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Magic Johnson Steps Down as Lakers’ Team President

Category: Other Sports,Sports

LOS ANGELES — At the end of a disastrous season in which the Los Angeles Lakers failed to make the playoffs, despite having added LeBron James via free agency, Magic Johnson made the stunning announcement on Tuesday that he was stepping down as the team’s president of basketball operations.

Johnson delivered the news at an impromptu news conference before the Lakers’ regular-season finale, against the Portland Trail Blazers, and he said he had not yet informed Jeanie Buss, the team’s controlling owner. In fact, he had told nearly no one before he addressed a mass of hastily assembled reporters.

“I couldn’t face her to tell her,” he said, referring to Buss. He later added that he would find her at Staples Center to address her in person.

“There is no greater Los Angeles Laker than Earvin Johnson,” the statement read, using Johnson’s formal name. “We are deeply grateful to Magic for all that he has done for our franchise — as a player, an ambassador and an executive.”

The statement continued, “As we begin the process of moving forward, we will work in a measured and methodical fashion to make the right moves for the future of our organization.”

“Measured” and “methodical” would be an about-face from the way Johnson stepped down. It was a surreal scene as he fielded questions for nearly 45 minutes after he made his announcement, appearing to hold back tears at times, and repeatedly said that he loved Buss like a sister. He then posed for pictures with team employees, former teammates and a local news anchor.

“I want to go back to having fun,” Johnson, 59, said. “I want to go back to being who I was before taking on this job, and we’re halfway there with LeBron coming. I think this summer, with that other star coming in — whoever’s going to come in — I think this team is going to be in position to really contend for a championship with the growth of the other young players.”

Johnson was named to the post in February 2017 and said at the time that it was “a dream come true.” But on Tuesday he said that he wanted to get back to being a mentor and a businessman, and that he had felt limited in his ability to do those things in his current role.

For example, he said he was upset that he could not attend Dwyane Wade’s final game for the Miami Heat on Tuesday night — or congratulate Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Twitter for finishing the regular season averaging another triple-double. (Johnson said the league would have considered it “tampering.”)

Johnson also said that he had received a phone call last week from the tennis star Serena Williams, asking if he would be an adviser to her.

“When Serena called me, wow, that’s who I am,” Johnson said. “I love helping people.”

He added: “I like to be free. And then I got a great life outside of this. What am I doing? I got a beautiful life, so I’m going to go back to that beautiful life, and I’m looking forward to it.”

But there is palace intrigue at play, too — these are the Lakers, after all — and Johnson strongly indicated that he had been leaning toward firing Coach Luke Walton. Buss, though, is known to think highly of Walton, a former Laker who has been the team’s coach for three seasons, and Johnson suggested that he did not want to go through with it.

“I would have to affect someone’s livelihood and their life,” Johnson said, “and I thought about that. That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am, and then I don’t want to put her in the middle of us, even though she said, ‘Hey, do what you want to do.’ I know she has great love for him.”

The Lakers, who have been downtrodden in recent years, are still one of the most glamorous franchises in the league, and Johnson, who helped the Lakers win five championships as a Hall of Fame point guard, remains one of the organization’s most popular figures.

Johnson was hired to replace Jim Buss, the brother of Jeanie Buss. Johnson, who had previously been a partial owner of the team as well, worked alongside Rob Pelinka, a former agent, who was brought in as the team’s general manager. (Johnson said that he had not told Pelinka of his decision to step down, either.)

While Johnson had some memorable moments at the helm of the Lakers’ operation, the roster that he and Pelinka built around James was widely considered inadequate. After losing to Portland in their finale, the Lakers had a record of 37-45, which assured them of missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. It is the first losing effort by a James-led team since the star forward’s rookie season in 2003-04, when his Cleveland Cavaliers went 35-47.

On Tuesday, Johnson preached patience.

“I’m excited about the direction,” he said before he headed out the door.

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