“First of all, let me say good aftern-... good aftern-... late afternoon,” Magic Johnson starts, obviously nervous for maybe the first time in his life. “Um, because of the HIV virus that I have attained, uh, I will have to retire from the Lakers, uh, today.”
And with those two sentences, the city of Los Angeles was convinced it was about to watch its brightest star, its most promising young man, shrink away and eventually die before their very eyes. Just imagine how devastating that would’ve been for not only Laker fans around the world, but anyone who enjoyed basketball, especially while played by the person who showed the most joy in doing so.
“I plan on going on, living for a long time,” Johnson continued. “Bugging you guys like I always have. So you’ll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league — hopefully David (Stern) will have me for a while.”
At the time, people wanted to believe this proclamation. They wanted to think (as naïve as it might’ve felt) that Magic Johnson could fight this thing even if deep down, an unrelenting voice was reciting statistics about the devastating effect HIV was having on society at that time.
No one could’ve imagined that someday, decades after this press conference, Johnson would not only beat back the disease, but do so with such strength that he would serve as an inspiration to millions and, oh on his spare time, turn around the franchise he had to depart from that fateful day.
Consider that moment from his point of view.
Johnson, only 32 at the time and squarely in the prime of his career, had to leave the game that had given him so much. He had to step away from the team despite having so much more to offer. When you consider that, it makes perfect sense that Johnson would want the chance to do more for the Lakers. He left at near the peak of his powers. The what-ifs had to be maddening.
Fast-forward a couple decades and it’s Johnson who sealed the deal with one of the game’s greatest all-around players since, well, him. LeBron James is a Laker now, and those same fans who wondered if they’d see Johnson make it to his 40s have him to thank for this next era of Lakers basketball that James is going to lead along with the stars who’ll join him and whatever pieces of the young core that remain after the roster reconstruction is complete.
It was Johnson and Pelinka who somewhat controversially sent D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets to shed Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
Magic traded away Lou Williams for the pick that eventually became Kyle Kuzma (there are intricacies here, but that’s beside the point).
He somehow squeezed a first-round pick out of Jordan Clarkson’s contract and Larry Nance, Jr. — and from the team that James would eventually leave, no less.
And on the first night of free agency, it was Magic who snuck away from meetings to meet with LeBron at his Los Angeles home and sell him for three hours on what the Lakers have to offer.
We can get into the details and the various roles people behind the scenes played in this success, but again, that’s missing the point.
Talk to a Laker fan in their 40s and up. Ask them about that fateful press conference on November 7, 1991. Not a single one of them would have confidently predicted Magic would be around almost 30 years later, let alone with enough strength and health to reinvigorate the organization he was stepping away from that day.
Jeanie Buss brought him for this exact scenario, even over her own brother. “I only saw my dad cry twice,” she once said during an appearance on Michael Rosenbaum’s “Inside of You” podcast. “Once when his mother died, and when Magic had to retire...”
Johnson means that much to the Lakers. Sure, he’ll say Kobe Bryant is the greatest player in the franchise’s storied history, but that simply isn’t true, especially not after Johnson helped land the game’s biggest star at or near the peak of his powers.
LeBron is 33, mere months older than Johnson was at the time of his announcement. And as he plays out (hopefully) the rest of his career in purple and gold, you can bet Johnson will be living vicariously through the player whose game most resembles his own.
Magic lived up to his promise all those years ago. He’s been around the team all this time, and in his official return to the Lakers, he helped bring them back to legitimate relevance.
The city’s brightest star is still shining as bright as ever.