Jeanie Buss Deserved Better Than Magic Johnson’s Cowardly Exit

Jeanie Buss has brothers. Four, in fact — two older brothers, Johnny and Jim, and two younger half-brothers, Joey and Jesse.

She also has employees. As the controlling owner and team president of the Los Angeles Lakers, Buss is one of the most powerful women in sports — the boss of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, not to mention its second-most valuable. To work for the Lakers is to work for Buss.

Magic Johnson, to his apparent confusion, was in fact a member of this latter category — an employee, not a brother — having been hired by Buss in February 2017 as the team’s president of basketball operations. But it’s clear from Johnson’s stunning resignation announcement late Tuesday that he had conflated the two to an embarrassing and borderline insulting degree.

Johnson called an impromptu press conference mere hours before the Lakers’ season finale on Tuesday, a home game against the Portland Trail Blazers. With reporters gathered around him in the depths of Staples Center, he announced he would be stepping down from his executive post. He then told the gathered throng — and thus, with the advent of camera phones and Twitter, the whole world — that his boss didn’t yet know of his decision.

The reason, Johnson said, was because Buss was like his “sister,” and he ”[didn’t] want to hurt her.” He opted to blindside her because if he had sat down with Buss privately to offer his resignation, “we would’ve cried, and I would’ve felt guilty, and I would’ve stayed.” He was scared she’d talk him out of it.

It’s true that Buss and Johnson have been close as kin for decades, ever since the Lakers chose him with the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA draft shortly after her father, Jerry Buss, bought the team. And it’s true that when Johnson was brought into the Lakers’ front office, he was literally taking on a brother’s role; the basketball operations job was vacant because Jeanie Buss had fired her brother Jim from the role after years of underachieving by the Lakers. 

But for Johnson to parade his sibling-like closeness with Buss before the media as justification for not telling her first about his decision was a cowardly farce.

He spent roughly two hours discussing his decision with reporters in the Staples Center hallways, but exactly zero minutes doing the same with Buss, going so far as to admit that the two had met for three hours Monday about the state of the organization and he’d given no indication that he was eyeing the exit. He told reporters that he’d had discussions about the future of the organization — all while thinking, “I’m not gonna be here.”

In every case, Johnson centered not only his feelings above all else, but also his personal, paternalistic interpretation of what Buss would think or feel. He repeatedly said he was leaving because he couldn’t stand disagreeing with his “sister,” with whom he had some differing opinions when it came to team personnel, most notably the status of head coach Luke Walton. He didn’t want to put Buss, the woman at the top of the Lakers’ org chart, “in the middle.”

But Buss, as Johnson’s boss, had famously empowered him to handle these exact basketball-related matters — even if that meant firing Walton, whom she is personally fond of. She had deputized responsibility to Johnson and entrusted him to carry out her vision. She had delegated. She had assigned a role.

Instead, Johnson saw a sibling who had to be protected from her own emotions. He didn’t tell Buss first that he was quitting because he knew she’d cry, that she’d “be hurt.” To protect her feelings, he removed her from the conversation entirely — forgetting that as the boss of the team he was leaving, she’d factor into the story no matter what. But where she could’ve been left to answer routine job-succession questions, she was now left to contend with the embarrassment of being suddenly abandoned by her top, most trusted deputy.

What made matters worse was that Johnson, when it was conveniently self-deprecating, made clear he knew Buss was his superior. “Somebody is going to have to tell my boss,” he told reporters at the start of his announcement, “because I know she’s going to be sick.”

Later, as he wandered through Staples Center after leaving the press gaggle, he clicked his hands together and said, “Now I’ve got to see if the boss is here,” asking team employees whether Buss would be at the arena for the night’s game so that he could, finally, tell her his decision face-to-face. When Johnson learned Buss would not be in attendance, he said that he’d try to talk with her that night in person ― but hey, if not, no big deal, he’d try again the next day.

There’s plenty to be said about how Johnson’s performed in his job, and much has been already. His tenure at the top didn’t produce stellar results, and after a disappointing season, it might not be the worst thing for the Lakers to put someone more experienced in charge of roster construction. (For her part, Buss issued a warm and classy statement about Johnson’s decision later in the night, though she and the family were privately “sad, angry and disappointed,” per ESPN.)

But this much is clear ― in his two years as a Lakers executive, Johnson repeatedly showed his willingness to see the players as his employees, essentially telling them to toughen up during a difficult season. He told reporters to stop writing about how brutally persistent trade rumors may have hurt the players’ feelings, and said the media should stop treating the young men like “babies” because “we’ve got big boys here.”

By contrast, with his display Tuesday, he undermined Buss’ authority by … worrying about her feelings. He made her job — to rebuild the Lakers, again, after a season initially so full of promise went wildly off the rails — that much harder, because he wasn’t thinking about their professional relationship at all. 

Buss is one of just three women who serve as principal owners of NBA teams, and by far the one who throws her business might around the most. Yet she’s been continually defined by the men around her: Jerry Buss’ daughter, Jim Buss’ estranged sister, Phil Jackson’s former fiancée, Kobe Bryant’s confidant, Luke Walton’s most powerful supporter.

On Tuesday, Jeanie Buss was Magic Johnson’s boss. But he chose to make her his “sister” instead.