Can the Dodgers fulfill Magic’s vision?
LOS ANGELES — There is no way to pin down Magic Johnson at any moment. He’s up long before dawn and in the gym for a morning workout. After that, he’s everywhere and anywhere. The Lakers’ new offices, practice courts, Dodger Stadium, a business meeting, a political rally.
The past few months, as all the teams in his burgeoning Los Angeles sports empire have taken their turns in the spotlight — the Sparks, Lakers and Dodgers — Johnson has been on a plane trying to keep up with them all like a proud father rattling off the accomplishments of his overachieving children.
“Thank God I own a plane,” Johnson said during a 10-minute window when he was supposed to be eating lunch Thursday, but sacrificed it for this interview. “I can cover a lot of ground.”
In the past few weeks, that plane took him to Minnesota to watch the Sparks in the WNBA Finals, Las Vegas to watch the Lakers in a preseason game, where he delivered an emotional speech to a town still reeling from a tragic mass shooting, and then back to Los Angeles to watch the Dodgers in the National League playoffs.
Officially, he is a co-owner of the Dodgers and Sparks, and president of basketball operations for the Lakers.
Unofficially, he’s the man trying to restore sports in Los Angeles to the glory they once had under his mentor, former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
“He tutored me, and I think this is what he wanted me to do and be as a man,” Johnson said. “I’m just doing the things he taught me and put me in position to be.
“But I can’t hit and pitch or play defense. I sit back and watch these guys do it, and they’re doing a wonderful job. It’s their turn. I’ve had my moment.”
He has had many moments in this town. Magic moments, hence the nickname.
“But I can’t hit and pitch or play defense. I sit back and watch these guys do it and they’re doing a wonderful job. It’s their turn. I’ve had my moment.”
Which is why it feels like an entire city is hoping and trusting and wondering if he can do something special again. Is his mere presence enough? Is there such a thing as a Magic touch?
Time will tell as the Dodgers face the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday at Dodger Stadium. It is the Dodgers’ third NLCS berth since 2012 when Johnson and a group of investors bought the team. This year’s squad amassed a league-best 104-58 record and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the best-of-five division series.
Six days after Game 1 of the NLCS, the Lakers open their regular season with their new star, or at least would-be star, Lonzo Ball.
“The town is on fire right now with the Dodgers,” Johnson said. “And then next week, the town is so ready for the Lakers to get going and the Lonzo Ball era to get going.”
The excitement for what could be, and the trepidation for what could fall short, is palpable.
While at ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s charity event in July, Johnson declared this is the year the Dodgers to win the World Series. Months later, his vision hasn’t changed.
“I want a World Series for the Dodgers so bad. I want it for the players. Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez. Man, I want it for them. I want it for the fans, who have waited so long. I want it for Dave [Roberts], he’s done such a good job,” Johnson said. “I want that World Series for them all so badly.”
He wants it for himself, too, of course. The man might smile a lot, but he’s competitive as hell. After the Sparks lost in the WNBA Finals, friends said he was bummed out for days.
But unlike his playing career, when he could start at center in the NBA Finals if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out with an injury, drop 42 points and grab 15 rebounds, what happens next is not in his hands.
It is in the hands of players like Ball and Kenley Jansen, of coaches like Luke Walton and Dave Roberts and executives he works alongside of, such as Lakers co-owner and president Jeanie Buss and Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
He has played a role in putting them in places to succeed or fail. Or in some cases, simply empowering them to continue on in the roles they were in, before he ascended to his current position with each franchise.
In other words, what happens next becomes a key part of his legacy in Los Angeles.
“When I came on board,” Johnson explained, “the Dodgers needed to change at that time. And look where we are now. The Lakers needed to change — and look where we’re heading. Same with the Sparks [who were about to be relocated to San Jose before Johnson and his group of investors bought them].
“I feel honored I can play a part. But everything I do is for the players and the fans, now. This is their time.”
There were so many things Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen wanted to say when he saw Lonzo Ball walk into the Dodgers’ clubhouse this summer. He’d been watching the kid at UCLA all year, hoping he’d somehow end up with the Lakers and help resurrect the franchise after four straight seasons in the lottery.
“I grew up as a Shaq fan,” Jansen told ESPN. “My older brother was a Lakers fan. After Shaq was traded to the Lakers, that became my team as well. So to be in L.A., where I can go watch them, and we can get a player like Zo, it’s unbelievable.”
Jansen wanted to tell Ball about his own climb to stardom. The heart surgery in 2012 and foot surgery in 2015 that made him realize his time in the game was short, and his window to maximize his Hall of Fame talent was even shorter.
“After that 2015 surgery, it was like, ‘Man, I know I have a bunch of talent. But I can’t take anything for granted anymore. I really have to work to get there. I have to get information from guys who have been there before. So I started talking to Eric Gagne more in spring training. Get his mindset. I speak to Magic Johnson, to get his mindset.
“I feel like Zo, if he really wants it, his future is so bright. He has so many good people with him, he could become one of the greatest in his era. I really believe this guy could be as good as Steph Curry is, because of his passing and vision. He can be unbelievable.”
Jansen wanted to say all of those things when Ball arrived in the Dodgers’ clubhouse in June poised to throw out the ceremonial first pitch after being selected by the Lakers as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. But the 6-foot-6 point guard was trying to figure out whether to stuff his hair into the blue Dodgers baseball cap and eating cereal in the corner of the dining room with his younger brother.
So Jansen pulled a purple and gold No. 32 Magic Johnson Lakers’ jersey over his Dodger uniform, ran out to home plate and squatted down to catch Ball’s first pitch.
“I just said hello to him,” Jansen said. “It was a very short moment.”
There may come a day when Ball asks for Jansen’s advice on how to win and chase greatness, but the ask — and the desire — had to come from him. Jansen has seen enough in his eight seasons with the Dodgers to know destiny is something you must create, not fulfill.
Including this season, Jansen has been to the playoffs five times. Each trip to the NLCS (three), the team has been reminded the franchise hasn’t been to the World Series since 1988. This year will be no different, if they fail to advance.
“Since we came back in January, everybody’s mindset here is thinking about winning a championship,” Jansen said. “That’s what we talk about. But we also know how hard that is and that we can’t just talk about it. We have to grind it out and want it more.”
Andrew Friedman had a good life in Tampa, Florida. Save for the one time he forgot to change his clothes before the champagne celebration in the Tampa Bay Rays‘ clubhouse after they clinched a playoff spot in 2008. Then the Rays’ general manager, he seemed to make mostly all the right moves.
“I made that mistake my first year,” Friedman said. “And my clothes got drenched in a way that they were beyond salvageable.”
Friedman could’ve stayed with the Rays, setting the standard for how small-market clubs can compete with the titans of industry, and been very happy with his life.
Then Magic Johnson’s Dodgers called in 2014 and offered Friedman the challenge as the franchise’s president of baseball operations: What if money was never an object he had to work around? What if there were no artificial limits on the kind of organization he could build?
Friedman couldn’t say no.
The stakes would always be impossibly high. So would the expectations and the pressure. When he and general manager Farhan Zaidi go out for sushi in downtown L.A., there’s a parking attendant who grills them on every move.
“He’s very locked in to everything with the Dodgers,” Friedman joked.
It’s like that all over Los Angeles now, with the team in the NLCS again.
On the night the Dodgers won the NLDS in Arizona, Friedman’s boss, Dodgers president Stan Kasten, said plainly, “Look, we’re the Dodgers, so we should contend every year. And for the last five years we have. I’m proud of that. But I can’t kid anyone, we have bigger aspirations. It’s not a secret. We want to contend every year, and obviously to win a world championship and then compete for another one after that.”
Friedman, having learned his lesson about what to wear to clubhouse champagne celebrations, stood across the room in blue workout shorts and a long-sleeve shirt. Both were irreparably drenched. At just 40 years old, he could’ve been an equipment manager or crafty lefty out of the bullpen. But no, he’s the guy being paid $35 million over five years to build teams that can deliver on Johnson’s vision and promise deliver a World Series to the city of L.A.
“I embrace it,” Friedman said days before the start of the NLCS. “The alternative is when you have issues. If you’re in a situation where there are zero expectations, that means people don’t believe in you or your organization.
“Expectations are great thing. One of my favorite things about this place, and it’s been my favorite thing since I got here, is the passion our fans have for this team. I think it’s awesome. It gives us a competitive advantage. I think players want to play where the fans have this level of interest and expectations.”
Of the three Dodgers teams he has built since taking the job in 2014, Friedman said this one is “probably the deepest, most talented team we’ve had.”
So is it their destiny to win a World Series?
“If I felt like everything was destiny, I’d just go take surf lessons,” Friedman said. “It’s about having as many good options as you can and allowing good things to happen. I can’t think that way, about [destiny], or I wouldn’t work as hard as I do.”
The Next Generation
When a franchise hasn’t won in a while, it often clings to the people who remind them it hasn’t always been that way — legends and voices who were a part of a golden past they’re forever trying to recapture.
Sandy Koufax has become a regular visitor to Dodger Stadium, and a friend to Kershaw. Nonagenarians Tommy Lasorda and Don Newcombe often sit next to Magic Johnson at games, right next to the Dodgers’ dugout. Vin Scully retired last year after 67 years, but his voice is still heard over the loudspeaker at Dodger Stadium before every game, when he announces, as only he can, “It’s time for Dodger baseball.”
It’s the same for the Lakers, who haven’t been to the postseason since 2013. Kobe Bryant has been retired for only one season and the organization is already planning to hang his jersey in the rafters in December. Last week at the espnW Women + Sports Summit, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss said she leaned heavily on Bryant as she made the agonizing decision to fire longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother, Jim Buss, as president of basketball operations, and replace them with Johnson and new GM Rob Pelinka.
“I found myself leaning on another person that I watched grow up, Kobe Bryant,” Buss said. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it clearly, decisively, be strategic, have a plan. And he’s absolutely right. He was a big support, and he continues to be a support.”
And, of course, Buss turned to Johnson, the franchise’s iconic star and a man she says is like a brother to her, because “we were raised by the same man,” to help lead the Lakers into a new era.
That’s Magic Johnson’s real challenge. Not to restore or renew faith. That part was done when Frank McCourt and Jim Buss were deposed. No, Magic’s real challenge is to put the next generation in place to become champions and stars in their own right, then sit back and cheer if they do it.
“I got love for the Sparks, love for the Lakers and love for the Dodgers,” Johnson said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
That, and the plane he uses to get him everywhere his teams are trying to break through.