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Magic Johnson out as ESPN analyst after reports of Bill Simmons rift

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In the battle of Magic Johnson versus Bill Simmons, a winner has emerged — and the former Lakers star is leaving ESPN.

Johnson said Thursday that he feels a "strong connection" to the sports network but that he has other priorities that will keep him from continuing in his role as an NBA analyst for the season that begins Oct. 29th. 

"I love ESPN," Johnson wrote in a statement. "Unfortunately, due to the nature of my schedule and other commitments, I don’t feel confident that I can continue to devote the time needed to thrive in my role."

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That's the official story, anyway. But observers see another issue: Johnson's feud with Simmons, the analyst and blogger who has been described as a "shadow president" at ESPN. Simmons, a former writer for Jimmy Kimmel and founder of the website Grantland, joined "NBA Countdown" last year as a replacement for Chris Broussard. (For what it's worth, Simmons seems to have denied having anything to do with Johnson's exit, at least according to this tweet.)

Simmons made sure that Johnson felt his presence right away. He gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly that dissed the former Lakers point guard as overbearing on the show. 

"I feel like the biggest problem the show has had over the past couple of years is that everyone was hanging on Magic’s every word," Simmons said, portraying the former Laker as surrounded by sycophants. "Nobody was challenging him."

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Then, ESPN chopped down the on-camera role of Michael Wilbon, an old friend of Johnson who also was a member of the "NBA Countdown" team. Insiders traced that move back to Simmons' unhappiness.

Johnson, who was part of the investors group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and who has an active role in numerous other business pursuits, apparently decided he didn't need the aggravation.

[Updated at 8:19 p.m. Oct. 10: Late Thursday, Johnson and Simmons denied that there was any feud between them. Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent, said in a statement: "Magic and Bill Simmons got to be very close and continue to be close. Bill Simmons and Earvin Johnson are friends.... We called Bill before the release went out." Simmons said in a statement: "I loved getting to know Magic these past 12 months and was saddened to hear about his decision. We genuinely liked working with one another. Last night Lon Rosen and I were already talking about other possible projects that Magic and I could do together down the road. He's my friend. And a GREAT guy."]

What do you think? Does this deal a tough blow to ESPN's NBA coverage? Or will Simmons take "NBA Countdown" to greater heights?

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