As Kentucky’s championship celebration from Bourbon Street to Lexington drew to an end, baseball’s Opening Day debuted this past weekend. In between the taste of alcohol in N’awlins and smell of hot dogs filling the lazy summer days at the ballpark, the Los Angeles Dodgers are now relevant again thanks to one of the city’s own original caretakers: Magic Johnson. He became the first African-American owner of a MLB team and instantly the face of one of the most iconic franchises in sports history.
Unlike His Airness’ whack track record running the Charlotte Bobcats, Magic Johnson is determined to make the $2 billion investment translate into perennial World Series success for the Dodgers. When Magic sold his 105 Starbucks franchises along with his 4.5 percent stake of his Showtime Lakers for a combined $100 million in 2010, one knew he was up to something bigger and better soon. We just didn’t know at the time exactly what his next move would be. After flirtations with his hometown Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors and the pipe dream of bringing the NFL back to L.A., he seized the opportunity to hit a home run and honor the values of Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier nearly 70 years ago.
Moreover, Magic Johnson’s ownership of the Dodgers represents his humility, business acumen and friendly personality that any city and fan base would embrace. Players don’t have to possess a cold-blooded disposition like Jordan or his game-winning jumpers to own a team some day. With so many cats going broke like Antoine Walker, Magic sheds light once again on what it takes to be successful after one’s playing days.
These next five players come from a similar cloth as Magic; and would make great owners for any professional sports franchise.
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5. PENNY HARDAWAY
Yea, he’s been out the league for five years now. But so what?
Since his flattop days as Butch McRae in Blue Chips, Penny Hardaway has maintained a well-liked reputation in the public eye. Despite the numerous injuries that cut his career too short, basketball fans and sneakerheads have a distinct reverence for him that other retired superstars lack. Most players just fade into the shadows and are never heard of again. Penny, however, has recently made strides back into the mainstream. With All-Star Weekend in Orlando this season, it’s been a natural and gradual reemergence for one of the all-time greats.
In order to be a great owner, a player needs to understand what it takes to build a winning team and be a part of it. That Blue Chips acting gig proved to be the initial signs of what greatness looks like. Apparently, Penny’s hoop skills were not outshined by playing as one of the protagonists in the film.
“Shaq and I had hit off so well, the chemistry so great, that big man coach Pete Newell — God rest his soul — he was telling Shaq, ‘You need this guy in Orlando with you,’” said Penny to us here at Dime in an exclusive interview a few months ago.
The first basketball movie that actually let real basketball players act as basketball players set the stage for a real little man/big man combo to develop into a fearsome duo right from the jump. The time they shared together there immediately sparked the Orlando Magic to a 167-79 combined record and an Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals appearance to show for it. This brief three-year run showed how to build a contender with two superstars instantly. For his part, Penny dropped better stats virtually each season during that span. Whether it was points (16.0, 20.9, and 21.7), field-goal percentage (47, 51, and 51 percent), dimes (6.6, 7.2, and 7.1), or overall PER impact (17.4, 20.8, and 24.6), he brought it every night and made everyone better in the process.
As the Magic quickly climbed up the ranks, they only scratched the surface of their potential. Everything was in place for them to continue to rule the league throughout the mid ’90s like Biggie and Tupac did the rap game. Of course, it’s normal for anyone to wonder what could’ve been had Shaq not dipped to Hollywood, but particularly for Penny himself.
“I was crushed! I thought that we would at least have one championship, I thought multiple…things would have definitely gone different with Shaq staying around and not leaving,” said Penny as he reminisced further on those glory days.
Besides the familiarization of a winning team environment, owners have a duty — or should make it a high priority at least — to grasp the culture of the community and give back at the most grassroots level. Those that neglect or dismiss this important responsibility are bound to alienate their entire fan base. Just ask Los Angelinos about Frank McCourt or New Orleanians about George Shinn. Penny, though, has long had an affinity and passion to lend a helping hand to his native Memphis.
This past year Penny returned back to his middle school to coach kids as a favor for a friend who was battling cancer. He took this opportunity to instill values of education and self-confidence in these kids’ lives. It’s one thing for kids to cop his kicks still and recognize him because of them; it’s another for these same kids to see firsthand how he genuinely cares about them through spending the time he did.
“I wanted to make sure they understood that education is more than sports. A lot of these kids go from home to home to live. I had to make sure they’re doing their homework, make sure they’re going to class, and make sure they’re not sleeping in class. It’s all to make them know that I do care,” said Penny in a recent CNN profile.
Some of the coaching Penny preached sounded like this: “Don’t use not having a father as an excuse. There are a lot of people who came out of adverse situations and made it. Use it as motivation. Use it to drive you.”
And how did these kids feel about him?
“Penny loves me. And I love him,” said Robert Washington, the team’s star who posted a stat-line of 23 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks per game, all while, most impressively, he increased his GPA from a 2.0 to 2.9 with Penny on the sidelines.
If Michael Heisley were to ever seriously consider selling the Grizzlies, he should look no further than in Memphis’ own prodigal son. All Penny has to do is tell Nike to produce some more Lil’ Penny ads and it’s money in the bank.