EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Magic Johnson has waited a long, long time for this.
Taking a break late Tuesday afternoon after talking to 10 NBA general managers (with three more on his list to call back with the trade deadline looming), he sat in a conference room in front of a framed photo of his hero, Jerry Buss. Jerry’s open-collared (always) blue dress shirt and gray jacket were being doused with champagne after the 1987 NBA Finals in the photo…with Johnson right next to him, still clutching the game ball.
It’s a full 30 years later now.
You see how Johnson, installed Tuesday morning by Jeanie Buss as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, has waited a long, long time to have the ball in his hands again.
“The timing was right,” Johnson said.
And if there’s one thing Jerry Buss taught his favorite superstars, it is this…
“To be patient,” Kobe Bryant said not long ago when asked what he learned most from having Buss as his team owner and mentor.
Perhaps that’s why Jeanie waited so long to fire Jim Buss. She understood that lesson of patience, and she wanted to honor her father’s hope that Jim could make sharp basketball decisions.
That’s the touchy part about patience, though. It can be so graceful to be patient, but it can make you look weak.
For strong people driven to make successes of themselves every day the way Bryant and Johnson did through their playing careers, being patient is not a natural quality.
Thus, consider it rather amazing that the spontaneous, in-the-moment Johnson is where he is now by letting it happen slowly and organically…except that he learned that stuff from Jerry Buss.
Jerry Buss believed things would work themselves out more often than not.
So the Lakers will not be trying to strong-arm Bryant into some prominent official role now that his longtime agent, Rob Pelinka, is set up to replace Mitch Kupchak as Lakers general manager. It’s not time for that in Bryant’s mind, so it’s not happening.
The Lakers aren’t going to hire a soon-to-be 79-year-old man to save the day now, even if his image is the NBA logo. Yet Jerry West’s son, 37-year-old Ryan West, will be part of the new machine to push the boulder forward.
Johnson will not be foolish enough to believe he can win an NBA championship overnight with this young crew of players, either.
“It was easier then,” Johnson said about how winning has changed since he played. “Free-agent movement or even making trades was easier back then. Now it is more difficult with the new CBA [collective bargaining agreement]. With the new CBA, everybody is trying to keep their young talent. So player movement is not going to be as easy as it used to be.”
Are Lakers fans, many of whom ridiculously think the worst thing Jim Buss did was not get his wish of throwing all the Lakers’ carefully chosen young talent into a bin to get DeMarcus Cousins (who has yet to prove he can win at a meaningful level), ready for the first real movement of patience after Jim’s impetuousness?
Is Johnson ready to stick with it considering his history as an outspoken and angry Lakers fan through the years, even barking at times about Jim’s shortcomings?
“Our untouchables are our young talent,” Johnson said. “We already let everybody know that. We’re trying to hang on to our young talent. There have been people calling for it. But we’ve been saying no.”
It’s not difficult to see how Johnson is able to be at peace with taking his time now, as much as he is driven to be a winner.
His patience has already been rewarded.
Jeanie came to him. She asked him to be her adviser.
When she realized something had to be done now with Jim Buss and Kupchak, she felt comfortable with his moving up to be top dog, especially with Johnson open-minded enough to have Pelinka’s thorough knowledge of NBA business and all the league’s business people to help him.
But all the people Johnson has now to help him also had to grow to where they can stand by his shoulder the way he once leaned on Jerry Buss’…and that also required patience.
Pelinka, 47, was once upon a time just a lackey in power agent Arn Tellem’s office before gaining Bryant’s trust and proving his own tremendous clout.
Luke Walton, 36, had to figure out that he might be more cut out for greatness as a coach than as a player.
Joey Buss, 32, had to learn he could offer this inner circle unique versatility with business perspective to go with his basketball ideas.
Jesse Buss, 29, realized in working like a dog as a scout and from living with his father in his final years never to take for granted the golden responsibility to build his beloved team.
Above all, however, even after all the hours Johnson spent in the hospital visiting with Jerry Buss when the cancer was getting bad and he wanted to grab a baton that wasn’t offered to him, Johnson had to wait for Jim Buss to get his opportunity.
Even though Magic and Jim, both 57, were like rival sons to Jerry, the bloodlines dictated who got first crack.
Asked how Jerry would feel right now about Magic's taking the helm, a somewhat emotional Johnson initially forgot to look at it with the perspective that Jim was Jerry’s son.
“He’s so happy to know that I’m working with Jeanie and also Jesse and Joey,” Johnson answered. “He would be, ‘OK, this brings a smile to my face.’ Now it’s probably tough for him that he had to see Jim get removed from this position; it’s not a good thing for anybody where siblings have to remove another sibling.
“But one thing that happened here is that the Lakers have been losing. We made critical mistakes. It’s not like nobody was given a fair shot at this. Right? What I’m looking to do here is move it forward. I can’t think about the past. I inherited this and knew what I was getting into.
“I’m just going to move this thing forward and do the best job I can, but also I’m going to include these people. I have to work with some good people and talented people.
“But I will say this: It will take some time. I’m up for the challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.