Magic Johnson’s abrupt departure from the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office in April never was really explained all that well, with Johnson himself only saying that he wanted “to go back to being a businessman and helping the black community and the Latino community” and that he didn’t like being “handcuffed” by NBA anti-tampering rules that prevented him from talking about players on other teams.
On Monday, however, Johnson spun an entirely different tale, mainly that he resented the “backstabbing” and “whispering” behind his back, and he pointed the finger directly at General Manager Rob Pelinka, who was hired by the Lakers at the same time Johnson assumed the team’s presidency.
When negotiating his job requirements with team controlling owner Jeanie Buss, Johnson said he made it clear to her that he still needed to deal with his other business interests and that he wanted final say on personnel decisions.
“I told her: ‘Listen, I can’t give up all my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers, so you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that okay with you?’ ” Johnson said on ESPN’s “First Take.” “She said yes. I said, ‘Do I have the power to make decisions?’ because that was important for me to take the job, as well. She said, ‘You have the power to make the decisions.’ “
His first year at the helm was “tremendous,” Johnson said Monday as the team rearranged its roster to get under the salary cap and acquired draft picks, eventually landing LeBron James in free agency. But then the whispering campaign started.
“And then I start hearing: ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So people around the Laker office were telling me Rob was saying things.”
“Rob Pelinka?” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith asked.
“Rob Pelinka,” Johnson responded. “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 of basketball saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now [it’s] not just in the Laker office anymore. Now it’s in the media and so on. Being in this business for over 40 years, I got allies, I got friends everywhere.”
Johnson added later that his only problem was with Pelinka, whom he said was trying to undercut him with the goal of assuming his job.
“Just Rob,” Johnson said. “Other people didn’t bother me . . . What happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position.”
Pelinka responded to Johnson later Monday during an introductory news conference for new Lakers coach Frank Vogel, calling Johnson “an unbelievable person to work with” who “fills the room with joy and vision.”
“Truly it’s saddening and disheartening to think he believes things that are a misperception,” Pelinka said. “I think all of us in life probably have been though things where maybe there’s third-party whispers or he-said-she-said things that aren’t true. And 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 Lakers winning] the fourth pick [in the NBA draft] and talking about the great future that this franchise has.
“So these things are surprising to hear and disheartening,” Pelinka continued. “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.”
Johnson said the second and ultimately final source of his discontent was the team’s indecision over whether to fire then-coach Luke Walton.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was, I wanted to fire Luke Walton, and we had — max — three meetings,” Johnson said. “I shouldered 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: ‘Let’s think about it.’ Second day: ‘Okay, you can fire him.’ Then the next day: ‘Well, we should try to work it out.’ So when we went back and forth like that, and then [Buss] brought [Lakers president of basketball operations] Tim Harris into the meeting . . . and Tim, he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy. And so when I looked up I 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.’ “
Johnson said he had told Buss that he would take the job for only three years before turning it over to Pelinka. But everything blended together to the point where he wasn’t enjoying his role any more.
“I got things happening that are being said behind my back,” he said on ESPN. “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.’ “