Some six weeks after abruptly resigning as Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations without telling his boss and less than a month after saying he was still advising the franchise, Magic Johnson set fire to the organization again.
In an interview on ESPN’s “First Take” talk show Monday — mere hours before the Lakers were scheduled to hold a news conference to introduce new coach Frank Vogel — Johnson took a verbal leaf blower to his dysfunctional former employer and stirred up an ugly haze of accusations that left another coat of grime on a once-proud franchise.
All those hints Johnson dropped as reasons he suddenly resigned from his job as basketball boss before the final game of the season were made clear, and it wasn’t pretty.
He confirmed he felt betrayed by general manager Rob Pelinka. He confirmed he suddenly quit because he wasn’t allowed to fire then-coach Luke Walton. He said the Lakers have too many voices involved in the decision-making process, including owner Jeanie Buss’ confidant Linda Rambis, former coach and Buss boyfriend Phil Jackson, and business boss Tim Harris.
Though Johnson is well known for his outlandish statements, he remains a revered figured and respected voice around the NBA, and his words significantly add to the widespread belief that under Buss’ shaky ownership, the Lakers basketball leadership has become a disaster. On the eve of what could be the most important summer for player acquisitions in franchise history, this is not a good look. For a team hoping to attract a marquee free agent to join LeBron James, those words could have ominous ramifications.
Who would want to play for an organization that is seemingly run by chaos? To be more precise, it is unclear who would want to work for Pelinka, an executive who was painted as devious and untrustworthy in taking the brunt of Johnson’s rant Monday morning.
The “backstabbing and the whispering’’ Johnson spoke about when he quit? He said it came from Pelinka, which was what everyone speculated. But to hear Johnson actually voice the specific accusation was jarring.
“I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough, Magic’s not in the office,’’’ Johnson said on the ESPN show. “People around the Lakers office were 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 the office enough. So I started getting calls from my friends outside basketball saying those things were said to them outside of basketball now, just not in the Lakers office anymore.’’
When asked if he felt there were any other backstabbers in the organization, Johnson said, “If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob.’’
He also claimed that Pelinka has a shaky reputation around the league, which was earned from years of being Kobe Bryant’s difficult agent.
“When I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said you got to watch out for [Pelinka]?” Johnson said.
Since Johnson’s departure, it has become clear that Pelinka will assume Johnson’s duties as president of basketball operations, even without the title, and will answer only to Buss. This was already a shaky decision that becomes even more questionable in the wake of Johnson’s charges.
How can your organization be led by a man who obviously has league-wide trust issues? How can the Lakers maximize their dealings with other teams when the person doing the deals has just been called out for an alleged betrayal on national television?
Johnson also used his Monday interview to specify exactly why he quit before the Lakers’ final game April 9, saying he was unable to fire Walton. This revelation includes a new character in the drama, Harris, who is the Lakers’ business boss and the brains behind their landmark lucrative television deal and 99% season-ticket renewal rate.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was I wanted to fire Luke Walton,’’ Johnson said. “I showed [Buss] the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. I said, ‘Listen, we got to get a better coach.’ 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.’’
Johnson said Buss brought Harris into a meeting on the matter, and claimed that Harris wanted to keep Walton, which was a popular view among many in the organization who worried that it was wrong to fire Walton without first finding a suitable replacement.
“Tim wanted to keep him because he was friends with him,’’ Johnson said. “I said when I looked up, ‘I only really answer to Jeanie Buss.’ Now I got Tim Harris involved. It’s time for me to go.’’
In general, Johnson said the job was no longer attractive because the drama had taken away the fun.
“I got things happening that were said behind my back, I don’t have the power I thought I had to make decisions,’’ he said. “And I told them, when it is not fun for me, when I think I don’t have the decision-making power I thought I had, I got to step aside.’’
Johnson said he wasn’t sure who exactly was making the decisions.
“Right now, everybody has a voice,’’ he said.
A skeptical city and a dubious league will be listening.
Here is the Magic Johnson interview:
Its just too good. I cant stop watching these five minutes of Magic Johnson throwin that whole basket of dirty laundry on the table…pic.twitter.com/vHPnwatBCo
— Bleacher Preacher / Sports (@BleachrPreachr) May 20, 2019
Rob Pelinka responds
Hours after Magic Johnson went on ESPN’s “First Take” to call out general manager Rob Pelinka for “backstabbing” him, among other histrionics, Pelinka met with reporters as part of head coach Frank Vogel’s introductory press conference Monday.
It didn’t take long for Vogel’s big moment to be pushed to the side. Early on in the press gathering, Pelinka was asked to address Johnson’s comments. Pelinka spoke positively about Johnson, his former colleague who abruptly resigned as president of basketball operations six weeks ago.
But he did want to offer his side of the story.
“The two years getting to work side-by-side with Earvin were some of the greatest memories I have in sports. He’s an unbelievable person to work with. He fills the room with joy and vision. Truly, it’s saddening and disheartening to think he believes things that are misperceptions,” Pelinka said.
“I think all of us in life have been through things where maybe there’s third-party whispers or he-said, she-said things that aren’t true.”
Pelinka said he has spoken with Johnson “several” times since Johnson stepped down from his role. Pelinka never got the sense that Johnson felt the way he expressed on ESPN.
“We’ve had many joy-filled conversations. In fact, two days ago we were reliving the combine, having the fourth pick and talking about the great future this franchise has,” Pelinka said. “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.”
Here is Rob Pelinka response:
Rob Pelinka responds to Magic Johnson’s interview pic.twitter.com/kXqFgfWibm
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) May 20, 2019