On nights when Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was particularly restless in the NBA bubble, he would sometimes hear the voice of his late best friend, Kobe Bryant.
“Stay the course. Finish the task,” he recalled hearing Bryant saying to him.
Pelinka didn’t always believe he could, or even that the Lakers would make it this far, even if Bryant had an unshakeable faith that his former agent would bring the Lakers their 17th banner, a confidence he held long before this season and his tragic passing midway through it.
When Pelinka took the job as Lakers general manager — a gig Bryant lobbied Lakers owner Jeanie Buss for Pelinka to get — Bryant took Pelinka out for drinks in Newport Beach, and as Pelinka recalled on the latest episode of “The Woj Pod” with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Bryant had more belief in Pelinka’s ability to bring the Lakers back than even Pelinka himself.
“I remember him looking me in the eye and saying ‘hey, I know how you work. I know how locked in you are. I know you’re a chess player. I think you’ll have the Lakers back winning a championship in two to three years,’ Pelinka remembered Bryant saying.
“I said ‘you’ve got to be crazy.’ We have no cap room, we had just signed a couple free agents — the previous front office — and we didn’t have any cap room,” Pelinka continued, referencing the onerous Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov deals the team still has yet to fully extricate themselves from.
“I looked at him like ‘you’re crazy, but I’ll put in the work to do it.’”
Pelinka did indeed put in the work, and in the process he proved his late friend prescient. The Lakers hired Pelinka as general manager in 2017. By 2020 — right within the three year window Bryant initially talked about — Pelinka had built the Lakers into the contender Bryant foresaw them being. Bryant himself realized as much, telling Anthony Davis during the two Lakers games he went to this season that he thought the team could win a title this year. He wasn’t the only member of the Bryant family who thought so.
During the final Lakers game Bryant attended, he took his 13-year-old daughter Gianna — who was tragically lost in the same helicopter accident in January, along with seven others — to watch his old team play against the Dallas Mavericks, because she wanted to see Luka Doncic play in person.
At halftime, though, Gianna and her father joined Pelinka in the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room — the Lakers’ was obviously occupied — so they could all catch up and snack on some popcorn away from the constant gaze of everyone in the arena.
What she said as they chatted stuck with Pelinka while watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
“I remember Gigi looked at me and she said ‘Uncle Rob,’ — She calls me Uncle P because of my last name — she says ‘Uncle P, I’m watching this game, and I’m looking around... You guys are going to win the title this year,’” Pelinka recalled to Wojnarowski.
“I said ‘Gigi, why do you think that?’ She goes ‘your defensive size and length and athleticism. In the playoffs, it’s tough to make threes, and the rim gets smaller and guys feel the pressure, and just your size, and ability to cover space and take away the rim... teams aren’t going to be able to score on you. You guys are going to win the championship.’”
She ended up being more right than she probably could have ever imagined.
“That’s kind of exactly what happened. If you think about Game 6, Miami just couldn’t score in the first half, and our defense is what carried us,” Pelinka said.
It wasn’t always so easy for Pelinka to talk about his late friend and goddaughter. When they died, Pelinka called their loss “an amputation of part of my soul” and reportedly could barely speak to the team for weeks afterwards. When he was in the NBA bubble, away from his family, unable to hug his wife or take his dog for a walk to relax, he continued to grieve and still try to help the Lakers in any way he could, from rebounding shots during practice to just serving as someone for the players and coaches to talk to.
“You’re in a hotel room for 100 nights. The walls are closing in and after a tough loss you think the world is coming to an end,” Pelinka told Wojnarowski. “The walls start closing in on you.”
It was during those tough times when Pelinka would hear Kobe’s voice, something he mentioned after the team won the title. What he didn’t share then, though, was how it was Kobe’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, who helped him through it.
“Vanessa, who is still one of my best friends, she would call, and she would even send a couple clips of him talking to me so I could hear his voice,” Pelinka said, and the Bryant’s were right there to celebrate with Pelinka as soon as the Lakers won, too.
“Just that support still feels like it’s there, but the extent of the loss (of Kobe) feels like a superhero,” Pelinka said, and that’s undoubtedly what Kobe was to him.
“I think we’ve all grown up with superheroes, just reading the books and the comics as a kid and watching the movies, and you think about what it would be like if your best friend was actually a superhero. You dream about that, right?” Pelinka told Wojnarowski. “I feel like mine was. He literally was this larger-than-life best friend who had an answer to every problem, had a piece of advice for anything you needed.”
Pelinka — and the rest of the Lakers’ fanbase — are now without Kobe to count on to fly in and save the day. But Pelinka is grateful for the time they had, and for how much he was able to learn from Kobe during their decades-long friendship.
“To be able to have a friend who changed my life and helped me understand what greatness was about, and sacrifice was about, there’s not many greater gifts. To be able to share this moment right now, knowing that he and Gianna are looking down from heaven, and I know he’s a proud friend,” Pelinka said the night the Lakers won the championship that same friend and his daughter both predicted.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you two, three years, you’ll fix this. You’ll get the Lakers back on top,” Pelinka continued, tearing up as he looked up to to the sky to address his late best friend directly.
“I guess you were right, man. You give me the energy to do it.”