Now THIS is the kind of story fantasists are asking for, and there isn’t as much as a matchbook in sight. There is an attempt here by several people of power and influence to seize the Los Angeles Lakers, and though you may wish this kind of plot turn concerned a team relevant enough to actively hate (Yankees/Patriots/Maple Leafs/Manchester Whomever/Any of about 30 college teams), the Lakers are the ones going to all the trouble of airing their business right in front of your face. It’s a kindness that should not be dismissed.
Anyway, Magic Johnson went on ESPN’s gasbaggers’ tentpole First Take Monday morning to essentially say over the course of an hour that he:
- Was routinely backstabbed by general manager Rob Pelinka, who also doubles as Kobe Bryant’s corporate right hand (Pelinka said they spoke two days earlier, if that matters at all, which for our purposes it shouldn’t).
- Told Jeanie Buss he wanted power without being a full-time participant in daily office appearances, and Jeanie agreed to the arrangement, which sparked Pelinka’s alleged backstabbery.
- Said that the younger Busses, Joey and Jesse, wanted more involvement in the team, and so did one of the business guys, Tim Harris.
- Wanted to fire former coach Luke Walton but was undercut by Jeanie Buss.
- Saw Jeanie Buss’s ear being regularly seized by all of the above (except Walton, obviously) plus former fiancé Phil Jackson and the Rambii, Linda and Kurt.
And the Lakers, for their part, tried today to announce the hiring of temporary head coach Frank Vogel. It went about as smoothly as observers of this franchise have come to expect:
In other words, Johnson has declared a Magic-style war on the Buss family and the Bryant faction while taking care to avoid blaming LeBron James for anything, but without convincing anyone that there isn’t a James faction willing to listen to any conspirators.
In other other words, the Laker families are maneuvering into a full Godfathering of the franchise, and nobody has yet revealed themselves as Al Pacino. (Author’s note: By sub-corporate edict, we are not mentioning that show that all of you loved, hated, and tolerated for eight years and now feel like a bunch of charlies for having invested emotions in in the first place.)
To which we say:
This is the kind of real-life treachery we want! This is the kind of corporate bloodlust that doesn’t need showrunners! This is the kind of malignant human behavior that only needs human reptiles! This is the American story we need! And this is why reality beats fiction every time!
Pardon me. My enthusiasm for rich people gutting each other got away from me.
Johnson’s scorched-earth interview, like everything else he has ever done with the noble exception of wrestling HIV to a standstill, is an utter calculation, from his choice of vehicle (Stephen A. Smith as this generation’s father-confessor is a remarkable turn) to his real targets, the apparently feckless Jeanie, to the looming shadow of Bryant through Pelinka, and potentially to James and his coterie for the Twenties. It’s dynastic, it’s generational, it’s economic and it’s iconic. There is a prize here, and it’s the once-proud franchise, but it is going to take reputations broken and scattered on the side of the street.
And that’s a price I am more than willing to let them pay.
Yes, the Lakers are a gaudy prize, but that is as much myth as reality right now. The stable billionairing of Steve Ballmer down the hall makes the Clippers like the smarter play. But the NBA is a curious place—it is closer to the pulse of the next generation but holds the old icons dearest. I mean, people still bother paying attention to the New York Knicks, for God’s sake.
But nobody is fighting over the Clippers because there is no fight to have. All roads lead to Ballmer’s desk. The Lakers are the thing being fought over, in large part because of its foundational rot. The Lakers are royalty, and royalty has been in decline for decades. The real lure of royalty is now the uncrowned offspring—the princes and princesses and any offspring created therein.
The lure of the Lakers today is the reputations now being hurled onto the grill, and with any luck this will end with everyone’s name in tatters and the franchise reduced to being the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons because the winner of the war will be the worst possible choice.
This stuff almost never plays out in real time with real people in front of America’s voyeur class. TMZ reports a problem in some corporate paradise, there’s a press release from said company announcing a change and thanking the loser for his or her many years of faithful service, and four months later The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, GQ or Sports Business Daily does the actual play-by-play of the behind-the-scenes knifing.
Magic, though, took his beef to the streets, and while there are still enemies and alliances to unearth, now we can dig in to the fun with claw hammers while sorting out what faction co-opted which media members to fuel the preferred story of the day. Everyone who touches this mess will end up a charred heap, and if that’s not your idea of fun, what are you doing living in this decade, or frankly, the next one?
The only way this goes bad is if all the principals involved agree to hold their tongues and holster their media tools and keep the fight on the down-low. But since the real prize here seems to be ownership of the franchise, and the franchise runs on leaks and friendly stories from pliable gabblers on all sides, we feel confident that this will play out right where we can all see and bask.
Now before we go, this must be said. This would be almost every bit as much fun if it happened to the Knicks or Heat or Celtics or Warriors. This would also be almost every bit as much fun if it happened to a hockey team or a football team or a soccer team or a baseball team or an Olympic committee we all know about. It’s just that most of the time the fight is either over an estate or avoiding prosecution. This is something better, something clumsy yet cut-throaty, something well in keeping with the stereotypical Los Angeles rather than the one waiting for global warming to lay waste to it and make Bakersfield beachfront property.
Maybe there is a little extra schadenfreude dipped in barbecue sauce because the Lakers have been good to great for a greater percentage of their existence than any other team. But mostly, the Lakers in hell are that much better a concept because all the power players are already familiar names—Magic, Kobe, Rambis, and more Busses than you can shake a stick at—laying bare the illusion that teams are families. Families are families; teams are businesses, subject to the same generational biases and megalomania and visions and all-encompassing venalities. That’s what we’re here for, and that’s why sports should exist.
You can have all the tales of the human spirit triumphant, all the artistic cinematics of the games, even the math obsession that hooks in that segment of the species otherwise untouched by physical, ethical, moral or aesthetic uplift. Give us the Lakers standing naked in a paint factory fire made entirely of popular people’s credibilities, and we’ll tolerate the rest of it.
Ray Ratto is hoping to show you that dragons are not nearly as nasty as people with power who just want more of it.