Magic Johnson and Pat Riley bring Showtime back to L.A. for one night
The Los Angeles Lakers, one of the crown jewels of the NBA's history, have fallen on hard times lately, with the four worst seasons in franchise history. Kobe Bryant is gone, and now the team's hopes rest on the No. 2 overall pick in the draft later this month.
But on Monday night, "Showtime" returned to L.A., if only for one hour.
Magic Johnson joined Pat Riley on stage at the Conga Room for an American Express-sponsored discussion in which the Lakers legends reminisced on their dynasty of the '80s and shared their insights into the champions of the current era. They laughed and joked, got up and danced to George Benson, closed their eyes and nodded while listening to Marvin Gaye's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1983 All-Star Game.
They showed the bond that brought them four NBA championships as player and coach, and has only grown deeper over the past 35 years.
"You never think your coach would be one of your best friends in your life," an emotional Johnson said, dabbing at his eyes.
The two haven't worked together for decades, but L.A. remains the same. Business is booming, with the parking lots and old storefronts across the street from Staples Center being replaced by fancy new buildings and high-rises.
Johnson is trying to erect the equivalent with the Lakers, who — in terms of star power — have become an empty lot.
Johnson said Riley has been his "confidant" during many discussions about basketball and their former Lakers team. All that will stop now, joked Riley, the president of the Miami Heat for the past 22 years. Johnson rejoined the Lakers as an adviser last year and was named president of basketball operations in February.
The good friends are now rivals, but Riley had this advice for his old buddy when he took over the Lakers: Be patient.
"He's gonna wanna go down there and be Lonzo Ball's mentor," Riley said, drawing wild applause from the crowd and an ear-to-ear smile from Magic.
Johnson agreed that his biggest challenge will be "making sure I keep Earvin in check" — letting the players play and the coaches coach. But he's confident in taking the job because the way he sees it, he's just following the blueprint that Riley created in going from player to coach to executive — holding every role. And this job is a labor of love.
Johnson says he turned down the owners of the Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons when they tried to recruit him.
"No, I'm a Laker," he told them.
Riley, who says he still considers Magic the greatest player of all time, joined Johnson in discussing LeBron James and the two teams that are vying to become the NBA's next dynasty: the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Magic called LeBron "definitely one of the top five greatest players ... and he's gonna continue to move up." Riley called James "the closest thing to Earvin we have ever seen" because of his size, his vision. "He just has more pressure on him to score."
While they see parallels between the Cavs and Warriors and the Lakers' celebrated rivalry with the Celtics — Riley in the talent of both teams, Johnson in the speed with which they play and the way they've captivated the country — Riley points out one huge difference.
"There's no hatred in the series," he said, before reminding the audience of Boston's dominance in the Finals until his Lakers finally broke through in 1985.
While the Warriors are two wins from completing the first perfect postseason run in NBA history, neither Johnson nor Riley offered a prediction for the outcome. But both had no problem predicting who'd win if the Showtime Lakers played them.
"We'd sweep them," Johnson stated. "They're too little."
"Try to put someone on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," Riley challenged.
"Sorry, Zaza," Johnson said with his famous laugh.
Showtime was alive and well in L.A.