Lakers get back to business on the day after the big day
Magic Johnson’s retired jersey hung high on the wall just above the court where the Lakers ran up and down during a scrimmage.
A day after a franchise-shaking quake struck the building, the players and coaches tried to return to business as usual. Total normalcy, though, was impossible.
Johnson wasn’t just a character out of the team’s storied past anymore. He was part of their present and their future as the team’s president of basketball operations.
On Tuesday, Lakers governor and president Jeanie Buss fired her brother Jim Buss as executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager Mitch Kupchak. She installed Johnson as the team’s president of basketball operations and he has all but hired Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s longtime agent, as the team’s new general manager.
Wednesday, the players and coaches set to work adjusting.
“It’s tricky,” Coach Luke Walton said. “I am sad that Mitch and Jimmy aren’t here anymore, but at the same time I’m excited to be working with Magic and Rob. It is what it is right now. We’re going to keep grinding away down here.”
Walton spoke over the phone with Kupchak and Buss after they were fired. They offered support for the ever-upbeat head coach.
“It was definitely a little sad,” Walton said. “I think it’s important to really remember all the great things they did while they were here too.”
Kupchak, who spent 36 years with the franchise, 31 in its front office and 17 as general manager, broke his public silence Wednesday. As the architect of two Lakers championship teams, he spoke fondly of his time with the organization, and of the opportunity the Buss family gave him.
“In particular I would like to acknowledge Dr. [Jerry] Buss, who brought me here as a player in 1981,” Kupchak said in a statement. “I also want to thank every Laker player, coach and staff member with whom I have worked and who supported me through the good times and the very few not so good times.
“I am most disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to continue to work with Luke and watch this young and talented team grow and eventually win in the Laker tradition.”
He went on to wish Johnson luck.
Johnson made an impact immediately.
On Tuesday, he negotiated the trade that sent Lou Williams, one of the most popular players in the locker room and the team’s leading scorer, to the Houston Rockets. On Wednesday, he worked in the team’s offices, negotiating and pondering other potential moves.
During a break, he addressed the players in the team meeting room before practice, to tell them about his vision and assure them they were all in this together.
After a weeklong All-Star break, players returned from their vacations to their new reality.
Julius Randle, who grew up a Lakers fan, said hearing from Johnson had a bit of an “awe factor.” Brandon Ingram said Johnson’s message was about winning.
Several players expressed gratitude for Kupchak believing enough in them to bring them to the Lakers.
“I can’t thank him enough, how grateful I am that they had me on their radar and brought me in here,” Randle said. “It’s a great organization, a great family. I can’t thank him enough. He did an amazing job. He was great here. I loved him here.”
Change can be difficult for young players. When Walton was a rookie, the Lakers traded Jannero Pargo.
“I thought the world stopped,” Walton said. “I’d never seen a teammate get traded before.”
So he took time before practice to talk to players about that, and to let them air their thoughts. That Williams wasn’t with them made all the changes in the past day seem that much more real. And even though Johnson said he considered the Lakers “young talent” to be “untouchable,” an air of uncertainty still permeated the team.
“You should never feel like you’re untouchable,” said point guard D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in 2015. “Lou is one of our better players and he got moved around, so nobody should feel untouchable.”
The balcony on which Kupchak often sat to watch practice stayed empty while media was allowed inside Wednesday’s practice. With the NBA’s trade deadline less than 24 hours away, Johnson was busy. Inside the office just beside it, several remaining members of the front office could be seen — Joey and Jesse Buss, Ryan West, among them.
After Walton spoke to reporters, he walked up the staircase leading to that balcony and that office, a visible embodiment of Johnson’s message to everyone in the past two days. They all had jobs to do.
There was more work to be done. Even though so much had changed for the Lakers, that hadn’t.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli
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