Magic Johnson praised

Updated: March 30, 2012, 5:45 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne and Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Los Angeles Dodgers fans and players are thrilled Magic Johnson is part of the group that bought the team, but many are wondering how Frank McCourt could remain connected to the franchise he was forced to sell.

The Johnson group, largely funded by Guggenheim Capital chief executive officer Mark Walter, agreed to purchase the Dodgers, Dodger Stadium and a 50 percent stake in the parking lots surrounding the ballpark from McCourt for $2.15 billion.

Sources with knowledge of the agreement told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Tony Jackson the group will purchase half of the Dodger Stadium parking lots, deemed to have a total value of $300 million, with McCourt keeping the other half.

Money fans pay to park at Dodger Stadium would go to the team, not McCourt, a source with knowledge of the situation stressed to ESPNLosAngeles.com. McCourt does not have any control over the land surrounding the stadium, although he could profit if the land is developed in the future.

Walter insisted McCourt will have only an "economic interest" in the land and not any control or influence over it.

"Frank's not involved in the team, baseball, any of that," Walter said in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. "What Frank does have is an economic interest in land, but we control the parking and all the fan experience and that's of the utmost importance to us."

Buying a baseball team was a bit of an unexpected move for Johnson, who won five NBA titles as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and has gone on to become a beloved civic leader and businessman since he retired from the game after contracting HIV in 1991. His name also has been linked to the NFL's return to Los Angeles.

But the opportunity, as an African-American, to become an owner of the franchise that broke baseball's color barrier, was too enticing to pass up.

"I love baseball," Johnson said. "I've been to many many, not just Dodger games, but baseball games around the country. I grew up a [Detroit] Tiger fan, of course, being from Michigan, and then became a Dodger fan when I moved to L.A. over 30 years ago.

"But the reason I joined was because of these two guys [Stan Kasten and Walter]. It was an easy decision. When I met Mark Walter he reminded me so much of [Lakers owner] Dr. Jerry Buss in terms of how he approached things, how he wants to win, family man, that whole thing.

"I still can't believe that we're buying the Dodgers. I can't believe the Dodgers were on the market."

After the sale was announced Tuesday night, Johnson said he received phone calls from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

"The support has been overwhelming," Johnson said. "The Dodgers, it's not that they need to be fixed, we need to just take them to the next level. People love this brand, they love the team, they love going to Dodger Stadium to watch a game. We just need to take them to the next level."

Commissioner Bud Selig thinks Johnson is the man to do that.

"I believe that a man of Magic's remarkable stature and experience can play an integral role for one of the game's most historic franchises, in a city where he is revered," he said in a statement. "Major League Baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities, and Magic Johnson is a living embodiment of so many of the ideals that are vital to our game and its future.

"The interest in this franchise and its historic sale price are profound illustrations of the great overall health of our industry. This has been a long, difficult process, and I once again want to thank the great Dodger fans for their loyalty and patience."

Johnson's involvement also struck a chord with Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp.

"I think it's tight, man, for Magic to be one of our owners," Kemp said from the team's spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz. "He knows what the Dodgers mean to L.A. Magic is very important to L.A., and the fans love him. This is a pretty good day for the Dodgers."

Kemp, whom the Dodgers signed this winter to an eight-year, $160 million contract extension, the largest in franchise history, said he was blown away by the sale price.

"Do I feel underpaid?" Kemp said, repeating a question from a reporter. "I feel broke. What I got is pretty good money, but $2 billion? That is a lot of money, man. That is a lot of dough. It'll be cool to pick [Johnson's] brain about some things, so hopefully one day I can be a billionaire."

Walter defended the sale price, which blew away estimates of $1 billion to $1.4 billion.

"If we wanted to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and have the privilege of being the custodians of it, we had to do it," Walter said.

"I think probably that the market was willing to do that suggests that the value is there."

The $2 billion price shattered the previous record for a MLB franchise. The Chicago Cubs sold for $845 million in 2009. The NFL's Miami Dolphins sold for $1.1 billion three years ago.

But the price of the Dodgers skyrocketed because the team's television rights are coming up at the same time television rivals Fox Sports and Time Warner are battling for programming of Los Angeles' franchises. Time Warner beat out Fox for the Lakers last year, signing them to a contract worth a reported $5 billion over 25 years.

For Walter and Johnson, however, this wasn't just a short-term deal predicated on the long-term windfall of increased television revenue. This is where their focus will be as businessmen for the rest of their careers.

Walter, who has offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, said he intends to spend more time in Los Angeles going forward even though he mostly will remain in the background, leaving baseball decisions to veteran executive Kasten, and community and business relations to Johnson.

"I'd like the Dodgers to become a multigenerational thing that this partnership owns, that our grandkids own," Walter said. "That we are good community citizens, maybe be a platform for positive change in different areas of philanthropy. As much as you can do philanthropy from any platform, I believe that you can help causes get more positive benefit when you're doing it from a platform like the Dodgers."

Kasten, who previously served as president of the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers, said he had no plans to make changes once ownership is officially transferred later this month.

"As of today, I have no plans to do that," he said. "We're going in there April 30 or May 1 and we want to learn everybody, we want to see how everyone is doing, see how I can contribute to them, make them more productive."

Kasten made his mark in baseball when he teamed with Braves GM John Schuerholz to develop young stars such as Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. But he said he understands the expectations in Los Angeles are different.

"Scouting and player development is near and dear to my heart," Kasten said. "Having said that, we realize very clearly that this is L.A. There are expectations that we have and that our fans have and we intend to meet those expectations. We're not sitting back and waiting five years for a pipeline to develop. We're going to be doing that, but we're also going to be improving the team that we have now simultaneously."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said the backgrounds of both Johnson and Kasten are a sign that Dodgers fans and players can expect a similar type of success.

"At the end of the day, we're here to win championships," Mattingly said. "Not just to be competitive or provide entertainment for the people of L.A. to come to games. We are here to win championships, and we have people here now to do that, people who know how to drive an organization toward a championship."

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, cautioned against reading too much into the ownership change or expecting an immediate, dramatic overhaul. But he also said that isn't necessarily a bad thing because Kershaw believes the team general manager Ned Colletti assembled during the winter with a $90 million payroll cap is pretty good now.

"I don't think it makes a big difference as far as us winning," Kershaw said. "We're kind of the same team. We should win no matter who our owner is."

Kershaw also wouldn't say the new ownership group, which presumably will have far deeper pockets than McCourt, will be better able to improve the team at the trading deadline.

"People keep saying that," he said. "It will be great if it happens, but if it doesn't happen, that means we don't need it, which is great, too. So it's really no different now."

Right fielder Andre Ethier, potentially a free agent after the season, has made no secret in recent years of his desire for a long-term extension. He was noncommittal on whether he believes having a new owner will make that extension more likely.

"I'm not looking at that right now," Ethier said. "I'm just looking into winning games, and that's it. You win games and we put a good team together and make the playoffs, and everybody will be happy at the end of the year."

Still, Ethier contended it was good news for the organization.

"It's a great opportunity for this team and this franchise to get back on the right track and to see stability," he said. "It's a chance to bring the Dodgers back to being the franchise they can be and deserve to be."

The deal, revealed about five hours after Major League Baseball owners approved three finalists for an intended auction, is one of several steps toward a sale of the team by the end of April. It is subject to approval in federal bankruptcy court.

Colletti sounded relieved Tuesday.

"We're thrilled that the bidding process has concluded and certainly looking forward to working with the new ownership group to bring another World Series championship to L.A.," he said. "I think it's tremendous for the city and the fans of the Dodgers."

Colletti added: "I think it was important to have deep L.A. roots, and that is what this group also brings. I think that is important to the fans, especially those in Southern California. Magic is not only a great basketball player, but also a great businessman in the city."

The acquiring group, Guggenheim Baseball Management, has several other investors, including Mandalay Entertainment chief executive Peter Guber, Guggenheim Partners president Todd Boehly and Bobby Patton, who operates oil and gas properties among his investments.

"If they invested that much money, I'm sure they'll invest to get us a winner," said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' retired Hall of Fame manager. "I wish them all the luck, and I admire them. I know both of them. I know Magic from the day he came into Los Angeles as a basketball player for the Lakers."

Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss also issued a statement praising Johnson.

"In addition to being a phenomenal success on the court in leading the Lakers to five NBA championships, he has been a success in everything else he's become involved with, most notably his spectacular business career and also his educational campaign on behalf of HIV awareness. I'd like to congratulate Magic and his partners on their acquisition of the Dodgers and wish them the best of luck," he said.

Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin, Arash Markazi and Ramona Shelburne and The Associated Press was used in this report.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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