Magic Johnson quit his gig as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday evening, in unforgettable fashion. Before LA’s last game of its dismal regular season (the team finished 37-45), Johnson told the world of his decision before telling the woman who hired him in the first place: Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. He was afraid Buss was going to talk him out of it.
Next time, just try a text?
Give Johnson some credit, however, for not mincing words as to why he was leaving. “I got a great life. Damn, I got a great life outside of this,” he told the assembled reporters at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. “What the F … what am I doing? I got a beautiful life. I’m going back to that beautiful life. I’m looking forward to it.”
Can you blame Magic Johnson for wanting to return to being Magic Johnson for a living? Why make tough calls about the future of Luke Walton, LA’s embattled coach, when you can instead enjoy walking into any room in America, and feeling the love? The Magic job involves smiles and charm and stories and laughter. The Lakers job involves salary cap stress. Now Johnson can say: take your luxury tax — and Lavar Ball while you’re at it — and shove it.
Magic joins a list of Hall of Famers who’ve tried grinding jobs, only to realize the real work stinks. Earlier Tuesday, Magic’s teammate on the 1992 USA Basketball Olympic “Dream Team,” Chris Mullin, also resigned suddenly. After leading St. John’s to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Hall of Fame St. John’s player-turned-coach quit after his fourth season (and his first winning one) at the helm. Mullin cited a “recent personal loss” as factoring into his decision; his older brother died of cancer in March. Another ’92 Dream Teamer, Clyde Drexler, quit as coach of his alma mater, the University of Houston, in 2000 after two seasons and a 19-37 record. Drexler cited a desire to spend more time with his family, and acknowledged he almost quit immediately upon starting the job.
“Because of the time that it takes in the coaching profession, in the first week I was thinking, ‘Boy, this is going to be a little bit more difficult than I thought,'” Drexler said back then.
Yes, another Dream Teamer, Larry Bird, enjoyed more success as a coach. He led the Indiana Pacers to the NBA finals in 2000, and won NBA Coach of the Year in his first season, in 1998. Bird walked away after Indiana’s Finals appearance, maintaining that NBA coaches had a three-year shelf life. That’s easy to say when you’re Larry Bird, and can ditch a job you don’t need. The Pacers haven’t returned to the Finals since Bird flew the coop.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan’s commitment to building the Charlotte Hornets, the franchise he’s owned since 2010, into a winner has repeatedly come into question. Since Jordan bought the team, the Hornets (or Bobcats, the franchise nickname through 2014) have reached the playoffs three times, only to lose in the first round in each appearance.
This isn’t to say beware the Dream Team. Legends have flamed out in other sports too. The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, coached the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes for four seasons from 2005-2009; he finished with a not-so-great record of 143-161 before stepping down. Patrick Roy, the legendary goaltender who won four Stanley Cups during his career — two with the Montreal Canadiens, two with the Colorado Avalanche — coached the Avs for three seasons before resigning in 2016. He made the playoffs just once, losing in the first round. Ted Williams, one of baseball’s greatest hitters of all time, was fired after going 54-100 for the 1972 Texas Rangers. He finished his managerial career 273-364.
People like Patrick Ewing, who took over as coach at his alma mater Georgetown in 2017, and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, who just finished his first season as coach of alma mater Memphis, may enjoy different results than the other stars. (In three combined seasons so far, Hardaway and Ewing have finished .500 or better each year, but made zero NCAA tournament appearances). And Bill Russell did win back-to-back titles, in 1968 and 1969, as player-coach of the Boston Celtics. Though without Russell the player in the lineup, Russell the coach finished under .500 in four seasons leading the Seattle Sonics in the 1970s, and a dismal 17-41 as coach of the Sacramento Kings for part of the 1987-88 season.
Perhaps these big-name players should take a cue from golf hero Arnold Palmer. People used to say that no one loved being Arnold Palmer more than Arnold Palmer. With his playing days behind him, he didn’t spend his time working as a coach or tour commissioner or anything like that. Instead, he’d order himself to drink at the Masters. In other words, he lived like a legend.