Magic Johnson as a Verbally Abusive, Overzealous Tyrant of a Boss is Certainly an Unexpected Twist on The Lakers' Dysfunction
ESPN- In his remarks, Johnson expressed excitement about the task ahead, but he also made clear he didn't accept excuses or mistakes, and that those who weren't on board with the new management and their mission should leave, according to six staffers who were present.
Pointing upstairs, toward his office, Johnson drove home his point. He had a large stack of resumes sitting on his desk -- "a thousand" of them, multiple staffers recall him saying -- and he could replace any of them at any time.
"It was shocking," said one Lakers coaching staff member who was present. "If you're going to be in this business, you bring enough pressure on yourself. You don't need more pressure, especially from someone who's supposed to be an ally."
The message would set the tone for what many staffers describe as Johnson's confrontational demeanor over the next two years.
"If you questioned him on anything, his response was always a threatening tone," said a Lakers front office staffer who interacted with Johnson directly. "He used intimidation and bullying as a way of showing authority."
According to nearly two dozen current and former team staffers, ranging from occupants of executive suites to office cubicles, in addition to league sources and others close to the team, the Lakers under Johnson and Pelinka were fraught with dysfunction, on and off the court. These sources, who feared reprisal and weren't authorized to speak publicly, describe Pelinka and Johnson as managers who made unilateral free-agent acquisitions; triggered a spate of tampering investigations and fines; berated staffers, including Walton; and created an in-house culture that many current and former longtime staffers said marginalized their colleagues, inspired fear and led to feelings of anxiety severe enough that at least two staffers suffered panic attacks.
As one ex-Lakers star privately told confidants, "It's f----ng crazy over there."
On March 10, 2017, the day he was introduced as the team's new GM, Pelinka was asked about the steepest learning curve in his new role.
"This franchise consists of 200-250 employees," Pelinka said, "and our job is to make sure that all of those team members are functioning as a well-oiled machine and together."
Johnson, sitting beside Pelinka, added that they were evaluating everybody in the organization.
"We're going to see if we have the best people," he said, "and hopefully we do in house, and if not, we just have to get the right people."
As Johnson and Pelinka foreshadowed, change would follow. At least two dozen staffers throughout the organization would depart, a figure that includes not only basketball operations and coaching staffers but also athletic training officials, analytics staffers, administrative assistants, the team's equipment manager and the head athletic trainer.
In the Lakers' 2016-17 media guide, the directory lists 72 staffers who aren't a part of the ownership group. That figure does not include players, cheerleaders, security members, ball boys, interns, outside consultants, team broadcasters, players and coaches of the team's development league team, among others; nor does it include the six Buss family members listed in various positions throughout the franchise. Of those 72, at least 27 are, as of this date, no longer with the organization, a turnover rate of 37.5 percent.
The spate of changes increased the workloads for several staff members -- and in one instance in 2017, a longtime female staffer was called into an office with Johnson and Pelinka after making a mistake, according to multiple staffers present and others familiar with the incident. The mistake, sources said, involved arranging a car service to the team's facility for a draft prospect.
"I don't stand for mistakes!" Johnson shouted at her. "I don't make mistakes."
Johnson also made clear, according to multiple people familiar with the exchange, that if the staffer made one more mistake, she would be fired.
In the office, the staffer apologized and later, off site, began to cry, according to multiple people with knowledge of the incident. In the months ahead, she would suffer increased anxiety and panic attacks. She was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, quit the Lakers after more than two decades with the team, and began several weeks of therapy, multiple people familiar with the matter said. She gave her notice on Dec. 18, 2017, the same day Kobe Bryant's two jerseys were retired.
A Lakers executive said he also suffered panic attacks and had to be prescribed anti-anxiety medication. "Every day you go in there and you get this horrible feeling of anxiety," the executive said. "In the last year, I can't tell you how many panic attacks I've had from the s--- that has happened there."
Multiple current and former Lakers staffers who interacted directly with Johnson would describe a striking duality to his personality. One ex-staffer noted that when Johnson was present, there was often a question of who employees would face that day: Would they see Magic? Or would it be Earvin? The cameras love Magic, the charismatic one, but there was also Earvin, who could be manipulative and impulsive.
"It was a roller-coaster ride of up and down with him," one coaching staff member said.
Current and former team staffers told ESPN that Johnson, who has business interests outside the Lakers, was frequently absent, sometimes appearing only once a week or every two weeks. But, these same people said, when Johnson was there, he could make his presence known in a demonstrative way.
"He comes off to the fan base with the big love and the smile," said one ex-Lakers athletic training official who interacted directly with Johnson. "But he's not -- he's a fear monger."
While I can't say I had foreseen the second of three sides to a story of abject dysfunction portraying Magic Johnson as the Lakers' very own version of Dr. Jovial Jekyll and Mr. Hotheaded Hyde, but it does paint a better picture of the third side of said story, with that of course being the truth.
Far be it for me to support someone who temporarily brought back to life Heath Ledger just so he could completely fabricate a postmortem fable as a way to prop up the prestige of a franchise legend...
However, at least now we know why Rob Pelinka may have actively been sabotaging the job security of a co-worker who, from the outside, appeared to be non-threat as an absentee executive who was largely brought in to smile and wave as a familiar and comforting face to the fickle fanbase of a foundering franchise. It's not that Magic Johnson spent 60% of business hours trying to find the nearest camera to coax and the nearest baby to kiss, but rather that the 40% of business hours for which he was present were spent hypocritically berating employees into extensive lines outside the nearest therapist office and pharmacy.
He may not be the first overly demanding dictator of a boss, especially in a business as cutthroat as professional sports, but it sure sounds like Magic Johnson was the first too get that belligerently drunk off the limited power of a gimmick gig. That's definitely on the Lakers' for over-serving him. Still, when you come and go as you please, you need not more than a shred of self-awareness to understand you can't be an overzealous, egomaniacal asshole on the rare instances in which you actually do stay.
Magic Johnson treated running a once premier NBA franchise like a hobby, so for him to require professional perfection from those under him is as dumbfoundingly duplicitous as it gets. We're talking about a guy that, in the year 2018, signed every brick-laying headcase left on the market to put around one of the best open-shot creators in NBA history. A guy who was complicit in letting LeBron & Co. take a leak in what team chemistry did exist. A guy that didn't have the balls to notify his employer before he tucked his tail and ran once the going got tough. The only yelling and screaming he should have felt at liberty to do was in the mirror. Unfortunately, he's never been able to stop grinning at his own reflection as someone who loves the smell of his own shit almost as much as he loves going on ESPN and spewing said shit in a bunch of aimlessly defensive directions through a 100 watt smile...