He was either practicing his victory march or polishing his concession speech.
Who knows? With Magic Johnson, who can ever know?
The only thing certain was, on what was supposed to be one of the final calm days before the NBA’s free-agent storm officially arrives this weekend, the Lakers basketball boss created his own thunder.
He said he felt no pressure to sign LeBron James and Paul George. He said the rebuilding process could actually require two summers, thus preparing fans for a possible free-agent shutout.
Then, in his final and biggest rumble at a Tuesday morning news conference, he said if he can’t get this team fixed by next year, he would quit.
“Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure,” Johnson said, adding, “If I can’t deliver I’m going to step down myself, [Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it, because I can’t do this job.”
Sound familiar? Jim Buss, Johnson’s predecessor, once made a similar declaration to his family and The Times’ Mike Bresnahan.
“If this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on top…then I will step down because that means I have failed,” Buss told Bresnahan in the spring of 2014.
Buss couldn’t make it work, he couldn’t get them back on top, and three years later his sister took him up on his offer and fired him. So, yeah, Johnson’s proclamation was surprising, unsettling, and downright cryptic.
He could be talking like someone who knows he will bring in George and James in the next couple of weeks, at which point Los Angeles’ most beloved sports figure will once again hear the cheers of a city. The Greatest Laker Ever acquires the Great Player Ever? Are you kidding me?
Or, Johnson could be talking like someone who is buying time because he doesn’t think he can bring in any big shot this summer, at which point his reputation as a basketball executive will take a sizeable hit.
Or, maybe he still has no idea about this summer’s outcome and was publicly steeling himself for the fight ahead.
Who knows? With Magic Johnson, who can ever know?
Whatever it was, his emotional responses were everything that everybody loved about Johnson as a player, and everything that made some folks squeamish about the idea of him as a boss.
The Lakers can only hope that, in an era when mercurial players seek front office stability, his passion will sell.
I was in the middle of Tuesday’s furor. It occured at the end of a news conference introducing Lakers draft picks Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk. They seemed like nice kids, but I was more concerned about the Lakers’ next step, and so I asked Johnson about the importance of significant roster additions in the next couple of weeks.
“Well, we are excited about free agency and we have often said this — we know we have two summers to deal with,” he said. “And we will see what happens this summer. If we don’t sign who we think we can sign, we will turn our attention to next summer.”
This two-summer philosophy, which the Lakers have floated for a couple of months now, is a direct contradiction to Johnson’s quote at this same type of draft-pick introduction news conference last June.
“We’re going to be a major player next summer,” he said at the time.
Moving that target to another summer is not going to sit well with some Lakers fans who have suffered through a club-record five consecutive seasons without a playoff game. So I then asked Johnson how much pressure he feels to deliver.
“No pressure on me, I am going to do my job; I have always done that,” he said, smiling and eventually laughing. “Look, I have been playing… do you know how many Finals I have been in? So you think I am worried about this? I have played against Larry Bird in the Finals. I mean, come on man. I have been in nine Finals. I have been in college NCAA championships.”
I mentioned that this situation is different because his role is different. While his greatness as a player was unquestioned, he’s still a relatively new executive.
“I’m Magic Johnson,” he exclaimed in reply. “I am still the same dude. I am not going to change. No pressure on me. I am going to do my job. That’s what I do. I do my job. I’m excited. It’s fun. I am looking forward to it.”
Later, in a separate interview with several reporters, I asked whether it would be a failure if the Lakers did not acquire at least one top free agent this summer.
“No, because I told you this is two summers,” he said. “We don’t know what people are going to decide. And we can’t control that, so if guys decide not to come here it’s not a failure. We turn to next summer.”
He added, “If you judge us on one summer that’s ridiculous. Then a lot of dudes shouldn’t be in their roles. Because if we’re banking on one summer for the Lakers, we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble. You have to give us time.”
Buss will give him time. Nobody is going to lose their jobs if the Lakers don’t score here. Johnson is right about next summer being another great free-agent opportunity, with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson possibly available.
But this summer’s class features the game’s greatest player who owns homes here, and a southern California native who has said he wants to play here. To miss on both James and George would be a huge missed opportunity.
Magic Johnson knows that, and maybe that’s why he was so emotional about it Tuesday, alternately fighting against and embracing the expectations, either publicly celebrating or mourning or maybe just preparing.