Magic Johnson believes the Dodgers will put smiles on more than his face… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The conference room of Magic Johnson's Beverly Hills office is long and narrow. The most prominent images hang from one of the long walls, three photographs taken at Dodger Stadium.
In one, Johnson smiles in the stands, all by himself. In another, Johnson smiles on the field, with his partners in ownership. The third offers a panoramic view of the ballpark.
It is as if Johnson never played for that struggling pro basketball team across town — until he starts talking. Johnson won five championships with the Lakers, the last one in 1988. The Dodgers won a championship in 1988 too.
The Lakers have won five more championships since then. The Dodgers have not returned to the World Series.
However, with the Dodgers about to start their first full season under the ownership of Johnson and his deep-pocketed partners, he wants to make the definition of success abundantly clear to fans and players.
"We want to go to the World Series. If we don't accomplish that, yes, it is not a good season for us," Johnson said. "Guys should be saying that. As the ownership group, that is what we are saying."
The Dodgers report to spring training on Feb. 12 with expectations fueled by what is projected to be the largest player payroll in baseball history. In an interview, Johnson talked about how the star-studded Dodgers can learn from the failings of similarly hyped Lakers teams, how he sees the Arizona Diamondbacks as just as much of a threat as the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, and of his faith in Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly.
After Johnson and his partners took over the Dodgers last year, they extended the contract of General Manager Ned Colletti. They did not do the same for Mattingly, whose contract expires after this season, leading to speculation the Dodgers could fire him if the team starts the season slowly or finishes without reaching the World Series.
"Don has been in this game," Johnson said. "He understands how these things work.
"He knows, if he does his job, he will get rewarded."
Johnson said the owners would address Mattingly's contract situation sometime after spring training opens.
"Look, everybody likes Don a lot," Johnson said. "Nobody wants to put Don in a situation where he is going to be the fall guy. We're not that type of guys. What we're trying to do is give Don all the resources necessary to be a winner, be effective and be a champion."
The Lakers, with a similar influx of star players and sky-high expectations, fired coach Mike Brown after the team lost four of its first five games this season. Johnson indicated the Dodgers would not react the same way.
"We understand it's a long season," Johnson said. "If something happens and we don't get off to a good start, we're not going to panic."
The Lakers are on their third coach this season, their first with stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on the roster — and Nash sat out 24 of the first 26 games because of an injury. In contrast, Johnson said, the Dodgers will have a full spring training after a summer in which the team imported nine players within one month.
"The guys didn't really have a shot, a chance to get to know each other," Johnson said. "But they will have that now. It's going to work in our favor, and I think Don will do a wonderful job of bringing everybody together."
Although Johnson's Showtime Lakers featured star-studded rosters, he and his teammates played together for years.
In 2003, the Lakers tossed Karl Malone and Gary Payton into a locker room already dominated by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal; that Lakers team was defeated in the 2004 NBA finals. This season's Lakers, with Howard and Nash joining Bryant and Pau Gasol, are not even a .500 team.
What the Dodgers can learn from those Lakers teams, Johnson said, is that chemistry and trust are essential, no matter how big the names on the roster. He said the players must trust each other, the coaching staff, the front office and ownership.
He also said Mattingly alone cannot build that chemistry and trust. Johnson rode herd for coach Pat Riley with the Lakers, and he said he has talked with Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez about embracing a similar role on the Dodgers.
"If we're going to win our division — especially when we're up against two incredible teams, when you think about the World Series champion Giants, and we feel that the Diamondbacks are just as good — somebody is going to have to emerge as a leader, and say things to guys that sometimes they may not like, but tell them the truth," Johnson said.