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Magic Johnson on LeBron and Steph: ‘I am proud of them for standing for something’

Hall of Famer said it is important for the players to have each other’s back

EL SEGUNDO, California — Magic Johnson is not supposed to talk about players from other teams as the Los Angeles Lakers’ new president of basketball operations. Considering LeBron James’ and Stephen Curry’s response to President Donald Trump over the weekend, the Hall of Famer made an exception by offering respect to the NBA All-Stars and to the Golden State Warriors after the NBA champions were denied a White House visit they didn’t appear to want.

“I was really proud of them. I was very happy,” Johnson told The Undefeated during the Lakers’ media day on Monday. “I can’t say a lot because now people are saying, ‘Oh, Magic is trying to recruit everybody. … ’ But I am proud of them for standing for something.

“We’ve all got to stand for something. They’ve also got to have each other’s back. After [the news broke] on Saturday, I tweeted out that I’m supporting Golden State and I’m supporting the players because it’s important that we have each other’s back.”

James talked extensively about Trump’s recent comments on sports and protests and the NFL’s response during Cavaliers’ media day on Monday. The four-time NBA MVP referred to Trump as “that guy” on Monday and a “bum” on Twitter on Sept. 23 after the president, also on Twitter, rescinded an invite to the White House for a “hesitating” Curry and the Warriors. Curry said on Sept. 22 during Warriors’ media day that he did not want to celebrate their 2017 NBA championship with a trip to the White House because of “things [Trump] said and the things he hasn’t said at the right times.”

Curry told reporters on Sept. 23: “I don’t know why he feels the need to target certain individuals rather than others. I have an idea of why, but, it’s just kind of beneath, I think, a leader of a country to go that route. It’s not what leaders do.”

Johnson chimed in as well on Monday, saying Trump should focus on his challenging job and learn about the importance of “equality, diversity and inclusion.” The five-time NBA champion is African-American and also has a gay son, Earvin III, who is a reality television star.

“I took it as a president, who first of all, is overstepping his stage,” the 58-year-old Johnson said. “Stay focused on North Korea, job creation, what this country needs. You can’t take away, whether it’s a player or an individual, freedom of speech. And you have to be in touch with why everybody is protesting. He doesn’t understand that equality, diversity and inclusion is so important. And the fact that there are issues in urban America, which I’ve been dealing with for 30 years, that is going on in our schools, our community and our neighborhood.

“Why are you singling out the NBA and the NFL? For what? Stephen Curry can say if he wants to come to the White House or not. Nobody said anything when [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady said he wasn’t going when President [Barack] Obama was sitting there. And now all the sudden Stephen Curry doesn’t want to go and he makes it a big deal? I think that’s wrong. And it’s the same thing with the NFL players who decide to kneel or sit on the bench. That’s their right. I was happy that the owners and coaches backed the players. So, it was really good.

“Guys stepped up and said different things. This is a sensitive situation. Racism is back strong in our country, unfortunately. One thing that is great about sports is that it brings all colors of people together. You have to remember that guys are playing with different races of guys.”

Johnson said he didn’t dissuade Lakers players from expressing themselves individually or as a team during media day or in the future.

“What I told them is, ‘It’s up to you to say what you want to say. We can’t speak for you,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘You guys can talk about it as a team. Whatever you feel, just remember to say what you feel and it’s on you.’ ”

Back in the 1980s, Johnson and Larry Bird garnered much-needed notice for the then-struggling NBA with their rivalry on the basketball court and also because they were stars who were black and white, respectively. Nearly 40 years later, the Lakers legend is disappointed that Trump is stirring the pot on race.

“I’m shocked that, ‘The Leader of the Free World’ is causing all these problems,” Johnson said. “With all the problems that we have in this country, this is what you decide to make first on your agenda? This is crazy. All these guys do so much in the community and they all do so much to bring the country, the cities that they’re playing in and the states together. And you don’t give them credit for all the things that they do to effect change and to affect somebody’s life.”

Earvin “Magic” Johnson, president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, speaks during media day Sept. 25 in El Segundo, California.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Johnson joined the Lakers players in making the rounds during the Lakers’ media day in their new practice facility. The center of attention was Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball, the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Ball has received most of the attention of the incoming NBA rookies in large part due to his family, including his vocal father LaVar Ball, his flashy game and his family-owned Big Baller Brand shoes.

Ball and his family were a hot topic on media day. Johnson said he is “not going to monitor” LaVar Ball and his door is always open to him, but he would talk to him if outside influences affected his son on the court. Johnson added that he has already been giving basketball tips to Lonzo Ball. Johnson acknowledged that the adoration for the arrival of Ball is on “the same level” as his arrival to the Lakers in 1979 and “Fernando-mania” when Fernando Valenzuela became a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitcher in 1981.

“I just hope the young man just comes in and has a really good season,” Johnson said of Lonzo Ball. “And also, the noise that is going on now, once he starts playing basketball, he is going to be all right. That’s his comfort zone because Lonzo is really quiet by nature. He’ll be fine. And he has his big brother sitting here, so if he has any questions, he can come see me.”

While Lonzo Ball owns the spotlight now, Johnson and new general manager Rob Pelinka have brought in a lot of interesting new faces to the Lakers.

Forward Brandon Ingram, who Johnson expects to lead the Lakers in scoring, guards Jordan Clarkson and Corey Brewer and forwards Julius Randle, Luol Deng and Larry Nance Jr. are the key returners. Along with Ball, key newcomers include defensive standout guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, veteran centers Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut, and rookie forward Kyle Kuzma, who played well in summer league. The 16-time NBA champions have missed the last four playoffs, but their players spoke of the possibility of returning to the postseason on this day.

On the challenge of turning around the Lakers, Johnson said with a laugh: “I’m not worried about that. We’re going to turn it around. I didn’t take the job to not turn it around.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.