Magic Johnson Says Rob Pelinka Betrayed Him; Final Straw Was Luke Walton Firing

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2019

Magic Johnson speaks to reporters prior to an NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Los Angeles. Johnson abruptly quit as the Lakers' president of basketball operations Tuesday night, citing his desire to return to the simpler life he enjoyed as a wealthy businessman and beloved former player before taking charge of the franchise just over two years ago. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Magic Johnson named names during an appearance on Monday's episode of First Take, saying general manager Rob Pelinka betrayed him during his time as Lakers president:

"If you're going to talk betrayal, it's only with Rob. But, again, I had to look inside myself. I had been doing that for months. Because I didn't like that Tim Harris was too involved in basketball. He's supposed to run the Laker business, but he was trying to come over to our side. Jeanie's gotta stop that. You gotta stop people from having those voices."

Johnson said issues with him and Pelinka began during their first season working together. He said he told Lakers owner Jeanie Buss that, as part of the terms of his employment, he should be allowed to continue running his business outside the Lakers.

According to Johnson, Pelinka began smearing his name behind the scenes for not being at Lakers facilities enough:

"Things got going in the right direction, and then I start hearing, you know, 'Magic, you're not working hard enough. Magic's not in the office.' So people around the Laker office was telling me Rob was saying things—Rob Pelinka—and I didn't like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn't in office enough and so on and on. So I start getting calls from my friends outside of basketball saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now not just in the Laker office anymore, now it's in the media and so on. ... And people gotta remember something, being in this business for over 40 years, I got allies, I got friends everywhere."

Johnson said he had been considering stepping down because of his frustrations with the inner workings of the organization, particularly with Pelinka. However, he said his final decision came after it was clear he would not have full autonomy in choosing the next Lakers coach:

"The straw that broke the camel's back was I wanted to fire Luke Walton, and we had ... three meetings. I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn't do well. And I said listen, we gotta get a better coach. I like him, he's great, former Laker, the whole thing. So, the first day, 'Well, let's think about it.' Second day, 'OK, you can fire him.' Then the next day, 'No, we should try to work it out.' So when we went back and forth like that, and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting, you know, some of the guys.

"And Tim, you know, wanted me—he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke's a great guy, great guy. And so when I looked up and said, 'Wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeanie Buss.' Now, I got Tim involved, and I said it's time for me to go. I got things happening that was being said behind my back, I don't have the power that I thought I had to make the decisions, and I told them, 'When it's not fun for me, when I think that I don't have the decision-making power that I thought I had, then I gotta step aside.'"

Johnson said Jeanie Buss assured him when he took the job that he would have final say on all personnel decisions. He mentioned multiple times that Buss has too many voices in her ear, including Pelinka, Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis, Tim Harris, Joey Buss and Phil Jackson, among others. 

None of those people besides Jackson—Johnson included—had any experience running a basketball organization. Jackson's short stint with the New York Knicks was such a disaster that it makes Magic look like a rousing success by contrast.

Aside from signing LeBron, Johnson's most high-profile personnel decision was the Anthony Davis trade negotiations at the deadline. He went into detail about how the organization handled those talks, placing the blame on then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps for talks leaking to the public. 

"I'm not a regretful guy. You're right, I offered a lot of guys, but you have to do that for an Anthony Davis," Johnson said. "He's a special player and the guys that we were going to trade to the Pelicans are special as well. And I told Dell Demps: 'Let's just do it in private. What we offer, let's keep it between us.' Well, Dell didn't do that, so that's how it got out, right."

He later complimented the Lakers young players for their handling of the situation:

"I would say that I told Brandon [Ingram], Kyle [Kuzma], all the young guys, [Lonzo] Ball: If you're in the business long enough, your name is going to get mentioned in trades, don't take it personally. So what happened was, about that first week, they did take it personally and our writers back home wrote a lot of stories. But I give all of them credit. Brandon Ingram put together a 10-game stretch. He was unstoppable. The things I thought he could do, he did them in those 10 games.

"I'm telling you Molly [Qerim], this guy is special. He guarded Kyrie Irving one night, he's on Kevin Durant another night, so you can play him on different guys. He is special. Now he's healthy, I'm glad that surgery went well. And then Kyle Kuzma scored 29 points after that debacle in Indianapolis where we just got blown out. Kyle Kuzma went to Boston, 29 [points]. He then came to Philly, had 30 at halftime, finished with I think 40, I couldn't remember the ending, 46, 40-something. He got himself together and started hooping and started playing basketball, and they all did. So I wouldn't change anything, because that's my job is to make the Lakers better."

What's clear is that the Lakers were an organization in near-constant internal turmoil last season. Whether it was the Pelinka-Johnson power struggle or young players coming to grips with the realities of the NBA as a business, the environment was nothing short of toxic.