Boston sports fans viewed Magic Johnson as their archenemy 25 years ago, when he was trying to prevent the Celtics from piling up more championships with their Big Three.
Johnson perhaps made a couple of friends when he appeared at Larry Bird’s jersey-retirement ceremony sporting a Celtics T-shirt under his Lakers warmup suit nearly two decades ago. And now, shifting gears as he does constantly, he has filled the airwaves of sports talk shows discussing the blockbuster trade between the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, a team he assumed partial ownership of in March.
Johnson talked like a baseball man, breaking down the strengths of all four players acquired — the former pitching prowess of Josh Beckett, the base-stealing threat of Carl Crawford, the power potential of Adrian Gonzalez, and even mentioning that Nick Punto was returning to his Southern California roots (he’s from Mission Viejo).
Yet, as schooled and passionate as Johnson sounded about baseball, his voice flowed with Bird stories when he addressed kids at a recent charity appearance at the Boys and Girls Club of Providence. The two renowned rivals have become close friends over the past several years, and Johnson couldn’t describe the greatness of Bird without sporting his customary bright smile.
He related a story about Bird telling an injured Magic and Lakers coach Pat Riley during a regular-season matchup that he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to drop another 30-point game on Johnson.
Magic answered questions from the kids, then challenged the group — none of whom were old enough to see Johnson play —
“This is what I love to do, [talk to] young people, tell them I was once them,” he said. “I went through similar issues, problems in life. Grew up poor. I had a reading problem, the whole thing.
“And we connect. I would hope that they will be inspired and understand that anything in life they want, they have to get an education.
“They were outstanding. I got some of the best questions I’ve ever gotten from a young audience. You never thought in your wildest dreams that you’d be the one talking to them, because there was somebody talking to me when I was young. This is definitely surreal.”
Of course, Johnson had to comment about the gold medal-winning US Olympic basketball team and whether it could compete with the Johnson/Michael Jordan 1992 Dream Team.
“I don’t really think [we could have beaten Spain by more than 6 in the gold medal game], I know,” he said with a hearty laugh. “You can’t put together Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and, of course, the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, and not win.
“But I would say if we played a 10-game series, they would win definitely three and we would win seven. But I respect them. They are great for the league with Kevin Durant, Kobe [Bryant]. The league is in good shape. But we’re always going to compare teams, we’re always going to do that.”
Johnson, an NBA analyst for ESPN, keeps close tabs on the league and was thrilled that his former club acquired Dwight Howard, adding life to a Lakers-Celtics rivalry that many believed would tail off because both teams are aging.
“It was a great move for the Lakers, not just for now but for the future because now we’ll have somebody we can build the Lakers around once Kobe is gone,” Johnson said. “I think that Steve Nash was also a key trade because Steve will make everybody better like Dwight Howard will make all the players better because he’s a great defender and he can get out on that break and run the pick-and-roll well.”
Johnson remains one of the league’s biggest pitchmen, and it was apparent during this recent appearance that he remains an immensely popular figure.
“The league is in for a special year, because you need the Lakers and Celtics to be good and be competitive,” he said. “It’s great that New York is coming back with both of those teams. And of course Miami.
“Now that the Lakers are strong again, that will make the West great, so now basketball is healthy because the Celtics, the rivalry between them and the Heat, and now you got New York having both rivalries with Boston and Miami.
“And don’t forget Philly. Philly’s going to be good with [Andrew] Bynum, so this league is probably as healthy as it’s been since the ’80s and ’90s when we had so many great teams battling.
“I am excited. Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge did a nice job retooling with Boston.’’
NEXT IN LINE
Harden deal looms large
The Oklahoma City Thunder made an interesting transaction last month, re-signing center Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension, meaning Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and now Ibaka are signed long-term, leaving the organization with a decision about former lottery pick and Olympian James Harden. The Thunder’s chance to commit long-term to Harden will come next summer.
Harden certainly improved his stock by helping the US win the gold medal, but that doesn’t mean general manager Sam Presti is eager to sign him to a big-money contract and potentially hurt the franchise’s ability to sign other players for several years.
If you recall, Harden struggled miserably during the NBA Finals, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, 31.8 percent from the 3-point line, and missing 16 of 20 shots in the Game 3 and 4 losses in Miami.
Harden was also photographed hanging out after games in South Beach when the Thunder were being soundly beaten, eventually losing in five games.
So the Thunder now have to decide whether Harden is worthy of an extension. When it was apparent that Westbrook would flourish into an All-Star-caliber guard, Presti decided that Jeff Green, the third wheel on the Thunder’s machine in 2010-11, was expendable, and dealt him to the Celtics.
“We’ll be open in saying that there are a lot of inherent challenges this organization faces as a result of the new CBA,” Presti said. “With that said, we also maintained that we’re going to figure out a way to build a team that’s competitive within the new system and capable of [competing for championships]. Nothing changes in that respect.
“We’ll have some tough decisions in terms of being a good team and a team that’s enjoyed some level of flexibility. We need to work with James in hopes of keeping him with the team.
“I don’t want to speak for James or any of our players, but he knows how much we think of him. With any situation like this, it’s a matter of finding balance that works for both of us.”
Presti has astutely built the Thunder into a Western Conference power through the draft (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Harden) and through free agency and trades. And the aforementioned quartet have all met or exceeded expectations, which is rare in today’s crapshoot draft landscape. But because of that, the Thunder could potentially be a luxury-tax team if they re-sign Harden.
The Celtics were a luxury-tax team last season, paying players approximately $86 million —
“We understand there are tradeoffs all the time in the NBA, and we do our best to balance everything and respect how hard it is to win and how fortunate we have been to be in the postseason for the last several years,” said Presti. “We also have to take into account we have to put the organization in a strong and stable position.”
A NEW BEGINNING
Jones aims for coaching job
Damon Jones was once one of the NBA’s leading 3-point shooters during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he played with 10 teams over 11 seasons. He longed to return to the league after being waived by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2008 but he never received the opportunity.
Four years later, he asked Celtics summer league coach Tyronn Lue for an opportunity to sit on the sideline. The 36-year-old Jones was leading young men in the Las Vegas Summer League instead of getting one final look to vie for a roster spot. His transition to the post-career Damon Jones has begun, and he said he enjoyed his five-game experience on the Celtics sideline.
“I am officially retired and looking to get on the other side, whether it be coaching, management, or whatever the situation may be,” he said. “I thought that this would be some good exposure to be able to help. Tyronn, being one of my closest friends, gave me the opportunity, so I am doing whatever I can to help him.”
Jones said he didn’t consider the idea of coaching during his playing days, but viewing himself as an ex-player instead of a player trying to stay in the league helped his outlook.
“When you play like I have for 12 years, there’s so many different things that I saw during the course of my career that I can extend to younger players,” he said. “The players that we have here are very receptive. It’s been fun. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Jones worked with the guards, including second-round pick Kris Joseph and camp sensation Dionte Christmas, who earned a contract with his performance. There is no NBA Developmental League for coaches, so Jones will have to use the connections he made in his career to create opportunities.
Rockets still star-crossed
Although Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey scored one of the summer’s most surprising signings in former Harvard standout Jeremy Lin, they still enter the season headed for the lottery with a bunch of young assets but no premier player.
“We think Jeremy will be a great addition,” Morey said. “We think his work ethic, his intelligence, underrated athleticism, and character will make him successful over time, whoever it’s going to be with. But we’re happy it’s with us.”
Houston’s three highest-paid players are Lin at $8 million, Omer Asik (signed away from the Chicago Bulls) at $8 million, and Kevin Martin at $12 million. That’s not exactly Wade, James and Bosh.
While Morey was pleased to nab Lin, he is still seeking a franchise-caliber player. He chased Dwight Howard and acquired three first-round picks to move to the Magic — eventually becoming Royce White, Terrence Jones, and Jeremy Lamb —
“We’re always looking for opportunities to upgrade our team,” Morey said. “We really like that we have Jeremy [Lin] and the other young players that we have and the other young players improving over time.
“We did feel like, where we were at, every player needed to have star potential — like we feel like most of our young guys have — or give us the [salary] cap flexibility and the room to go sign a big-time star if needed.
“We moved pretty much everyone to do that, and I think that’s why we had to make a tough decision on Luis Scola [amnesty clause] and some of the other veterans we didn’t bring back. But we felt like it was the best decision.”
Morey allowed Scola to leave and traded Courtney Lee (to the Celtics) as well as Samuel Dalembert (Milwaukee) and Kyle Lowry (Toronto) to clear cap space and perhaps attract a superstar in free agency next summer.
“You can’t win the championship without having a very high-level player,” Morey said. “We didn’t have that. We’re hoping our young guys can grow into that or we have the cap room and tradeability to add that.”
Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson said he will have three presenters Friday when he is inducted into the Springfield shrine. Bob Lanier, who played for Nelson with the Bucks, Chris Mullin, who played for Nelson with the Warriors and whom he eventually nudged out as general manager, and former Celtics teammate Tom “Satch” Sanders will stand on stage when Nelson is introduced . . . Just months after leaving a game against Charlotte with a scary concussion, veteran forward Eduardo Najera decided to become coach of the NBDL’s Texas Legends. Najera had a respected NBA career and is the first Mexican-born coach in the NBA or NBDL . . . Among the free agents remaining on the market is former Celtic Mickael Pietrus, who does not want to play for the league minimum. The Bucks had expressed interest in Pietrus but he remains without a team. The Celtics still have their $1.95 million biannual exception remaining but are expected to wait until close to the regular season to use that, perhaps on a player waived by another team . . . There is an intriguing group of free agents on the market but action has slowed since the July signing frenzy. Players such as Kenyon Martin, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Leandro Barbosa, Josh Howard, Derek Fisher, and Gilbert Arenas remain available. As with Pietrus, it may take deep into training camp for many of these veterans to sign, and it likely would come at minimum salaries.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.