Under cover of darkness and all by himself, Magic Johnson arrived at LeBron James’ Brentwood house at 9:01 p.m. on Saturday.
He knew — he just knew — that if he could look James in the eye and talk to him, they’d connect. They had too much in common for that not to happen.
It was Johnson’s turn to save his beloved Lakers franchise.
They talked about basketball and what the Lakers’ future could be, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. James was already interested in the Lakers. He didn’t mind that the Lakers weren’t a ready-made championship team; he could help build that. They bonded as men who’d grown up in the Midwest, men who saw basketball as a doorway to the business world and a way to effect social change.
For more than two hours they shared their experiences, members of one of the tiniest and most elite fraternities.
And now the Lakers have a superstar again.
James chose the Lakers on Sunday evening, within the first 24 hours of NBA free agency. Instantly, the shine returned to the league’s glamour franchise.
After five years of missing the playoffs, infighting, turmoil, bad contracts and snubs in free agency, the Lakers got the player whose opinion matters more than anyone else’s every four summers.
James’ decision changes the league’s balance of power and gives the Lakers front office led by Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka its long-anticipated offseason triumph.
In James, 33, they get a four-time NBA most valuable player who’s reached the NBA Finals for the past eight years, winning with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. He was named MVP of all three championship series.
“Y’all really thought he was gonna pass up the greatest city in the world... #TheKingIsHere,” Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball wrote on Twitter.
“The SHOW is back,” teammate Josh Hart tweeted. Kyle Kuzma posted a video graphic of himself hugging James.
“Welcome to the family,” Bryant tweeted, and offered congratulations to Johnson, Pelinka and Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss.
On Saturday night, James’ agent, Rich Paul, had conversations with the Cavaliers. He reportedly met with the Philadelphia 76ers in Los Angeles, too.
But after 15 years in the NBA, James didn’t need much convincing or elaborate proposals. He knew how much he loved living in Los Angeles, how his family enjoyed summers in Brentwood. He knew what the Lakers once meant to the NBA. He believed enough in this team’s future, its leadership and his own recruiting abilities to sign a four-year deal.
This is the second time James has left Cleveland. He did it before in 2010, making his announcement at the end of an hourlong show on ESPN. This time he left with much less fanfare, and having delivered in 2016 Cleveland’s first professional sports championship in 52 years.
That season James and the Cavaliers came back from down three games to one to beat the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, in the second of four straight Finals matchups with them. But last month, after being swept in the series, James seemed acutely aware of the chasm between the teams’ levels of talent, and his team’s increasing inability to topple the juggernaut.
Now, James comes to a Lakers team loaded with young players that won just 35 games last season, well below the organization’s level of historic excellence.
In three of those years they set franchise records for futility. The 55 games they lost in the 2013-14 season were the most in the franchise’s history. Until the next year when they lost 61 and the year after that when they lost 65.
No superstar free agent came to save them. But the Lakers front office kept hoping and assuming.
Dwight Howard, then a coveted center seen as the second coming of Shaquille O’Neal, arrived in a 2012 trade and left as soon as he could in 2013. Billboards the Lakers unveiled that said, “Stay,” couldn’t sway him.
Carmelo Anthony didn’t come in 2014. DeAndre Jordan didn’t come in 2015, and neither did LaMarcus Aldridge who didn’t like what he heard. Kevin Durant wouldn’t even listen in 2016.
Then the Lakers tied themselves up by giving long, bloated contracts to free agents Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, suffocating their own future. That summer, many teams did the same.
All of it fell on the heads of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, then the Lakers’ top front office executives. Jeanie Buss fired them in the spring of 2017. She installed Johnson, one of her closest friends, as the president of basketball operations, fought off an attempted coup from her two older brothers Jim and Johnny, and then took a step back to see what her handpicked team could do.
Johnson and Pelinka came in with a plan to rid the team of bad contracts, assemble young talent and then attract stars starting in the summer of 2018. They traded Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell, freeing millions in salary-cap space. They traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cavaliers, of all teams, freeing up more space to add stars this summer.
What if they couldn’t do it? What if nobody came?
Johnson wouldn’t even entertain the thought.
“Do you know how many Finals I have been in?” Johnson said last week. “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’m Magic Johnson.”
Then he gave himself an ultimatum. If two summers passed and no star free agents joined the Lakers, Johnson would resign from his position.
There was no need. Right away, he found a new partner in LeBron James.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli