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Magic Johnson’s disappearing act isn’t just the Lakers’ loss

Only two black team presidents of basketball operations remain in the NBA


The airways have been consumed by news of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s sudden, stunning resignation Tuesday night as president of the Los Angeles Lakers.

A bombshell, indeed.

The other bombshell is that Johnson’s departure leaves two, count them, two black team presidents who oversee basketball operations in the NBA.

Steve Mills is president of the New York Knicks, and Masai Ujiri is the Toronto Raptors’ team president. Mills was born in Roosevelt, New York, while Ujiri was born in Zaria, Nigeria.

The low numbers contradict the general perception of the NBA as a progressive bastion of liberalism in which more than 80 percent of the players are either African American, African or “of color.”

The executive suite and many of the jobs in between are not so Afrocentric. There are other exceptions: Fred Whitfield is the Charlotte Hornets’ president overseeing business operations and Cynthia Marshall is CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. But this is the elephant in the room that many associated with the NBA — and this includes the sprawling industry around the league — are reluctant to discuss.

But first, let’s dig into Magic’s disappearing act. In many ways, the Magic episode explains why black stars have difficulty making what would seem to be the logical transition from the court to the upper reaches of corporate power.

Stars like Magic Johnson are used to being able to dictate the terms of engagement. For example, when they don’t want to answer they can simply say, ”Next question” and move on.

Life is much different when players move from the court into the rare air of multibillionaires. In the boardroom, executive suites, yachts and villas, the numbers shift dramatically from black men being a dominant presence to being virtually invisible.

And mega sports stars are often control freaks used to taking matters into their own hands and achieving winning results.

During the 1987 NBA Finals, I began an interview with Magic by asking: “Do you ever hope …”

Johnson stopped me midsentence and, without smiling, sternly said: “I don’t hope.”

What he meant was that he makes things happen, takes things into his own hands. I use that exchange today whenever anybody says, “I hope.”

In other words, don’t hope. Do.

But with the Lakers, Magic’s ability to simply “do,” to simply “make it happen,” was compromised by a corporate structure that put him in check. He was not the ultimate boss. He could not simply be Magic.

As a front-office executive with the Lakers, Johnson was exposed to an unprecedented level of criticism that he could not avoid and could not quiet. Criticism that could not be offset by on-court heroics.

Johnson had to hope Jeanie Buss would see it his way and agree to fire coach Luke Walton. She did not. And many of Johnson’s media critics felt that he was making Walton the scapegoat for Johnson’s poor front-office decisions.

Magic had to hope the New Orleans Pelicans saw clearly a way to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers. They did not, thanks in large part to Team LeBron’s public bungling.

The first year in Los Angeles became a perfect storm for a deluge of criticism directed at Johnson and LeBron James.

The criticism began when Johnson collaborated to bring James from Cleveland to Los Angeles. This in and of itself seemed to rub many in the media the wrong way because it reinforced how James continued to exercise his power and independence.

Things simply became too messy, the criticism too intense.

James was somewhat insulated from the criticism because he had been so successful in the past.

Magic, instead of hoping, hopped off.

Given the racial dynamics of black team presidents, perhaps Magic should have stayed with the Lakers through the summer and fought. Instead, he left, perhaps saving himself from the potential embarrassment of the Lakers not attracting a high-profile free agent.

Ultimately, making the Lakers great again was a greater undertaking than even Johnson expected. Life in the executive suite is different. No wands or no-look passes can make the magic happen.

The power dynamic can switch in a moment’s notice.

Now that Johnson is gone, how far do LeBron’s power and influence extend? The possibility was floated last month that perhaps James should be traded, a not-so-subtle reminder to the King that he is still an employee.

Will LeBron be able to influence the Lakers to hire a black team president to replace Johnson, or a black coach if Walton is fired? And if Walton is retained, what statement is the franchise making to King James, who clearly was not a Walton supporter?

The NBA congratulates itself around social issues, but it’s an enterprise of smoke and mirrors when it comes to African Americans.

You can be funny and engaging like Johnson, but his sudden exit from the Lakers is a testament to the reality that a black man’s survival in the white-run executive suite, in sport or out, is about power — not magic.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.