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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Blazers rumored in deal with Lakers

Ex-Laker star Magic Johnson visits Blazers' office
Surge in private equity deals gives state new options

There was Magic in the air in Salem on Tuesday. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers All-Star, champion, and Blazers' nemesis flew into Salem's McNary Field, then slipped in and out of the Capitol without fanfare.

Magic visited state Treasury officials to make a pitch for the Portland Trail Blazers' #1 pick in the June 28 NBA draft. Johnson's firm, Canyon-Johnson, is a real-estate fund. The State of Oregon has a hefty real-estate portfolio invested on behalf of state pension fund members, universities and other beneficiaries.

Canyon-Johnson is teaming with Yucaipa, a private-equity firm led by controversial Clinton mega-donor Ron Burkle. Yucaipa purchased the Lakers last week from former owner Dr. Jerry Buss. The Blazers were acquired by Oregon PERS-TPG yesterday. "It was an emotional meeting," said Oregon Treasurer Randall Edwards, whose childhood ambition was to be a starting NBA point guard, and who covets Ohio State 7-footer Greg Oden.

The Blazers and Lakers have never traded due to their fierce Western Conference rivalry. However, now that private equity firms are running the teams, the stakes have changed, and - according to a Laker insider - all bets are off.

Edwards said that Johnson and some of his business colleagues met with a handful of state investment officers to brief them on his projects and make a pitch for Oden. All-Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant was offered in a package that included a combination of expiring contracts and future 1st round draft picks. Edwards said he had not offered power forward Zach Randolph to the Lakers, only that he had listened to Johnson's proposal.

Bryant asked to be traded yesterday. He is upset that Buss failed to cut him an ownership piece in the Yucaipa deal, as promised when Shaquille O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat after the 2003-04 season. Randolph and his agent, Raymond Brothers, are unfamiliar with the intricacies of private equity deals and declined to comment for this article.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson is considered one of the finest point guards in NBA history. Despite his celebrity status, Johnson attracted little attention Wednesday, because the state has suspended the Open Meetings Law. He entered the front door of the Capitol, made a quick right turn into the treasurer's office, and then exited the way he came, Edwards said. Amazingly, the many lobbyists who troll the halls of the Capitol - and even acting Gov. Tim Nesbitt - hadn't known he was even in the building.

It was a one-hour meeting, similar to those held with other private equity firms making investment pitches, Edwards said. There was one difference, though. Johnson posed for a photograph with Edwards and the treasurer's two sons, who both sported autographed basketballs.

The Statesman Journal, May 31, By STEVE LAW

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