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Column: Magic Johnson no longer serves the Lakers, but he sees his signature on their success

Lakers great Magic Johnson smiles.
It’s been six months since Magic Johnson dramatically walked out on the Lakers. In that time, he’s rediscovered himself, while the team has regained its winning form.
(Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

The last time most folks saw Earvin Johnson, he was striding out of a Staples Center hallway, the villain who quit on the Lakers, the catalyst of their dysfunctional drama, the butt of so many jokes.

Six months later, on a chilly Monday night in a cluttered neighborhood in south Los Angeles, he is once again Magic.

He stands in the courtyard of the All Peoples Community Center, his smile reflecting off the shine of more than 300 new bicycles. Several hundred families surround him outside the iron gates, their faces pressed to the metal, laughing and smiling along with him.

Soon, they will all come inside for a Johnson-arranged Christmas party. There will be food, singing, games, the air filled with recorded carols and the tossing of tiny stuffed Minions dolls.

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Then, back in this courtyard, Johnson will end the party with a gift, handing each child a Christmas bike.

He will do so with no entourage, just his wife Cookie. There is nobody from the Lakers organization here. There are no cheering fans. There are only a couple of cameras and one print journalist. Most of the children have no idea who he is.

It is a night filled with something that Los Angeles forgot while everyone was ripping Johnson during his fractured two-year tenure as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

This is who he is. This is who he has always been. Serving the community, not running a sports team, is what he does best. Bringing hope, not managing hoops, will be his lasting legacy.

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These bikes, these kids, this ignored corner of the city on just another Monday night in December, this is the original Magic.

With Anthony Davis out because of injury, the Lakers struggled against the Indiana Pacers in a 105-102 loss that ended their 14-game road winning streak.

“This is my purpose,” says Johnson, his voice awash in a contentment that was missing when he was surrounded in purple drama. “This is why I was put on this earth.”

In typical Magic fashion, he sort of came here out of nowhere, his staff at Magic Johnson Enterprises choosing this place without any prior connections, Johnson and Cookie surprising everyone by personally handing out the bikes.

”It’s amazing he’s standing here. He could have given out these bikes without ever showing up,” says Saundra Bryant, longtime executive director of the center. “It’s like something you can’t even imagine would happen.”

Seth Walworth, the center’s board chairman, shakes his head as he watches the giant Johnson surrounded by tiny wide-eyed children as they walk tentatively around their gleaming gifts.

Magic Johnson attends a Christmas event at the All Peoples Community Center in L.A. earlier this week.
Magic Johnson attends a Christmas event at the All Peoples Community Center in L.A. earlier this week.
(Shabaka Johnson)

“It’s like he dropped out of the sky. We didn’t think he even knew we existed and suddenly he’s here with all these bikes,” Walworth says. “This is literally Santa Claus.”

When Johnson rejoined the Lakers out of nowhere in February 2017, some fans were also thinking Santa Claus. The expectation was that he was bringing Showtime into the front office, boldness into the transactions, and a championship tradition back into the building. Besides, he was replacing Jim Buss; how bad could it be?

Turns out, not great. The job never suited him. He was too busy with his business commitments. He was too emotional in his decision making. What made him such a freewheeling inspirational community leader hindered him in the cool and calculating role of running an NBA franchise.

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Fed up with a front office culture that didn’t give him absolute power, and seething mad at colleague Rob Pelinka for what he considered daily betrayals, Johnson stunningly and spectacularly walked away before the final Lakers game of the 2018-2019 season.

Most Lakers folks haven’t seen him since.

Johnson hasn’t been spotted at the practice facility or Staples Center. If he goes to a game, he stays in his suite. His voice has gone silent, his drama has disappeared, and he says it’s all intentional.

“I don’t want to interrupt what’s going on,” he says. “I’m back to doing what I was born to do.”

“This team would not be in the position it’s in without me.”
Magic Johnson on the Lakers’ success this season

Does he have any regrets? Would he have handled things different?

“No regrets, I’m not a regretful guy,” he says. “The only thing I would have done different would be to sit down with Jeanie [Buss] and let her know I was leaving, sit down with LeBron [James] and let him know … otherwise, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I still would have walked away.”

Would you still have ripped Pelinka so much on your way out the door?

”Things happened, forgive and forget. I’ve moved past that, so did Rob,” Johnson says. “Rob and I made up, we’re good, we still talk.”

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In the oddest twist, it turns out that not only do they still share ideas — they spoke a few days ago, Johnson says — but Pelinka is Johnson’s only regular connection to the front office.

”I haven’t talked with Jeanie about everything yet. We’ll get together and have a meeting where there’s no media,” Johnson says. “Yeah, I should have told her what I was going to do.”

Magic Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka sit courtside during a summer league game against the Clippers in 2018.
Magic Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka sit courtside during a summer league game against the Clippers in 2018.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Does he miss it?

“Part of me wishes I was there,” he says. But then looks down at those bikes. “But this is what I do. … This is what I’ve done for 40 years. … I’m never that guy that has one step in, one step out. I’m not that dude, and I couldn’t do that anymore.”

He believes he should be given a fair share of credit for the Lakers’ fast start.

”This team would not be in the position it’s in without me,” he says.

He talks about the trades he and Pelinka made to clear the salary cap space to sign James, notably the dealing of Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell. He talks about his recruitment of James. He talks about the players they drafted — Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart — who were included in the deal for Anthony Davis.

”This was my strategy, this is what I thought we’d be in three years,” he says. “I knew we were on the right track. Everybody wanted to do it their way, but I’m good with who I am. … I think people respect what I’ve done for the team.”

It all seems so detached from him now. Standing amid all these clattering children at the community center, several months past his 60th birthday, Earvin seems to have found great peace in rediscovering Magic.

He walks inside, climbs upon the stage in front of a packed gym, and explains why he is here.

Magic Johnson walks down a corridor at Staples Center after announcing his resignation as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations in April.
Magic Johnson walks down a corridor at Staples Center after announcing his resignation as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations in April.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“As a kid, because I grew up poor, my family couldn’t afford to buy me a bike,” he says. “I’m so happy I’ll be able to, along with my beautiful wife Cookie, be able to give away bikes to all of you kids today.”

Then he leads the children in a pep rally — to encourage each other.

“Let’s continue to help other people because that’s what it’s all about, giving back, helping somebody,” he says. “I want all the kids now, do me a favor, just high five the person next to you right quick!”

The slapping is deafening. The message is clear. Johnson is fostering connections with something far more powerful than cap space. He is using his charm not to woo a free agent, but to build a city.

The children excitedly line up outside for their bikes, some of them crying for joy, others begging their parents to let them ride home through darkened streets.

For Guillermo Gutierrez, 14, it is his first bike. He can describe exactly how it will change his life.

“I walk a mile to school,” he says. “And now I can ride.”

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Johnson literally hands the bikes to the first group of children, helping the little ones sit, holding handlebars, making sure they’re balanced, bending down to give them goodbye hugs.

The Staples Center hallway seems like another world. The Lakers’ soap opera seems like another life.

Far from the basketball floor, the greatest of Lakers has rediscovered his perfect fit.

“This man came in here and created all of this,” says center director Bryant, shaking her head. “This is … magic.”


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