LOS ANGELES — In a bombshell that sent shockwaves throughout the Los Angeles Lakers organization and the NBA as a whole, a teary-eyed Magic Johnson announced Tuesday night that he is stepping down as the team’s president of basketball operations after just two years in the role.
“It’s a difficult decision. I cried before I came here,” Johnson said as he choked back tears while making the announcement before the Lakers’ regular-season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers, a 104-101 loss. “I am about to cry now. It’s hard when you love an organization the way I love this organization. It’s hard when you love a person like I love Jeanie [Buss]. I don’t want to disappoint her.”
But Johnson also made it clear that the decision leaves him in a happier state.
“I want to go back to having fun,” he said. “I want to go back to being who I was before taking on this job.”
Johnson said the decision had nothing to do with Luke Walton’s future as the team’s head coach. He admitted, however, that he wanted to avoid Walton’s job coming in between him and Buss, the Lakers’ controlling owner and governor who has been a staunch supporter of the coach.
“We love Luke [Walton], so I got to make a decision and that’s a tough thing,” Johnson said. “I’m good with where I am. I’m happy. I want to do the things I used to do, so I had to weigh both situations, so this is better for me.”
Johnson said he had not informed Buss or general manager Rob Pelinka of his decision before talking to reporters. He later told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he didn’t tell Buss first because he was afraid she would talk him out of it.
“I’m going to be around whenever she needs me,” Johnson said. “Trust me. … It’s going to be hard for her to come and hear this right now. I get it. Because it was hard for me to go do that, to make this decision and come to this conclusion. But she’s going to be fine, and I’m going to be fine.”
The Lakers thanked Johnson in a statement, saying in part, “There is no greater Los Angeles Laker than Earvin Johnson. … He will always be not only a Lakers icon, but our family.” Buss echoed those sentiments in a tweet, writing: “Earvin, I loved working side by side with you. You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you.”
The Lakers finished the season 37-45 and went 35-47 last season, putting the job security of Walton, the third-year coach, in jeopardy. The team has not made the playoffs since 2013.
“Tomorrow [the day after the Lakers’ season ends] I would have to affect somebody’s livelihood, and I thought about that, too,” Johnson said. “That is not fun for me. That is not who I am. And then I don’t want to put her [Buss] in the middle of us. Even though she said, ‘Hey, you do what you’re going to do,’ I know she has great love for him and great love for me.”
When asked to clarify if “him” was Walton, Johnson talked again about Walton and Buss. The coach has two years remaining on his contract, but only next season is guaranteed, a source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
“Look, Jeanie loves Luke, loves me, you never want to have to make a decision that — I don’t ever want to disappoint her, and that’s a tough situation,” Johnson said. “We have so much love for the Lakers and this organization, so I looked and I said, ‘You know, Earvin, you have a great life.’ I was like, man, when I got done praying and thinking about it, I said, ‘Go back to that great life.’ I’ll still help the Lakers in any way I can.”
Walton gave his pregame remarks before Johnson surprised reporters by taking the coach’s place behind the dais set up in the hallway across from the Lakers’ locker room at Staples Center. When asked how the season went, Walton said it was “wild.”
Johnson’s decision only made it wilder.
Stephen A. Smith gets heated after the news breaks of Magic Johnson stepping down from the Lakers.
Johnson acknowledged the rough start to the Lakers’ season. He admonished Walton in a tense meeting after the team opened 2-5, but he said everything has been “fine” between the two since.
“Sometimes as a president you have to have a tough meeting with the coach,” Johnson said. “After that, it was fine. And it’s been fine. I haven’t had any problems with Luke. People think we had problems, but we haven’t had any problems. … If I had come back, we all had to be better. I made mistakes myself. But also, everybody had to be better, and that is what it is all about.”
Johnson, who was named to the position in February 2017, said he made his decision Tuesday morning, a day after he and Buss had a three-hour meeting. He said the reason why he had not told Buss about his decision before his announcement was because he could not face her.
Johnson waited for Buss after his announcement but then left the arena after he was told she wasn’t coming to the game.
League sources told Wojnarowski that Johnson and Pelinka visited with Lakers star LeBron James and his agent, Rich Paul, on Saturday. Johnson offered no indication that he was on the brink of leaving the team, sources said. Johnson said he did not tell James about his decision to leave before making his announcement, either.
In discussing his decision Tuesday night, Johnson said he did not like “the backstabbing” and “the whispering” that was going on. He did not clarify what he meant, other than to say it is something that happens in the NBA and that he wasn’t talking strictly about the Lakers organization.
“I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on,” Johnson said. “So I hope that, after tomorrow, the Lakers can head in the right direction, which we are. Injuries really hurt us.”
Asked if he would like to see Pelinka and Walton retain their jobs, Johnson declined to answer, saying that will be up to Buss. He noted that he and Pelinka “worked well” together.
“Do I think Rob is the right GM? That’s a decision Jeanie has to make,” Johnson said. “I worked well with him. I had no problem with him.
“Jeanie has to make all the calls. That’s not the calls for me to make. This is her organization.”
In a podcast appearance last week, Buss said a story that came out this season about her team — she wouldn’t specify which one — caused her to question her connection to some of the people she worked with. She requested one-on-one meetings with several colleagues to meet face to face and gauge her belief in them. Johnson said Buss was not referring to him.
“Her and I? No. No. She trusted me,” he said. “She already knows I’m the most loyal person she got. She’s loyal to me, I’m loyal to her. Trust, we had that down. Even before I got here [as president]. Because I would always tell her the truth about the organization. I think that was about some other people, but you would have to ask her. But she gave me what I needed. When I first got here some people wasn’t up to excellence, so I had to fire some people and she was OK with that.”
Johnson lamented that his position with the Lakers didn’t allow him to be a statesman of the game of basketball, because any comment he made about another player on another team could lead to tampering. Johnson and the Lakers have been fined a total of $550,000 for tampering over Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the past.
Earlier this season, the NBA looked into whether the Lakers tampered when Johnson revealed that Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons asked the Lakers if he could work out with Johnson in the offseason to improve his game. The NBA ultimately ruled there was no tampering.
Johnson also said that he wanted to remain active in the community and his businesses.
“I was happier when I wasn’t president [of the Lakers],” Johnson said.
“We [the Lakers] are halfway there with LeBron coming. Think this summer, with that other star coming in, whoever is going to bring him in, I think this team is really going to be in position to contend for a championship with the growth of the young players.”
Johnson spoke to reporters for nearly an hour and a half, causing the Lakers to cancel a scheduled pregame media session with James for what would have been his final remarks of the season.
“I’m a free bird and I’ve been handcuffed,” Johnson said. “And I don’t like that. … This is the right time. The right move. The right decision. I’m so happy. I’m a guy who always knows when things are right, and this is right. It feels good.”