Magic Johnson lingered behind a crowd of reporters surrounding Luke Walton during the Lakers coach’s pregame news conference Tuesday at Staples Center.
When Walton finished speaking, reporters began to shuffle around. Johnson didn’t move at first. Then he pushed through the throng of reporters as a member of the Lakers public relations staff tried to stop him. Johnson acknowledged her, but disregarded her concern. He had something to get off his mind.
“Today I’m going to step down as the president,” Johnson said.
He said it without any warning, and almost as little planning.
Just like that it was over. Johnson no longer runs the Lakers’ basketball operations, a job he took on Feb. 21, 2017, when Jeanie Buss fired her brother Jim and the Lakers’ long-time general manager Mitch Kupchak.
“It’s a difficult decision,” Johnson said, as he began to cry. “I cried before I came here; I’m about to cry now. But, it’s hard when you love an organization as much as I love this organization. It’s hard when you love a person like I love Jeanie. And I don’t want to disappoint her. I don’t want — we love Luke. So I’ve got to make a decision. And that’s a tough thing.”
Johnson attributed his decision to several factors. He said he didn’t want to have to ask Jeanie Buss to fire Walton, someone for whom Buss has a great deal of affection. He said he was tired of the “backstabbing and the whispering” but never explained exactly what he meant. He said he was tired of not being able to talk to players on other teams and mentor them without the specter of tampering.
Johnson was asked if he would like to see Walton remain the team’s head coach. He was also asked if he believes Rob Pelinka is the right general manager for the franchise. He said both were decisions for Buss. A person familiar with Buss’ thinking said Johnson’s decision did not guarantee Walton’s job was safe.
“There is no greater Los Angeles Laker than Earvin Johnson,” the team said in a statement released about 2 ½ hours after Johnson’s impromptu news conference. “We are deeply grateful to Magic for all that he has done for our franchise — as a player, an ambassador and an executive.”
Nobody saw the end coming. Not LeBron James nor any of the players. Not coaches. Not other executives in the building. And certainly not Jeanie Buss.
“I couldn’t stand to tell her,” Johnson said.
He later admitted, tears filling his eyes, that he knew if he had talked to her she would have convinced him to stay.
“We would’ve cried; we would have been in there crying for an hour,” Johnson said. “Because of that, I would have probably stayed in the role. But you gotta be happy. I gotta be happy. The Lakers are going to be fine.”
It’s the same reason he said he didn’t call Pat Riley, his former coach, to discuss his decision.
Buss posted a message on Twitter that ended with two hearts in purple and gold.
“Earvin, I loved working side by side with you,” she wrote. “You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you.”
As word spread through the Lakers’ organization and the NBA, several people wondered whether Johnson’s departure was related to a yet-to-be-published article by ESPN that is said to address allegations about Johnson’s conduct with employees.
“That story is wrong,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times.
He later added to a group of reporters: “Never disrespected anybody. Never did anything bad. Am I tough? Hell, yeah! You work for me, I’m demanding. But at the same time I’m fair. They’ve been talking about that article for how many months? Everybody running, ‘Oh they’re writing an article.’ I’m gonna say, why didn’t they interview anybody at ESPN? If I was doing something wrong to employees disrespecting, this or that, think they would’ve hired me twice?”
Buss did not attend Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the season finale for a Lakers’ team that finished 37-45 and missed the playoffs. She normally sits behind a row of courtside seats. As Johnson left Staples Center, through a gust of wind burst through the loading dock, he said he planned to find her for a chat. If not Tuesday night, then on Wednesday.
Their relationship spans decades. They met before Johnson’s rookie year when he showed up at the house of her father, longtime owner Jerry Buss, and announced that he would be leaving Los Angeles as soon as he could to play for the Detroit Pistons in his home state.
He didn’t, of course, and became one of the most beloved Lakers of all time. Johnson won five championships, three most valuable player awards and three NBA Finals MVP awards during his time with the Lakers.
“My concern was really my relationship with my sister, and that’s Jeanie Buss,” Johnson said. “That’s all I care about. All the rest of the stuff doesn’t really matter.”
She hired him as an advisor at a time she was struggling to trust those around her. Her relationship with her brother Jim, then the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, had been strained for years. She thought Kupchak and Johnson, former teammates, would communicate well. When that didn’t happen, she fired her brother and Kupchak. Not long afterward, she sued her two older brothers for attempting to oust her as the team’s controlling owner.
Through that instability, Johnson offered comfort. Together, they hired Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s former agent, and both men were tasked with returning a stumbling franchise to glory.
They cleared salary cap space by ridding the team of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, players who’d received bloated multiple-year contracts from the Lakers in 2016. D’Angelo Russell was packaged with Mozgov in 2017. Deng was released after last season. Russell became an All-Star this year and his Brooklyn Nets are headed to the playoffs.
The Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball in 2017, and Johnson introduced him as the face of the franchise.
Along the way, the Lakers got fined for tampering twice — once when Johnson praised Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and said he would bring a championship to Milwaukee.
There were missteps for sure, but Johnson had one major victory. The crowning moment of Johnson’s time as a Lakers executive came on June 30, 2018, when he sat outside James’ Brentwood home waiting for 9 p.m., when free agency opened and they could talk.
Johnson and James spent three hours discussing plans for the future on and off the court. The next day, James agreed to become a Laker.
“You know what I love?” Johnson said. “The recruitment of LeBron. Because you get me in the room with somebody, it’s over. I know how to close deals.”
Pelinka, Buss and Johnson got on a three-way phone call to celebrate the news. They screamed, they cried, they laughed. The Lakers were back, many people thought.
Instead, the Lakers are missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Walton’s job is in question. Pelinka’s might be, too. And their lead executive decided he had enough.
“I’m good with where I am,” Johnson said Tuesday as his time with the Lakers came to an end. “I’m happy. I want to do the things I used to do. So I had to weigh both situations. So, this is better for me.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli