Magic Johnson didn’t pull any punches during his appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” on Monday, but his greatest vitriol was arguably directed towards Rob Pelinka. In a wide-ranging, true-to-character interview, Johnson called out Pelinka for “betrayal,” among other things, and revealed that numerous people in the NBA told him to watch out for his general manager when Pelinka was first hired.
It was quite the bombshell to lay on the feet of the Lakers organization just hours before they introduced their new head coach, Frank Vogel. Pelinka, however, was fairly measured in his response to Johnson’s comments while speaking with the media at Vogel’s introductory presser, choosing instead to highlight the positive experience he had working alongside the former Laker great (quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet):
“I think the most important thing for me is that the two years of getting to work side-by-side with Earvin are some of the greatest memories I have in sports and work. He’s an unbelievable person to work with. He fills the room with joy and vision. And truly it’s saddening and disheartening to think that he believes things that are a misperception. I think all of us in life have been through things where maybe there’s third-party whispers, or maybe ‘he said, she said’ things that aren’t true.
Pelinka further went on to say that he has maintained a relationship with Johnson since the latter’s resignation, even though the two didn’t have one before working together in 2017. It sounds like Pelinka hopes to continue that relationship in spite of these comments, and wants to clear things up with his former boss:
“I have talked to him several times since he decided to step away, we’ve had many joy-filled conversations. In fact, two days ago we were reliving the combine and the fourth pick and talking about the great future that this franchise has, so these things are surprising to hear, and disheartening, but I look forward to the opportunity to talk with him and sit down with him and work through them, just like in any relationship, because they’re just simply not true. I stand beside him, I stand with him. As a colleague, as a partner, I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to, and I think that’s the best way to address that.”
What’s interesting to note here is that Pelinka didn’t really blame Johnson for the accusations, but rather “misperceptions” that Johnson heard from third parties. Pelinka could have called Magic a liar, but he instead deflected the blame for his comments elsewhere.
There are a number of reasons Pelinka could have done that, with the simplest being that he might actually feel that way. My best guess it that he was respectful of Johnson not in order to maintain their relationship, but rather to remain in good standing (or attempt do so) with the rest of the Laker family and NBA community, many of whom idolize Magic. Even though Johnson isn’t officially a part of the Los Angeles front office, he still is friends with Jeanie Buss and thinks highly of Kurt Rambis, so staying on Magic’s good side is in Pelinka’s best interests. Johnson’s appearance on “First Take” made it clear that wasn’t the case when both men worked for the Lakers, but there is really little reason for Pelinka to start a new battle now.
Regardless of his external motivations, it was nice to hear a Laker executive speak so soberly about the situation surrounding the team. Pelinka is the lead man in charge, and he has to project an air of stability, even if the franchise is engulfed in flames behind him. This message is a good start.