The Lakers' public drama is a crisis of ownership

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Thursday, May 23, 2019

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. --Los Angeles Lakerscontrolling owner Jeanie Buss listened to the news conference in which Magic Johnson abruptly resigned aspresident of basketball operations on April 9 and felt like she was in a time machine.

The words, the substance, even the blindside nature of the blow felt just like 1981, when Johnson told her father, the late Jerry Buss, that he just didn't feel like he could be Magic Johnson playing in coach Paul Westhead's system. Buss told Johnson he'd make a change, but asked for a little bit of time.

Instead, Magic unloaded all his grievances publicly after the next game, catching the Lakers off guard and unprepared. Westhead was hastily fired. Buss tried to appoint Jerry West and Pat Riley as co-coaches at a truly bizarre news conference in which West overruled the team owner -- literally in front of everybody -- and gave the job to Riley outright.

That episode was all Jeanie Buss could think of after Johnson's end-of-season meltdown. The only difference: Johnson at least told her father how he was feeling before airing his grievances publicly and forcing the action.

This time around, Johnson blindsided her not once but twice. The second time came Monday morning when he went on First Take and aired his grievances with her, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Lakers business operations president Tim Harris.

Buss had questioned Johnson several times in the wake of his public resignation, asking him if there were any issues with Pelinka or anyone else in the organization. They spoke on the phone for hours. They went to a private dinner at Wally's in Beverly Hills on May 2. Multiple Lakers sources told ESPN that each time, Johnson said nothing beyond what he'd said on April 9 -- that he didn't feel like he could be Magic in this role and wanted his freedom back.

This is what Magic Johnson always has been and done. When you're a superstar of his magnitude, you're used to acting with impunity. And Buss and her family have been the ones enabling that type of impulsive, selfish behavior for decades. Johnson was worth all the headaches he created. As a player, at least.

But as an executive and family member -- they refer to each other as brother and sister -- he has proved to be incredibly destructive and damaging. (Of course that also describes what Buss' older brothers, Jim and Johnny, tried to do a few years ago when they attempted a coup on Jeanie Buss, for which she had them legally removed from the Lakers.)

Monday's blindside hit came at an even worse time than the first. The Lakers have been something of a dumpster fire since Johnson stepped down. Every decision they've made -- from installing Pelinka as the top basketball decision-maker to settling on their third choice as a head coach -- has been wholly unpopular. Worse, there's been no one from the organization willing to explain anything in the public spotlight.

This used to be an area in which Jeanie Buss excelled. She was always willing to take questions, even harsh ones. But she has been out of sight as of late, seemingly resigned to taking all the criticism coming her way.

The Lakers' thinking, when pressed, is something along the lines of: The only thing that will change hearts and minds is winning basketball again, so just take the criticism until that happens. Speak through actions, not words.

The problem with that strategy is the Lakers' actions continue to be self-destructive, and the only definitive statements on the record are from Johnson.

ESPN's Max Kellerman asked Johnson on First Take if he ever wanted to buy the Lakers. Johnson smiled, raised his hand giddily and said: "If the Lakers were up for sale tomorrow, yes, I'd be running up to Jeanie and say -- let me buy them. Listen, it's a gold mine. The Lakers are a gold mine."

Magic may be capable of lying to Buss' face about his motives. But he certainly seemed to be speaking his truth on Monday. He might even be right about the dysfunction of the organization and the guile of Pelinka.

But if Pelinka's crime -- "the backstabbing" that Johnson refers to -- was in questioning Johnson's commitment to the job and his work ethic, that sounds like a guy trying to call attention to a pretty serious problem. Running an NBA franchise isn't done on instinct and impulse. Decisions like firing a coach are made through a lengthy process, where the cost of firing and replacing a coach is weighed against the cost of training and educating a new one.

Asked about that process at Vogel's introduction, Pelinka responded: "When it comes to making a basketball decision, I collaborate with the staff, many of whom are at this press conference today, and then I make a recommendation to Jeanie and she blesses that or not. It's very clear and very simple."

That is not how Magic Johnson has ever rolled. When empowered with basketball decision-making by Buss and challenged by those in the franchise to consider such processes, Johnson abdicated responsibility and professed a lack of control.

In hindsight, the choice of Johnson as team president looks even more misguided. She probably should have known that then. But family has a way of creating blind spots that seem like loyalty. She definitely should have seen it when he resigned.

What Jeanie Buss needs to figure out now is how she allowed Magic Johnson to do so much damage.

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