On the day the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to introduce their new head coach, a member of the old guard added a fresh dash of drama.
Former team president Magic Johnson, whose jersey hangs from the Staples Centers rafters, said Monday it was general manager Rob Pelinka’s backstabbing ways that led to his resignation in April.
“Things got going in the right direction. Then I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office,’” Johnson told ESPN in an interview on “‘First Take” on Monday. “So people around the Lakers’ office was telling me Rob — Rob Pelinka — was saying things and I didn’t like this being said behind my back. That I wasn’t in the office enough and on and on.
“So I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them. ... Not just in the Lakers’ office any more. Outside of basketball, in the media and so on. People have to remember something. Being in this business 40 years, I have allies, I’ve got friends everywhere.
“Then, I had to monitor the brothers — Joey and Jesse, the Buss Brothers — wanted more involvement, more power. I said I didn’t mind doing that. They’re good guys. Also I sat them down and said I’m going to help you guys mature and get better. They felt they should have been in powerful positions, whether that’s general manager or president.”
Joey and Jesse Buss are the youngest children of late owner Jerry Buss, who died in 2013.
Pelinka later Monday denied the report, saying Johnson’s claims are “Simply not true.”
“These things are surprising to hear and disheartening,” Pelinka told the LA Times. “They’re just simply not true. I stand beside him. I stand with him as a colleague and a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to.”
Johnson said the straw that broke the camel’s back was a debate over coach Luke Walton’s status.
“I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said, adding that ownership granted approval to fire Walton, then backpedaled. “Luke’s a great guy. I said we need to get a better coach. Now I’ve got (team vice president) Tim (Harris) involved. I don’t have the power that I thought I had to make the decisions. I told them, ‘When it’s not fun for me, when I don’t have the decision-making power that I thought I had, I’ve got to step aside.’”
Johnson abruptly resigned on April 9, minutes before the team’s regular-season finale, saying he hadn’t told anyone — including controlling owner and team president Jeanie Buss, with whom he’s close — about his decision in advance.
“When we sat down and negotiated, I said, ‘I can’t give up all my businesses. Is that OK?’” Johnson said. “I said, I’m going to be in and out. Is that OK? I said, do I have the power to make decisions? She said yes.”
Walton ultimately was fired and quickly hired as head coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Frank Vogel was named head coach of the Lakers last week, and he will sit alongside Pelinka at his introduction Monday afternoon.
Pelinka claimed Johnson’s role and now reports directly to Jeanie Buss after previously reporting to Johnson. Buss considered various options, including filling Johnson’s job, but decided to rely on Pelinka. Kurt Rambis remains as a special adviser.
Johnson’s decision stunned star forward LeBron James, along with the rest of the team.
Jeanie Buss issued a statement at the time saying the team would “work in a measured and methodical fashion to make the right moves for the future of our organization.”
Pelinka, 49, was an agent for many years — representing Kobe Bryant, among others — before the Lakers hired him in February 2017. He and Johnson replaced former GM Mitch Kupchak. His contract has three years remaining.
—Field Level Media