Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2019

Two Stories End Badly, Which Is No Surprise

A NOTE TO READERS: The unanticipated travel referenced in Sunday’s note is still taking place, but at a time that will not interfere with the regular posting schedule. Thanks as always for your support.

We come now to the crossroads of the basketball season, the point at which the hardcourt game swings between holding fans in rapt attention and watching them slowly drift away to summer pastimes.

The mad dash of the college game through the month of March has concluded, with Baylor and Virginia crowned as champions. The former gave the NCAA its fourth different women’s champion in as many years, only the second time that’s happened in two decades. The latter, with multiple assists from improbable finishes and friendly officiating throughout the tournament, proved that sometimes the sports gods do even the scales. Just twelve months ago UVA became the first number one seed to lose in the opening round in what was anything but “one shining moment.”

In the same week the NBA wrapped up its regular season, and with it the careers of at least two future Hall of Famers. Dwyane Wade played his last game for the Miami Heat, and Dirk Nowitzki scored his final points as a Dallas Maverick. Each player went out in style, netting thirty points in his final contest. Wade won three titles in Miami, and was the MVP of the NBA Finals for the first of those championships in 2006. The Heat rallied from two games down to beat Nowitzki’s Dallas squad in six that year, but five seasons later the Mavericks turned the tables on Miami, where Wade was by then playing alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh. This time it was Nowitzki who was named MVP of the championship series.

The departures of Wade and Nowitzki were widely anticipated. But before the campus celebrations had stopped in Waco and Charlottesville and before the first round of the NBA Playoffs could begin for the sixteen teams that advanced to the postseason, fans of both college and professional basketball were stunned by the totally unexpected news of two other men stepping away from the game. On Tuesday Chris Mullin resigned as head coach at St. John’s, and just hours later Magic Johnson quit his post as the Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations.

Mullin cited a “recent personal loss” in the statement announcing his decision, presumably referring to last month’s death of his older brother Roddy after a lengthy battle with cancer. But while St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg praised Mullin’s “deep passion” for the program that as a senior he led to the 1985 Final Four and its first number one ranking in more than three decades, the evidence on the court was that passion alone wasn’t going to restore the Red Storm to the glory days of Lou Carnesecca.

Mullin’s predecessor Steve Lavin posted winning records in each of his four full seasons coaching St. John’s. In contrast Mullin’s first year ended with a record of 8-24, a mark that included just a single victory in Big East conference play. It took until the season that just ended for St. John’s to finally post a winning record under Mullin. Even that 21-13 finish was deceiving. The Red Storm won their first twelve games, but faded once the conference schedule began, dropping six of their last eight contests and winding up seventh in the Big East. Still the record was good enough to earn St. John’s its first invitation to the NCAA tournament under Mullin, making his decision to quit especially strange.

But it was nowhere near as bizarre as Johnson’s resignation, which he announced to a group of stunned reporters prior to the Lakers’ final game of the season. While dropping his bombshell and admitting that he “was happier when I wasn’t the president,” Johnson also revealed that he was telling the media of his decision before informing team owner Jeanie Buss.

The very un-Hollywood ending to Johnson’s tenure came even as the Lakers prepared to lose one last game in a season that had begun with great promise following the signing of LeBron James last summer. But after peaking at seven games over .500 in mid-December, an injury to James and the limited skillset of the rest of the roster exposed the Lakers as a team with very little depth. L.A.’s eventual 37-45 record was its sixth losing season in a row and ended James’s streak of fourteen straight years in the postseason. Johnson’s abrupt exit allowed him to avoid firing head coach Luke Walton, a step that’s widely expected even though the coach’s culpability is questionable given the injuries and the roster. Johnson noted this, saying “I would have to affect someone’s livelihood and their life. That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am.” Of course, it would be part of his job.

Aside from the coincidental timing of their resignations, Mullin and Johnson share one other important trait. Both are legends at the institutions they were running, and both were hired almost exclusively because of that fact. While Mullin worked in NBA front offices after his playing career, he had no prior coaching experience at any level when he was introduced as St. John’s head coach in March 2015. Similarly, Johnson had served ever so briefly as the Lakers coach at the end of the 1993-94 season, and has had a very successful business career, but he had never worked a day in an NBA front office when Buss fired her brother and hired Johnson as L.A.’s chief executive just over two years ago.

What was obvious about the hiring of both Mullin and Johnson was that Cragg for the university and Buss for the NBA franchise each let their heart rather than their head dictate the decision. Perhaps in a sappy novel based in New York, or in a straight-to-video movie shot in L.A., such triumphs of emotion over logic work out. In two short years the school is back in the Final Four. In just one the franchise returns to the NBA Finals. But in sports, as in life, reality is seldom so accommodating. This week’s twin resignations were stunning. The real-life results that led to them shouldn’t have been.

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