This used to be Showtime’s time of year.
When the NBA Finals rolled around, the Los Angeles Lakers were often involved. From 1980 to 2010, they won 10 titles and made it to the Finals six other times.
Their fans, naturally, felt like it was the birthright of Hollywood’s most glamorous team, and one of the most storied teams in all of sports, to be playing in late May and early June.
Magic. Kareem. Big Game James. Shaq. Kobe. Pat Riley. Phil Jackson. The ultimate matchup, Lakers vs. Celtics, occurred five times in a rivalry that was among the best in sports.
The place to be in La-La-Land was the Forum in Inglewood, and then the palatial Staples Center downtown.
Then it all stopped. And now Lakerland appears dysfunctional and even bizarre. Magic Johnson is gone, LeBron James has yet to make a difference and even the ghost of Heath Ledger has contributed to the toxic mess.
The Lakers haven’t won an NBA title since 2010, when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led them to a second straight championship, and a third straight Finals appearance.
In a new low, they haven’t made the playoffs in six straight seasons, the longest drought in the history of a franchise that began play in Minneapolis in 1948-49 and moved to L.A. before the 1960-61 season.
As bad as it’s been in the standings — the Lakers were 37-45 this season, their first with James in purple and gold — it’s been uglier off the court. A front-office drama that has played out over the last two months has revealed a dysfunction that was never a problem when the late Jerry Buss ran the fabled franchise.
The most shocking move came on April 9, when Magic Johnson abruptly quit as president of basketball operations during an impromptu news conference before the final game of the season.
Stunningly, Johnson — beloved as a player and successful in a string of other businesses — didn’t tell owner Jeanie Buss or general manager Rob Pelinka about his decision.
“I want to go back to having fun. I want to go back to being who I was before taking on this job. We’re halfway there with LeBron coming. I think this summer, with that other star coming in, whoever is going to bring him in, I think this team is really going to be in position to contend for a championship with the growth of the young players.”
That was the tame stuff.
“Also what I didn’t like is the backstabbing and the whispering,” said Johnson, who wanted to fire coach Luke Walton but was blocked by other executives. Walton was forced out three days later.
Johnson’s comments that night were just the opening public salvo in a drama that was building during the two years Johnson was in charge of basketball operations.
A recent story by Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com painted an unflattering portrait of dysfunction under Johnson, who has described Jeanie Buss as his “sister,” and Pelinka, who formerly was the agent for Bryant and other stars.
How did it get to this point?
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Lakers’ last postseason appearance was in 2013, the year Jerry Buss died at age 80. The self-made millionaire used his real estate fortune to buy the Lakers, Kings and the Forum from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million in 1979.
Buss was successful from the start. His first season as owner ended with the Lakers winning the NBA title behind Johnson, then a rookie.
Buss hit on the perfect blend of Hollywood glitz and big-name athletes as he turned the Lakers into the crown jewel of the NBA.
At the time of his death, Jeanie Buss ran the business side while her brother, Jim, was the executive vice president of player personnel, having the final say on basketball decisions.
That arrangement lasted four years. In February 2017, Jeanie Buss fired GM Mitch Kupchak and made Johnson the new president of basketball operations. She also removed Jim Buss from his duties, although he retained his ownership stake.
At the time, the Lakers were 19-39 in Luke Walton’s first season as coach.
Jeanie Buss said that day that the moves were made to “return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect” and would “establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”
But the Lakers were well into their slide from greatness, with deals for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash not paying off and Bryant retiring after the 2015-16 season, when the Lakers finished an unsightly 17-65.
A month after Johnson took over basketball operations, Pelinka was hired as GM. Together, they failed to cobble together a .500 product.
The arrival of James last offseason _ the superstar said a talk with Johnson helped seal the deal _ had Lakers diehards thinking of a return to contention. But James injured his groin in a Christmas Day game, and injuries to other players helped derail the season.
Then came the Magic-Pelinka drama.
Johnson appeared on ESPN’s “First Take” and said Pelinka “betrayed” him.
Pelinka accused Magic of not working hard.
In his story, Baxter used a stunning tale to illustrate the contention by several Lakers staffers that Pelinka is disingenuous.
Baxter wrote: One story shared around the organization unfolded in March 2018, when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was addressing the team at the Lakers’ practice facility as part of the franchise’s “Genius Talks” series.
Standing beside Johnson, Pelinka told a story about his former client, Bryant.
“There was one time when Kobe, who I worked with for 18 years, was going back to play in Madison Square Garden, and he had just seen ‘The Dark Knight,'” Pelinka said. “Obviously, you guys saw that movie, and he’s like, ‘Hey, hook me up with dinner with Heath Ledger, because he got so locked into that role. I want to know how he mentally went there.’ So, he had dinner with Heath, and he talked about how he locks in for a role. And Kobe used some of that in his game against the Knicks.”
“The Dark Knight” was released in July 2008, six months after Ledger died. A source with direct knowledge said no such arrangement was made and no dinner ever took place.
Before the Magic-Pelinka spat went public, a group of fans protested outside Staples Center on May 10, after word broke that Tyronn Lue, the team’s top coaching candidate, pulled out of contract talks.
The team eventually settled on Frank Vogel as coach. As the coach of the Indiana Pacers, Vogel lost to James’ Miami Heat in the playoffs in three straight seasons.
“I have a good feel for the way I want to use him and hopefully the respect on his end that we were a formidable threat to his teams in Miami each year,” Vogel said at his introductory news conference. “Hopefully, our past experience together will serve as a foundation for the relationship that we’re going to have here and that we can do great things together here.”
And James apparently is doing his part. According to multiple reports, he has reached out to both Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard _ who’s from Southern California and is currently busy with the Raptors in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors _ about joining the Lakers in potential free agent deals.
This being Hollywood, there’s probably more drama to come.