"I hope this taught all of us a lesson.... I hope our young guys look at Houston and realize this is how we ought to be."
—The Lakers' Magic Johnson, after the Rockets eliminated Los Angeles from the playoffs last Thursday in their first-round Western Conference series, 3-1.
Johnson got it half right. The young Lakers should take a good, long look at the defending champion Rockets, who epitomize professionalism, discipline and unselfish basketball. And when they are done, they should implore Johnson to do the same thing.
The Lakers, who arguably were the deepest team in the West, were unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs, but not just because the young bucks from La La Land don't know how to win yet. Their quick departure also has something to do with a grizzled warrior who brandishes five championship rings but temporarily forgot how he earned them.
In his 12-season, preretirement career, which ended in 1991 with the announcement that he was HIV-positive, Magic Johnson was one of the best players who ever lived—the embodiment of team play. But since his return in January as a 36-year-old legend-in-residence, he has become a sometimes divisive influence, chiding his teammates in one breath for straying from the concept of we, then in the next breath explaining in detail why he needs the ball in the post, why he needs to play more point guard next year and why he needs more minutes.
As a sixth man playing 30 minutes per game, mostly at forward, Johnson contributed a forgettable eight points in L.A.'s 102-94 Game 4 defeat. Afterward he outlined what the Lakers should do to make him more comfortable next season (for which he is not yet signed), including allowing him to play point guard 40%-50% of the time. If L.A. is unwilling or unable to accommodate that desire, Magic announced, "then I'll say O.K., thanks, it's been nice. There's five, six or 10 other teams I know already that want me."
Do the Lakers a favor, Magic. Call up those five, six or 10 teams right now and cut yourself a deal. Spare your beloved franchise the uncomfortable job of explaining to you that yes, you once were invincible, but no longer. Age is your Kryptonite. You still exhibit spurts of brilliance, and it's easy to understand why owner Jerry Buss is awash in nostalgia every time you coax your trademark baby hook through the hoop, but where did these increasingly rare moments of inspired play get you? More important, where did they get your team?
When Johnson made his celebrated comeback, he immediately energized the Lakers with his versatility, his charisma and his innate sense of the game. Coach Del Harris cunningly used him as a lethal sixth man who could play virtually any position on the floor, and L.A. flourished.
But in the playoffs Magic wanted the ball so he could demonstrate to the kids how it's done. After a Game 1 loss in which Johnson scored 20 points, he publicly wondered why Harris didn't want him to operate solely out of the post, where he felt he was most effective.
What he didn't recognize was that when he hunkered down on the block, his teammates stood and watched, halting the ball movement that made the Lakers one of the most dangerous teams in the West during the final month of the regular season.