Magic Johnson: Stop Criticizing Your Team!

It seems like every time I pick up a copy of a Los Angeles newspaper, I'm reading an article in which Magic Johnson is criticizing the Lakers.  As most of you probably already know, Earvin "Magic" Johnson was one of the premier guards in Lakers history, winning five World Championships during the 1980s.  As the first 6’9” point guard in NBA history, he led extraordinary teams, including the NBA's all-time best scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forwards James Worthy, AC Green and Kurt Rambis and backcourt partners Norm Nixon and Byron Scott.  In other words, Magic was the fuel that made the Lakers' Showtime teams catch fire.  After he was forced into retirement due to contracting the HIV virus, he tried coaching for a short while and then became the Lakers' biggest cheerleader, sitting courtside next to one of the other stalwart Laker fans, actress Dyan Cannon, and right down the road from the Lakers’ most famous fan of all: Jack Nicholson.  But, now, when the Lakers most need his adept cheerleading skills, he has turned the other cheek, opting to criticize the team at every turn.

Magic, as an ardent Lakers fan, someone who has watched you play since your Michigan State days and who loves what you did for the game, I beg you: please, shut up!

The Lakers are a team in transition.  Their guru of the triangle offense, Phil Jackson, has retired; their franchise player, Kobe Bryant, is aging; their stalwart point guard, Derek Fisher, is downright old; and their owner has taken a back seat to allow his son to flex his management muscles.  This Perfect Storm of issues is conspiring to make the Lakers a topsy-turvy team right now.  They’ve been criticized by every know-it-all sports analyst since the strike ended and then some.  But, the one person they shouldn’t be criticized by is their Golden Boy and former franchise player, Magic Johnson.

A few weeks ago, Magic was quoted as saying the Lakers would go nowhere (as in: no World Championship ring this year) with their current lineup.  They wouldn't be competitive when fielding a team consisting of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest (oops, excuse me: Meta World Peace), Andrew Bynum and Paul Gasol.  Never mind that this was basically the team that won two championships in a row.  Lakers brass apparently listened and attempted to pull off the NBA's biggest trade ever: Odom and Gasol for point guard Chris Paul.  But, that was nixed by jealous small-market (and small-minded) owners who got to David Stern quickly and the commissioner halted the trade.  Odom, who I now consider to be the world's biggest crybaby, demanded a trade when he learned he was trade bait. 

On Monday, the Lakers played the Clippers in the first exhibition game of the season and got slammed, losing to Los Angeles' heretofore "B" team by 19 points (and after the third quarter began, it wasn't even that close).  The Lakers looked awful and the Clippers looked good.  Okay, that happens. 

So, I opened Tuesday’s paper and saw Magic criticizing the team for trading Odom, who Magic claims was the team leader.  Huh?  This laid-back, candy-loving reality-TV dude was the team leader?  That is not something that was ever apparent to any of the fans.  Magic went on to criticize the two remaining big men, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.  "They have to step up," he said.  He also said that Kobe does, too, implying that Kobe's unemotional, somewhat cold demeanor toward his teammates won't be enough to motivate them; instead, Magic says that Kobe has to be the big cheerleader.

What Magic is saying may be true.  I don't disagree that Bynum needs to start paying attention in practice and doing something to make his hands stronger so the ball doesn't go through them like water through a sieve.  And, it wouldn't hurt Kobe to be a little more inclusive of his teammates.   But, Magic needs to stop the daily criticism of his former team.  Doesn't he know that people (and that includes athletes!) don't respond to constant criticism?  Studies have shown that, while criticism is intended to motivate people, it usually has the opposite effect: it ends up demotivating and discouraging the person who was criticized.  Child psychologists go on to say that when children are criticized by their parents, the effect can be particularly damaging since their parents are the most important element in their world.  You could argue that the current players on the team view Magic as the all-knowing “parent” in this Lakers family.  So, when Magic becomes critical, it’s likely going to damage the players and cause them to lose confidence.

Even sports psychologists weigh in on this topic, studying the effect of self-confidence on athletes.  They say that a self-confident athlete will persevere when things aren’t going well and he’ll maintain an enthusiastic and positive attitude.  Meanwhile, a low level of confidence is detrimental to the athlete as he’ll think only about defeat and failure.  In other words, good things come from self-confidence and an athlete won’t develop self-confidence if he’s constantly being criticized.

I may not be able to claim the title of the Lakers’ biggest fan but I have watched them, studied them and cheered for them since they moved here from Minneapolis.  The team – like all teams – has had its ups and downs but it’s undeniable that this is one of the world’s most successful sports franchises, with 16 World Championships and some of the best and most famous athletes to play the game donning the Purple and Gold.  So, while I may be nervous by the 19-point defeat to the Clippers, I’m not going to panic.

The Lakers have been all catawampus since they lost in four straight to Dallas last spring: they traded someone they played with and loved; they have a new head coach who brought in a new coaching staff; as of yesterday, their big star Kobe Bryant is down with a torn ligament in the wrist of his shooting hand.  Of course there's going to be confusion.  But, let’s cool it on the criticism and let these boys find their way without a lot of yammering.  After all, they don’t go out on the court to lose; they’re trying.  And, the culture of the Lakers is to win.  So, I have confidence they will.

So, Magic…how about a little praise instead of that big helping of criticism?

Readers, what do you think?  How far do you think the Lakers will go this year?

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