By Jason Keidel
It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for the terms desperate and Lakers to be synonymous. Equally incongruous is the iconic NBA franchise anchored at the bottom of basketball’s standings.
Jeanie Buss, daughter of Jerry Buss, has kept the family business within the family. But in light of the Lakers’ woeful performance, she was forced to boot her brother, Jim, who was running the personnel side of things. Afterward, a solemn, contrite Buss apologized to Lakers fans for taking so long to see the light. She felt obliged to grant Jim the three years he said it would take to restore a new brand of ‘Showtime.’
And, as we’ve seen, the term family is pliable. One need not be blood to be progeny. With that in mind, Jeanie Buss hired another of her dad’s de facto sons to run the club — perhaps the most decorated and celebrated of all — Magic Johnson.
Certainly, he has the basketball bona fides, and a surplus of goodwill to burn. But we don’t know that Magic’s on-court vision transcends the hardwood. In fact, there’s been little to suggest he will succeed.
Magic doesn’t need the cash or the cachet. Yet word is he pined ardently for the job as team president.
Just look at another recently departed icon, Phil Jackson, who wanted to return as Lakers coach but was rebuffed for Mike D’Antoni. Jackson migrated east, where he made his bones as a basketball player and potential coach, to run the Knicks… into the ground. Jackson has been, by any subjective or objective terms, a disaster. Other than backing into a basketball unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson has been almost as inept as Isiah Thomas, who was so awful his name alone is nearly a historical profanity.
In other words, being great at one thing doesn’t assure that you will be great, or even good, at something else. Jackson was a genius at moving players and molding egos — on the court. But none of the Zen Master’s triangular world has helped him in the least to procure the personnel to improve the Knicks.
Magic Johnson has two things that have eluded Jackson: his health and a robust work ethic. Jackson has not only made woeful moves, but he doesn’t even try, spending more time tooling around some log cabin out west or near Woodstock, and the rest of his time tweaking his latest, clever tweet. Unlike Jackson, who took the Knicks gig as a supreme money grab, Johnson wants to make the Lakers a great team again.
Magic was more than a Laker, and more than a basketball player. When Magic and Larry Bird brought their twin talents to the sport, and the world, it literally changed the game. It changed the way we perceived and celebrated basketball.
Magic made passing cool, and gave those of us with gravity-bound gifts a way to play the game without residing above the rim. Even on the street, on the asphalt, from L.A. to NYC, where the individual play is heralded above wins and losses, kids eschewed the dunk for the dime, for the selfless coda of making your teammates shine.
Magic not only made passing cool, but he showed us the keyhole to victory. And while there never was and still hasn’t been another physical anomaly like Magic — a 6’9″ point guard who handled the ball like Steph Curry despite being double the size — we can all pass a little better, always think about the man next to us a bit more than ourselves.
So most of us want Magic to make it big. But he was a lousy coach. And there are endless historical precedents that suggest great players don’t carry their talents over once they swap shorts for suits. Elgin Baylor. Bill Russell. Isiah Thomas. And if Magic couldn’t run a team from the bench, why will he be better at running it from the executive suite?
Jerry West may be the only hardwood legend who was equally divine on and off the court. Coincidentally, he too was a lifelong Laker. Sadly, West painfully bolted his home after he could no longer tolerate Phil Jackson’s caustic, condescending autocracy.
Perhaps Jackson is paying a hefty karmic tax for his hubris. Magic isn’t about ego. He’s thinking about someone other than himself. And leave it to the rest of us to root for him to make the Lakers a contender again.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.