Magic’s trip to memory lane reveals look into Lakers’ plan
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The topic of the day is teamwork, and a grinning Magic Johnson could go on forever.
The Los Angeles Lakers president takes a seat at his organization’s practice facility in mid-January and joyfully rips off answers about his favorite teammates, the importance of veteran leadership, the best ways to develop chemistry, the challenges of building a winner while dealing with salary-cap constraints and, of course, the greatest team of all-time debate.
“It’s an achievement to win 73 games, no question,” Johnson said, referring to the record-setting 2016 Golden State Warriors. “But that doesn’t mean that (Michael) Jordan’s Bulls teams weren’t as good as that (Warriors) team or my (1980s Lakers teams) weren’t as good. The Warriors are in the discussion but think about the runs we had — Jordan winning six (titles), us winning five. We dominated a whole decade. The Warriors haven’t done that yet. You have to do those type of things to be the greatest team of all-time to me.”
In Johnson’s estimation, the “Showtime” Lakers peaked in 1986-87 when they won 65 games and their fourth title out of five. That year, the Lakers posted a 115.6 offensive rating, a record mark that was tied by the 2017 Warriors. Johnson led the league in assists, earned All-Star and All-NBA first team honors and claimed his first MVP trophy. In the Finals, a 27-year-old Johnson led the Lakers past Larry Bird’s Celtics in six games, averaging 26.2 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists to earn Finals MVP.
“That 1987 team stacked up with all of them,” he said. “The starters were so dominant, and our bench was the best bench in basketball. Because of the run-and-gun pace that we played at, Golden State’s teams now mirror our teams more than the Bulls because Michael and them didn’t play fast. We were sitting on the bench in the third quarter and didn’t have to play a lot of fourth quarters because we were so good.”
Dream Team run offers lessons
The wide-ranging trip down memory lane coincides with Johnson’s role as a spokesman for Champion. Johnson recalled buying the apparel company’s “shorty shorts” and sleeveless T-shirts as a child in Lansing, Mich., and donning their red, white and blue jerseys as a member of USA Basketball’s 1992 Dream Team. Champion is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a film centered on Johnson’s reflections on the gold medal-winning squad that featured 11 Hall of Famers, including Jordan and Bird.
While the Dream Team crushed Angola by 68 points and wiped out Lithuania by 51 points en route to a gold medal, Johnson’s fondest memories concerned the group’s internal dynamics. Coach Chuck Daly made two tone-setting decisions. First, he made sure to pit Johnson and Jordan on opposite teams during practices and scrimmages to ensure maximum competition. Second, he showed respect to Jordan by naming him captain, setting up the Bulls great to pass the title onto Johnson and Bird, the group’s elder statesmen.
“When that happened, everybody had to leave their egos at the door,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what Michael was going to say. I was happy to just be a part of that team, and whatever role they wanted, I was going to play it. When Michael said that, I loved it. That’s who I am. I was probably going to naturally take over anyway, but it put me into more of a power position.
“The planes, bus rides and the locker room are just as important as the game. If you’re on the bus and somebody is mad, I’m going to try to work on him to not be mad. We had such a good time on the buses. We laughed so much. From day one, all we wanted to do was blow everybody out and win the gold medal. And that’s what we did.”
Camaraderie has been a point of emphasis for Johnson dating back to grade school. He remembered playing against Jay Vincent during childhood and later turning their mutual respect into a partnership at Michigan State. He thought back to the power of his lob passes to Spartans forward Greg Kelser, how an unselfish pass and forceful finish could ignite the crowd. He preached the importance of reading the room on behalf of his coach: understanding which guys were upset about playing time, when guys needed a day off or when they needed to be pushed harder.
Kareem helps expand worldview
Johnson’s most important partnership — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — also was one of his most complex due to their opposing personalities. Joining L.A. as a 20-year-old rookie, Johnson remembered idolizing the Hall of Fame center. When the solemn Abdul-Jabbar hit a game-winner to beat the San Diego Clippers in Johnson’s debut, the exuberant rookie famously jumped into his big man’s arms.
“Kareem is a stoic guy,” Johnson said. “I was jumping around all through training camp, and he’s looking at me like, ‘Is Magic always like this?’ Then he hits the sky hook, and I’m running, jumping, hugging. We get into the locker room, and he said, ‘Rookie, come here. Do you realize we have 81 more games? Don’t ever do that again.’ I stepped back and said, ‘Kareem, if you hit a shot like that 81 more times, I’m going to jump in your arms 81 more times.’ He understood this is who I am and I’m not going to change. After a month or two, he was looking around for his high-fives. I was like, ‘Oh, you want one now?’ We slowly changed him.”
Johnson said Abdul-Jabbar was not only the most intelligent teammate he ever played with, but the “smartest athlete in history.” If the point guard helped his center open up just a little, the center helped his point guard understand the importance of preparing for games mentally, concentrating on specific assignments and reading about non-basketball subjects to expand his worldview. “I owe a lot to him,” Johnson said. “He taught me how to be a professional and how to develop as a man.”
When the Lakers signed LeBron James last summer, they weren’t just eyeing the sport’s biggest talent. They sought an Abdul-Jabbar-like mentor for their young players and a Johnson-like personality capable of pulling everyone together.
“Chemistry doesn’t automatically build,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to bring in guys like LeBron who can make that happen. Our young guys were all together last year, and they really have a close bond. They hang out and tease each other on social media. But I need all 12 guys to come together if we’re going to be successful. LeBron understands how to bring everybody in.”
Stumbles on road to turnaround
Since being appointed Lakers president in February 2017, Johnson has had his occasional stumbles. NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined him a record $500,000 for tampering with Paul George in 2017 and another $50,000 for tampering with Giannis Antetokounmpo in February. He also drew heat for his harsh assessment of D’Angelo Russell after trading the young point guard to the Brooklyn Nets to clear salary cap space in 2017.
“The hardest part (of team-building as an executive) has been the fact that we were over the salary cap when I took over,” he said. “I had to trade a lot of guys I liked, but I had to create the cap space flexibility to be in line to get LeBron James. We were able to do that. Now I have enough cap space to bring in another superstar to add to our team next summer.”
Johnson has relentlessly pitched the Lakers as a prime spot for superstars, and he views the increased movement of A-list players in recent years as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
Star movement “has been going on now for a while,” he said. “The real challenge is if you don’t have the stars signed for a long time. If you can have them for three or four years, you’re going to be fine. We’re seeing the value of that with LeBron committing to us for four years. The guys we have today know that he’ll be here, the fans know that he’ll be here, and the players who are looking to come here know that, too.”
The master plan might remain intact, but the immediate results have been shakier. The Lakers are 5-10 since James suffered a groin injury, the longest absence of his 16-year career. As L.A. has fallen back to the West’s playoff bubble, the chatter about coach Luke Walton’s job status has increased. For someone in Johnson’s position, the Lakers’ success with James and their struggles without him are a reminder that his current position as president has firm boundaries.
“We were losing a lot of close games last year that we just didn’t know how to win,” Johnson said. “With LeBron, we were winning those games. The (young guys) have to go through those experiences. I can’t teach them from here. But LeBron and (Rajon) Rondo can teach them because they’re part of the team. When you’re an executive, it’s hard. You can’t be in there all the time.”
It’s only right that a player who built his reputation on passes, smiles and hugs still finds it hard to let go.