Magic Johnson’s Public War


October 15, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson in attendance before the Dodgers play against the St. Louis Cardinals in game four of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

He is a man waiting for the hurricane to end, standing in the last piece of shelter, but it keeps on storming and there is nothing else to do but speak. Blame the Lakers futility. It has brought Magic Johnson here. If you want to understand the why of it take a look at his playing career. It is defined by winning. Though he did not win all the time- his record in the Finals is 5-4- Magic never lost more than 30 games in one season, much less 30 games before the start of February. The larger issue is one of details. It is this simple thing that is at the crux of his anger, the inattention to the process, the lack of adjustments, the inefficient shots, the absence of rebounding, the malaise. It is just too much for Magic Johnson the champion five times over to endure much less watch without having his say. After all he is the most beloved of all the Lakers. So without a concern for the consequences, Magic Johnson is drawing the line. He is shaming Mike D’Antoni. He is doing it anywhere and everywhere even as nothing has changed the storyline, Kobe is still hurt. The losing is consistent and miserable to the point the players, collectively, have begun to accept their fate. The fans are waiting for the lottery to hurry up and get here. All of this is fact. And still, Magic Johnson carries a weight upon his shoulders. What Dr. Jerry Buss built and left behind is slowly but effectively being tarnished.

In countries like Somalia or Yemen or Iran, the guilty are punished by an archaic tradition of being stoned to death. People are left to bleed in the street. We do not go to such cruel extremes in Western culture. And yet occasionally, when the situation warrants, the guilty are punished by humiliation. They are made to wear a sign in public and walk around a busy downtown. The sign says: I am a drunk driver. Or, I am a thief. Or, I am a wife beater. In this case, Magic Johnson is creating his own sign for Mike D’Antoni to wear out in public. I have ruined a franchise.

No Lakers team has ever fallen this low, 30 losses in 46 games. Not the 2007 team with Smush Parker and Tierre Brown (28-18). Not the 2005 team with injuries to Kobe and Lamar Odom and a coach that quit (24-22). Not the 1993 team that lost ten games in a row (18-28). Not the 1974 team that Stu Lantz was a member of (18-28). Not the 1961 team with a rookie Jerry West. (19-27). No Lakers team in 64 years of Los Angeles basketball has been this terrible. As if that is not enough of a kick in the stomach for Magic Johnson there is something else far greater than any numbers you throw at him to make his point. It is the on court behavior. There is a lack of leadership. There is no organization on the court, no discipline, no communication, no accountability. Worse, there is no intelligence. It is often difficult to understand what they are trying to accomplish in their possessions. And the lineup changes made on a coach’s whim only makes matters worse.

Coaches teach. They demand. They expect. They punish. Magic is a disciple of the Pat Riley school of basketball in which ‘no rebounds, no rings’ is taught at the most elementary level. Consider that in last night’s game the starting point guard for Indiana had 7 rebounds, the starting shooting guard had 14 rebounds, the back up shooting guard had 6 rebounds. Last night the starting point guard for the Lakers had 2 rebounds. The starting shooting guard had 2 rebounds, the back up shooting guard had 1 rebound. The Lakers guards were outrebounded by 22.

None of this is a surprise. The moment Phil Jackson was blindsided and Mike D’Antoni was named the coach this is what was coming. In his first session with the media in 2012, after he was hired, D’Antoni expounded on his distaste for post play. This left every Lakers follower in a state of shock. 16 championships were won because of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol. To see Mike D’Antoni be so cavalier in dismissing the bread and butter of Lakers basketball began this hate affair with him and the city of Los Angeles.

Magic played with Kareem. Magic never won a title without Kareem. His entire career was enhanced because he played with a great big man who was skilled and dominant in the post and so as he watches this Lakers team that takes three point shot after three point shot- often missing- and ignoring the big man and perhaps worse, not playing Chris Kaman who is a skilled offensive player, it is more than he can handle.

It is not a news flash to say Phil Jackson should have been the coach. When he was the coach Phil liked to tell his players that they had to play with a purpose. He would ask them what they were trying to achieve on the court. He would shame Kobe publicly if he thought he was being selfish. He would punch Pau in the chest. He would needle Shaq. His system was based on respect but also on accountability to the team and the mission. It is hard to understand what this Lakers team purpose is. Who are they? What are they trying to do? Is there a penalty for, as Kobe once put it, skating through games?

The knock on Phil, one of Red Auerbach’s talking points, was that he only coached the hyper talented. But that is not exactly true. He came back in 2005. It was a team with Kwame Brown. It was a team with Luke Walton. It was a team with Smush Parker. It was a team with Chris Mihm. It was a team with Leron Profit. And yet that team won 45 games. They won 18 games on the road. They kept their opponents to 96 points a game. They struggled offensively but they were an above average defensive team, they were in the top 10 in rebounding, assists and steals. This team of Mike D’Antoni’s gives up more points that just about anyone, is a mediocre rebounding team, terrible in steals and they don’t shoot the ball well.

But this is the thing. History repeats itself. Magic Johnson does not want to remember it but he was Mike D’Antoni once upon a time. He was a failed coach. He coached the Lakers for 16 games in 1994. He took over a dismal team that was 28-38. He won his first game against the Bucks. He won his second game. He lost his third game. He beat a 50 win Houston Rockets team. He beat a 50 win Hawks team. And then reality. Against the Kings his defense allowed Spud Webb to shoot 60% and score 32 points. His defense allowed the Denver Nuggets to score 64 points in one half. His team was outrebounded by 11 at Portland. Against the Warriors his defense gave up 60% shooting and four Warriors scored over 20 points including Chris Webber. Charles Barkley had 20 rebounds when he played the Lakers. Against the Clippers, a 34 year old Dominique Wilkins scored 42 points. Against the Warriors, his defense gave up 73 points in the first half.

Perhaps he does not remember misery. Perhaps Magic Johnson the man does not remember Magic Johnson the coach. Perhaps he does not remember what it felt like for his team to lose their last ten games of the season by an average margin of 14 points. His defense gave up 123 points to the Kings, 112 points to the Nuggets , 128 points to the Warriors, 117 points to the Suns, 112 points to the Blazers, 126 points to the Warriors. Perhaps he does not remember what it felt like for his team to have to endure 29 point losses, 32 point losses, 35 point losses.

Magic was the master of the no-look pass. This is not that. This is straight ahead. Target D’antoni. Very few would argue with his critique of D’antoni as a coach who cannot deliver for a historic franchise. But scattering D’antoni with gunfire so there is nothing but ashes has collateral damage. It is true sometimes you hurt the very thing you love. Magic Johnson loves the Lakers. He knows D’antoni is the wrong coach just like he knew Paul Westhead was the wrong coach. But all behavior has consequences some of which is unintended. By Magic’s constant berating of D’antoni like he is water and D’antoni is rock and soon the rock will disappear, he is devaluing the Lakers for the future. His constant rebuke makes the franchise appear incompetent. What free agent would want to come here?

All wars end terribly. Both sides suffer casualties, some sort of loss. D’Antoni refuses to defend himself against Magic’s accusations though it must hurt. The organization takes the stray bullets for him. They say everything by saying nothing in this public fight. In exchange for their silence the atmosphere is filled with rot. There is dread to what Magic may say next, where his merciless anger will lead even if what he is saying is true. It is all so complicated. Magic has earned the right to speak. ESPN paid him to do so last year, this year he is on his own. He is a sympathetic figure, someone who loves something so deeply and sees it crumbling in front of him. You can hardly blame him even as you wish he would take more caution and speak a little softly.