Magic gets shot to fulfill lifelong dream

June 28, 1994|By Jesse Barkin | Jesse Barkin,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- When Magic Johnson was a teen, one of his part-time jobs was to clean the offices of two successful African-American businessmen in his hometown of Lansing, Mich.

"Whenever I went over there, I'd sit in those big leather chairs and put my feet up on those wide desks," he wrote in his autobiography, "My Life."

"I'd pretend I owned the place, and I'd start giving orders to my staff: 'Do this. Take care of that.' I'd imagine that everybody in the whole building worked for me, and that I had the respect of the entire town."

Johnson looked up to those two, particularly since there weren't all that many successful African-Americans he could use as role models. Over the years, he has hoped his accomplishments in the business world would have a similar effect.

His recent ventures include the building of movie theaters, and of a shopping mall in Las Vegas. He owns part of a Pepsi-Cola distributorship in Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, though, he realized a lifelong dream when he became part owner of the Lakers, pending league approval.

"I think it's wonderful," said Jerry West, Lakers executive vice president in charge of basketball operations. "It's not often a guy has the opportunity to live out his fantasies. Earvin has had that chance, and I'm delighted for him."

For Johnson, the opportunity is twofold.

"First, as African-Americans, we have to try to get more ownership," Johnson said on a conference call from Hawaii. "It's a key to young people. Now they've got to understand that we can't just be on the athletic side; we have to be on the ownership side.

"Second, I'm a businessman. This is an investment. After all is said and done about how excited I am about being with the Lakers on the ownership side, it's also one of the greatest investments I could have. I mean, my money manager just went crazy after Dr. [Jerry] Buss had said yes."

Johnson, 34, is not the first African-American to own part of an NBA team. But following league approval -- which NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said he expects to go smoothly -- he currently will be the one and only.

Businessmen Peter Bynoe and Bert Lee became the first African-Americans to control an NBA team when, in 1989, they were managing general partners of the Denver Nuggets. However, neither had majority interest in the team, and both were gone by 1992.

Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas was recently named vice president in charge of basketball operations of the expansion Toronto franchise, and the Toronto Star reported Thomas owns 10 percent of the club. However, Granik said yesterday that in fact the Toronto franchise does not yet exist -- so Thomas technically is not an owner.

Whatever the case, Johnson hopes he and Thomas will be the wave of the future in a league in which more than 70 percent of its players are African-Americans.

"The more we get in those positions, then the more opportunities there will be for others," said Johnson, who also pointed to coaching and general manager positions as places where he would like to see more minority involvement.

"There's not as many as there should be in those positions, but hopefully the owners and other people will change that because we have capable people out there."

Currently, four African-Americans are head coaches and seven are general managers -- and that's counting Philadelphia's coach/GM John Lucas twice -- in a league with 27 teams. The numbers have fluctuated over the years.

"Equal opportunity is something we certainly encourage," Granik said. "When it comes to ownership, it's always difficult to find people with the kind of money necessary to invest. But we're slowly getting there."

Johnson, meanwhile, has arrived.

"I am pleased that Earvin's desire for ownership has been realized, and welcome him to our management staff," Buss said in a statement. "His energy, enthusiasm and love for the Lakers cannot help but make our organization stronger."

He was part of a group that failed to win a bid for an expansion group in Toronto last year, and was involved in a different group trying to purchase the Minnesota Timberwolves. In addition, Johnson said he'd received numerous offers and opportunities to become part of various ownership groups.

Buying into the Lakers always had been something Buss knew Johnson wanted -- and the subject was heightened last year when Johnson replaced Randy Pfund as coach of the Lakers for the final 16 games of the season. But it didn't happen then, and at the time Buss gave no assurances other than to tell Johnson they should talk about it further.

"Dr. Buss and I do things strange. We don't do things like the normal business people," Johnson said. "He knew that I wanted it, and it was like, all of a sudden one day he said, 'OK, I want to sell you part of the team.' And then it was like, bam! So, he does things at his own pace."

The pace was such that, until recently, Buss had been advising Johnson on matters regarding the potential purchase of Minnesota.

"Then all of a sudden," Johnson said, "[Buss] just said, 'Hey, you belong here. I want you to be here. And I'm going to sell you a part of the team. Now, do you have the money?' "

Because Johnson purchased a percentage of the club, the first order of business was to determine a value. The expansion price for Toronto and Vancouver was $125 million apiece, and Top Rank of Louisiana offered $152 million for the Timberwolves. In the May 10 issue of Financial World magazine, the Lakers were valued at $168 million.

However, the Lakers have claimed the franchise to be worth much more, leading up to the parties agreeing on a value in excess of $220 million.

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