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When Magic Turns Tragic

Magic Johnson quit his job last night.

After working at President of Basketball Operations (he was essentially in charge of acquiring the players and coaches) for the Los Angeles Lakers for the past two years, Magic abruptly — and without prior notice, apparently — announced in an impromptu press conference before the Lakers’ last game of a failed 2019 season that he would be stepping down from his post.

There’s nothing wrong with quitting a post that you no longer want. Every job I ever quit, I never gave a 2-week notice. I’d give a to-day notice. If it’s not for you, make that clear, do it quickly and with finality.

For this, I applaud Magic.


Magic quit only because the job he took, and the guarantees he made, projected to be more work than Magic planned on doing.

I’ll explain.

Being in charge of personnel for any professional sports franchise is a hard-ass job.

There’s scouting of players — both amateurs whom you might draft, and of pros who are currently with rival teams. This alone entails weeks of traveling and hours of film-watching. It’s very not-sexy stuff.

You must have a thorough understanding of the money: your team’s salary and budget situation, and that of rival clubs who you may do business with.

Relationships, with executives of other teams who do the same job as you, is a must. It’s much easier to get deals done with people who know, like and trust you than with someone you only call when you want something.

Don’t forget the team you work for — you need to be in contact with your own bosses, the coaching staff and players whom you’ve hired, and have your finger on the pulse of the team, to better gage what moves to make (or not make) in the future.

All of the above are the hard skills. But don’t forget the soft skills required to build any business.

Finding the right people, training and mentoring them, giving them the resources to perform their duties, adding and subtracting at the right times, and knowing when to get out of the way and let things (and people) develop.

Being a personnel executive is a lot of fucking WORK.

Magic Johnson took the Lakers job under the assumption —  and a good one, admittedly — that he could short-circuit some of this work.

Why? How?

Because he’s Magic Johnson.

Magic Johnson is a legend on the basketball court, an inspiration to people who have HIV, and a mogul in the business world. You don’t have to follow sports, business or seemingly incurable diseases to know these things about Magic. NBA players are people too; they know these things.

Magic is a star. And star-like figures attract people and opportunity to themselves like a magnet.

Magic figured, and even intimated as much, that his personal star power would chop a good chunk off that team-building curve via one key strategy: signing superstar free agents.

Basketball is a star-driven sport. In basketball, unlike with football or baseball, one player can completely dominate the action of a game and turn a team of bums into a contender. The star free agent — think Shaq back in the day, or LeBron James now — (apparently) cuts out a lot of your need for diligent scouting, smart drafting, and even wise coaching hires.

(Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, when asked for the key to being a successful coach: “Have the best players.”)

The superstar free agent doesn’t need to be scouted: someone else scouted and drafted him before he joined your team.

He doesn’t need to be developed: he’s already a superstar.

He doesn’t need to be mentored: he’s the one who’ll be doing the mentoring of the other players.

The superstar fast-forwards a team’s winning timeline and, by virtue of his very presence, has the entire organization thinking win-NOW.

In his introductory press conference two years ago, Magic emphasized that his main objective was to sign a superstar free agent or two to join the Lakers “within the next two summers.”

They would have preferred to do so via free agency, where a player joins your team outright, but they were open to trade scenarios, in which the Lakers would have given up some players of their own in exchange for another.

Over the past two seasons, Magic worked his plan. He and the Lakers made pitches (via free agency or trades) for the following players, all of whom made themselves very available (in spirit, if not in fact):

Kawhi Leonard
Paul George
LeBron James
Anthony Davis

The Lakers connected only on LeBron.

Leonard is a free agent this summer; it appears he’s uninterested in being a LeBron sidekick with the Lakers (we think — since Kawhi doesn’t talk much).

Davis has one year left on his current contract in New Orleans; he and his agent Rich Paul (who’s also LeBron’s agent and close friend) attempted to force a trade to LA earlier this year. That plan failed miserably, and Davis basically lost this whole season of his prime years thanks to that failed coup.

While the Lakers could attempt trading for Davis again this summer, it appears that New Orleans, bumrushed by the initial Davis trade demand, is set on not sending Davis to LA, but rather to anyplace else that may offer a better deal in exchange.

Which leaves the Lakers and Magic staring at what they don't want: playing the long game and doing all that WORK to build a winning team from the ground-up.

Magic Johnson didn’t sign up for all of that.

I’m genuinely surprised that the superstar grand plan didn’t work out (though it could this summer, albeit without Magic).

I live in Miami. It was fun to watch LeBron and DWade and Bosh dominate the NBA together for four years. I want to see LeBron teamed up with other stars the way the Golden State Warriors have done it (although most of their stars were homegrown over years of that WORK that I’ve mentioned). I believed in Magic’s ability to bring a couple of superstars to Los Angeles.

Magic, too, figured that his star power would charm superstars into joining the Lakers, that the Lakers would start winning again, and that Magic would be part of the reason (if they did, he certainly would be). Then, he could go off and do his other business mogul / community things and all would be great.

While Part A (Lakers) didn’t work, Magic wasn’t throwing away Part B (his business and other life things outside of the Lakers). So he dropped Part A.

This isn’t a diss of Magic Johnson. It’s just a grand, very plausible plan that surprisingly didn’t work.

What I want to turn your attention to is how we often do the same damn thing Magic did — much less publicly, and we often don’t have a billion-dollar other job to go back to when it happens.

Here’s how it goes.

We think up a great idea for something we can do.
We consider the possibilities of what it would take to make it happen and map out strategy in our minds.
Knowing that we won’t get something for nothing, we get to work. Referencing our plan, we know it won’t take long.
We soon realize that this plan won’t work out as smoothly as we thought it would. And it won’t happen as fast as we expected.
We either A) Quit, B) Significantly reduce our efforts, or C) Strap up and dig in to the new reality in front of us.
The Question

Are you in it for the long game? Or only if everything breaks perfectly in your favor?


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