Los Angeles, somewhat fairly, has a reputation as a fair-weather sports city. The notorious joke about Dodger fans arriving in the third inning and leaving in the seventh is absolutely true. Two NFL teams had to leave the city behind because Angelenos notoriously just didn’t care about the sport, and the league wisely has left the city alone since, knowing that it could hardly support one team, let alone two (wait, what’s that you’re telling me?).
But Lakers fans? They’re the real deal. The Lakers have won 27 percent of their games over the last four seasons (dear god), but I can tell you as a fact that the fans still pack the Staples Center and lose their minds with every win, 10 times more so than you’ll see at any Clippers game.
But everyone has a breaking point. And that 27 percent figure (that can’t really be right, right?) is going to truly test Lakers fans if it doesn’t get turned around soon. Or, at the very least, if we don’t believe the team’s future is in the right hands.
Enter Magic Johnson.
Nostalgia is all the rage right now, and sports are no exception. Seeing Magic Johnson back with the Lakers, recently hired once again in a wide-ranging adviser role, is not only great on that shallow level but is also reassuring on a much more serious level.
The late, great Dr. Jerry Buss was an impeccable face of the franchise: elegant, intelligent and flashy. There wasn’t an owner that fans could have felt more comfortable handling a team. On top of that, the only general managers the Lakers have had over the past 30 years have been legend Jerry West and the beloved Mitch Kupchak. From 1980 to 2012, you couldn’t have hoped for a better and more stable triumvirate. There was often contention — whether it be between Shaquille O’Neal and the front office, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson or Jackson and Buss — but the people in charge never failed to steer out of dangerous waters and back into title contention.
And then Jim Buss came along.
With the elder Buss falling into bad health, the family succession plan came into place, with daughter Jeanie Buss taking over the business side of the franchise and son Jim taking over the basketball and personnel side of things.
Jeanie had long been a public figure and spokesperson for the Lakers, coming off as an incredibly capable and extremely intelligent future heir of the team. Jim was a 50 year old who wore baseball caps to Lakers games. Which, to be clear, are played inside.
Jim utterly failed his first test. The very ill Jerry was apparently involved in the decision to fire Mike Brown after five games of the 2012 season and replace him with Mike D’Antoni, but the disaster that followed D’Antoni’s hiring lies at Jim’s feet. D’Antoni failed to turn around the fortunes of the legendarily disappointing Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash-Dwight Howard Lakers, and it took a heroic late-season effort, and a torn achilles, from Kobe Bryant to drag the underperforming team into the playoffs. The next year, the Lakers finished last in their division and had the second-worst defense in the NBA, leading to D’Antoni’s axing.
After two years wasted under coach Byron Scott, Luke Walton seems to have been a good hire from this summer, but the reported rationale — that Walton and Jim used to party together when Walton was with the Lakers — inspires little confidence.
Just a year after Jerry’s passing, Jim promised that if in “three or four years” the Lakers were not competing for titles, he would step down. As that 27 percent figure shows, (please, someone tell me I did the math wrong), they haven’t even come close.
Magic, always closer to Jeanie than Jim, coming back into the fold is a clear sign of changes to come and a hopeful return to the stability of old. Johnson has often criticized Jim on Twitter, and Jim fired back in 2015, saying, “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My dad made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?’ ”
Referencing the incredible success Magic had with his father, and making it clear that one of the all-time greatest Lakers and kindest people in the world couldn’t get along with you doesn’t seem like the best defense for Jim. I think the kids call that “playing yourself.”
Reports are coming out that Kupchak is likely on his way out, and as much as I will always trust in Mitch, I can’t find it in myself to be all that upset. I trust Jeanie, Magic and whomever follows Kupchak far more than I trusted the duo of Jim and Kupchak.
Moving from winning 27 percent of your games to title contention will require a little magic, and the Lakers have taken their first step.