I’m happy for him and I’m happy for the organization and with all the guy went through with the whole Shaq thing, he’s proven his greatness.”
What touched Johnson was the immediate aftermath, when it sunk in that the Lakers had come back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit to win their 16th championship.
“I haven’t seen the Lakers this emotional,” he said. “Derek Fisher was crying, and [ Pau] Gasol too. I think they finally understood the history of the rivalry and how hard it was to beat the Celtics. They were in the moment.”
Will they stay there for another year, turning a repeat into a three-peat?
Johnson, who owns about 5% of the team, said his first hope was that Phil Jackson would return as coach, one of the “big decisions” facing a franchise whose profit margin shrunk because it had the NBA’s largest payroll as advertising revenue declined and season-ticket revenue remained the same.
“We’re going to have one of the toughest off-seasons ever in our franchise,” Johnson said quietly. “The top of that is Phil Jackson. That’s a decision that Phil and Dr. [ Jerry] Buss, they have to work it out, but I think that Phil is a winner and I think these guys need a winner.
“Dr. Buss is looking at his finances and saying, ‘I’ve got to make business decisions.’ It’ll be tough, but Dr. Buss has always done the right thing for the organization. He’s always made the right decisions.”
Just the same, Johnson said he would call the Lakers’ owner in coming days.
“I want to make sure of something,” Johnson said. “I want Phil back in the worst way. I will give [Buss] some money if I have to.”
Johnson knows who was responsible for Thursday’s victory on a night when Bryant stumbled, making only six of 24 shots, and Gasol sputtered on offense for three quarters.
" Ron [Artest] kept the Lakers there until Gasol and Kobe started doing their thing in the fourth,” Johnson said. “Ron was not brought here for the regular season or the first two or three [playoff] rounds. That’s not how the Lakers look at things. It’s, ‘Who do we have to beat for the championship?’ and not ‘Who do we have to beat for the regular season?’ We saw two powerful forwards out there that we had to deal with, whether that was Paul [Pierce] or LeBron James.
“Paul dominated Trevor Ariza [in 2008] because Paul’s too big for Trevor. But Ron never let him get to those spots that he did in ’08. He had that one game in Boston, but that was it. Ron matched his physical play. Ron was unbelievable.”
Something else made a believer out of Johnson — a normally stoic Staples Center crowd making a difference in Game 7.
“With everything that I’ve seen in 30 years, I’ve never seen Laker fans like that. And that’s serious,” Johnson said. “We’ve been intense before, but never like that. It blew me away.
“What they did in Game 7, showed up early and were loud, and a lot of times in the game didn’t sit down. It was ‘De-fense, De-fense’ the whole game, not parts of the game. Once the guys got rolling and started playing well, they were the ones that helped will that team to victory.”
And with that, Johnson was gone, off to tend to another part of a real estate and business empire he’s amassed over the last 20 years. Wherever the rest of the day took him, he was sure to be smiling.
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