Commentary

Magic Johnson: L.A. needed change

Sparks owner was behind mid-July coaching change; team opens playoffs Friday

Updated: August 22, 2014, 1:49 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The idea is for Magic Johnson to get far enough away from all of the businesses and teams and people and things he is plugged into on a daily basis. Get on a plane and fly to Europe, then get on a yacht and sail around the Mediterranean for a month, then give contact information only to those who know how important it is for Johnson to get away from the sports and business empire he has built since retiring from the NBA.

That's the idea anyway. Getting Johnson to actually disengage from it all is another matter. He tweets constantly. He has game films of the two teams he owns in Los Angeles -- the Dodgers and the WNBA's Sparks -- sent to him. When the Lakers asked if he'd be a part of their pitch to Carmelo Anthony, he called in even though it was nearly 11 p.m. off the coast of Italy.

On June 29, he tweeted a picture of himself Jet Skiing off Corsica. On July 1, while docking in Sardinia, he lamented, "I love that I'm on vacation, but I hate that I'm missing my @Dodgers play so well!"

He tweeted about the Sparks while he was away, too, congratulating Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike for making the All-Star team and to the whole team after a big win in Connecticut on July 14. But what he was seeing in all those game films that were being sent to him wasn't much to cheer about.

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesOwner Magic Johnson said the Sparks will "build around" Candace Parker and that L.A. will hire a new coach in the offseason.

The Sparks just couldn't put it together. The same team that went 24-10 the previous two seasons was languishing below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. The team that Johnson, Dodgers president Stan Kasten and Dodgers chairman Mark Walter had rescued from possible contraction or relocation in the offseason was a flop.

"We had too much talent to be playing that bad," Johnson said. "I expected more. The fans expected more. I just said, 'Hey man, we gotta make a change. We can't keep going like this.' You could see the players were not responding. We can't keep going like this. And when the players are not responding, you've got to make a change."

Johnson called Kasten and Eric Holoman, the president of Magic Johnson Enterprises, and told them it was time for a coaching change. So much for the idea going around the WNBA that Johnson wasn't going to be an active owner.

Carol Ross, who'd been coach of the year just two seasons earlier, was fired on July 21 and replaced by general manager Penny Toler.

This kind of drastic move hadn't been in anyone's plans when Johnson's group bought the team in February. They planned to sit back and evaluate things this first year. Take it slowly at first, just as they did when they took over as owners of the Dodgers a month into the season in 2012.

"We came in so, so late. The season was upon us by the time we got here," Kasten said. "That's why you haven't seen us holding big press conferences or making a big media splash. This year we're tried to do the blocking and tackling."

We had too much talent to be playing that bad. I expected more. The fans expected more. I just said, 'Hey man, we gotta make a change. We can't keep going like this.' … When the players are not responding, you've got to make a change.

-- Sparks owner Magic Johnson on the decision to fire coach Carol Ross

They put up Sparks billboards outside Dodger Stadium and fixed up the Sparks' home locker room as a "gesture," Kasten said, "of how seriously we take this." But, he added, "really, you haven't seen a lot yet."

The big changes, the same kind of spare-no-expense, shock-and-awe treatment the group has given the Dodgers since taking over, those were supposed to come in the offseason. Unlike baseball, the WNBA has a salary cap, so the Sparks can't just go out and buy the best players in the game like the Dodgers have done in amassing the highest payroll in the majors the last two seasons.

But Johnson was too competitive to wait. He'd watch the game films and want to throw something.

"There's two things that I know -- basketball, and I know business. When I look at a game, I look at it totally different than anybody else," Johnson said. "I don't mind turnovers, but I don't like unforced turnovers. We were too good to have the kind of unforced turnovers I see every time I look up. The other day in the game against Seattle, we got beat backdoor four times. You can't allow those things to happen."

Ogwumike shook her head when she tried to explain why the Sparks struggled so badly this season. She has never been a part of a team that has underachieved like this at any level.

"We had team meetings, heart-to-hearts, Come to Jesus, everything," she said. "I think it's a combination of a whole lot of things, which is probably why no one can identify exactly what the issue is. We've suffered and had to work through poor effort, mental toughness, discipline, chemistry. It's just been different things throughout the season."

And when management stepped in to make a coaching change, the team understood.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty ImagesCandace Parker said rebounding has been one of the Sparks' biggest weaknesses this season. They are minus-1.24 on the boards.

"It was a serious move, no question about it," Ogwumike said. "But the organization is very professional. They get down to business. They want nothing but championships for us, no matter what's happening. That's definitely the attitude we sense."

While the move was meant to shake things up, Toler isn't the long-term answer as a head coach. She has stated publicly that she doesn't want to coach beyond this season. But she built this team, so it's on her to fix it as the Sparks open the playoffs Friday in Phoenix against the top-seeded Mercury (Game 2 tips at 9 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2 and WatchESPN).

"[The ownership group] was like, 'The team needs more of your personality,'" said Toler, who played for the Sparks before moving to the front office. "They need your toughness and competitiveness ... so can you go down there and coach them?'"

Toler likes building the team, not coaching it. So this will not be a career change. (Johnson said he has already received dozens of calls from coaches interested in the job.) But the experience has been valuable nonetheless.

"I've never thought about coaching. I like being the GM," she said. "But I'm learning a lot that I'll take back up to my spot as GM. As a GM, you put the team together and you're around, but now I'm seeing players in their element. ... Now I'm in the locker room, and I'm seeing people's real personalities now. I'm getting a good look at people. A real good look at people."

She makes no attempt to hide her frustration with the Spark's lack of effort and discipline this season.

"The hard part was just learning the plays," Toler said. "Once I got a look at the plays, the stuff they were running wasn't bad. It was just the energy needed to be picked up.

"That's effort. And to be honest with you, a coach ain't coaching that. That's you as a person. Are you going to get some rebounds or you going to stand and watch? On our team we've got a lot of lookie-loos. You see people just standing around, relying on, 'I'm athletic, so I'm going to go get a rebound.' This league is past that, especially with the good teams."

In years past we had a lot of talent and we just won games because of it. … Those things we were getting away with the last couple years have kind of caught up to us, and are the reason we're losing in the last minutes of games.

-- Candace Parker

The Sparks went 6-6 in the month since Toler took over, which is a bit misleading because of the schedule they had. The team had a five games-in-seven nights stretch, three back-to-backs and seven games against playoff teams.

But while they've played with more energy and responded well to the coaching change, the issues which started this funk remain.

Parker says she is "tired of everybody saying how much talent we have."

"In years past, we had a lot of talent and we just won games because of it. We didn't win games by reversing the ball, by making the extra pass, by locking down defensively and having set defensive schemes. So I think those things we were getting away with the last couple years have kind of caught up to us and are the reason we're losing in the last minutes of games.

"There's 10 games this this year that probably could've gone the other way, and if we'd have won those 10 games, everybody would be like, 'Oh my gosh, you guys are so great.' But we wouldn't have been great. We're still doing the same things we were doing before, and those things have to change before we're going to become great."

Parker has been named the WNBA MVP twice in her seven seasons in the league, but is still chasing her first championship. Some of that is bad luck with injuries, some of it is a result of the league's best-of-3 playoff series, which tend to produce upsets. But a lot of it is the Sparks' over-reliance on talent, and undervaluation of coaching, chemistry and discipline that she's not afraid to mention publicly if it'll help change things this year or in the future.

"I need to win," the former Tennessee star said. "But I think we need to talk about the things we have to do that are necessary to win. Rebounding is a huge issue for us this year. ... We've given up some career highs here."

When Johnson spoke to Parker after a recent game, she made it clear to him that this midseason coaching change isn't enough to build a winning culture in L.A.

"I think Coach Ross brought energy, but I think they just thought it was time for a change and a different face, and Penny is a different face," Parker said. "I think that management did what they thought was necessary for our team. It's going to be that way regardless of whether you think it's the right move or you don't. I think at this point we're just trying to worry about what's going on on the court and trying to change things there."

[+] EnlargePenny Toler
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesSparks GM Penny Toler, who took over as head coach on July 21, blames a lack of energy and effort for the team's underachieving 16-18 regular season.

Johnson told Parker that the Sparks would be hiring a top-flight coach as soon as this season is over, as well as a new team president. He even asked her opinion of some of the people they are considering.

"I talked to her for like 10-15 minutes the other day and said, 'You tell me what kind of coach we need,'" Johnson said. "We're going to sit down after the season, too.

"Candace has been my favorite [WNBA player] before I even bought this team. Her knowledge of the game and her ability to put the ball on the floor and make a play not only for herself, but for her teammates, is just amazing.

"We'll build around her. I'm going to be like [late Lakers owner] Dr. Jerry Buss was. You listen to your players, you get input, and then you make your own decisions. Dr. Buss let me have plenty of input. I'm taking a page right out of his book."

If it sounds like Johnson is talking about the WNBA with as much passion as he still talks about the NBA, you're right. Yeah, he's into the Dodgers, too. He loves baseball and he loves being an owner. But basketball is his game, and all that passion and knowledge he has is clearly being channeled into the Sparks.

This isn't just some substitute for owning an NBA franchise, however. Johnson's sister Evelyn was a star at South Carolina in the 1980s. During the height of the "Showtime" Lakers era, it wasn't uncommon for Johnson and his teammates to show up at Southern Cal women's games to watch the great Trojan teams with Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper and the McGee twins (Paula and Pam).

"The McGees are like my little sisters," he said. "They came up out of Flint, Michigan, which was right up the street from Lansing. When they came out here, I'm the one they were hanging out with. I was taking them around. We played, we worked out together.

"And Lisa Leslie -- shoot. When we played pickup games at UCLA, I would put Lisa with me and let her play with the guys. Then when she would play with the women again, I was like, 'Oh man, you gonna turn it out.'"

Johnson said he went to the Sparks' first-ever game at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood in 1997. Dr. Jerry Buss owned the team then. Penny Toler made the franchise -- and the WNBA's -- first basket.

"That's who taught me so much about business," Johnson said of Buss, who died in 2013. "He was a man who knew how to connect the dots. He knows what the fans want, as far as expectations. That's what we're trying to deliver on. That's what I'm trying to do now."

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