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Ex-UM coach Frieder: Lakers GM Pelinka a ‘quality guy’

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Bill Frieder has known Rob Pelinka since Pelinka was just a freshman in high school. Even then, the former Michigan basketball coach could see the potential — whether it was as a basketball player, or something else.

That something else now is general manager of the legendary Los Angeles Lakers, reportedly hired Tuesday night by new Lakers president Earvin “Magic” Johnson. An official announcement still is forthcoming, even though the wheels started in motion Tuesday night with the first trade of the Johnson-Pelinka era.

“Hey, even Magic Johnson is smart enough to go to the Michigan contingent,” said Frieder, laughing during a phone conversation Wednesday, “if he needs somebody really, really good.”

Pelinka played four years at Michigan as almost exclusively a bench guy, though he did make a school-record three Final Fours, including as a member of the 1989 NCAA championship team — a team Frieder coached until he was fired just before the NCAA Tournament, when he had a job lined up to leave for Arizona State.

Johnson, of course, famously starred for Michigan State, winning the 1979 NCAA championship.

Pelinka and Johnson now are charged with turning around the historic Lakers franchise, which has fallen on hard times lately, from 27-55 in 2013-14, to 21-61 in 2014-15, to 17-65 last season, to 19-39 this season.

“You knew when you recruited him that no matter what happened with playing time, you knew you had a quality, quality guy in your program that would help your club,” said Frieder, 74, who coached nine years at Michigan. “He was so smart, he knew how to play the game, he could help you in so many was as a scout-team player, practice player, leader on the floor.

“We knew you could take a kid like that out of high school, and he could’ve been your assistant coach, he was that smart.”

Pelinka, 47, in 1993 earned the NCAA’s top male-scholar athlete award, and earned a bachelor’s of business administration from Michigan’s Ross School of Business, before considering continuing his basketball career, perhaps overseas. He then met famous agent Arn Tellem — who since has quit the business and joined the Pistons in their bid to move downtown — and decided, instead, to attend law school at Michigan.

He graduated with a juris doctor degree in 1996, and started laying the foundation for a career as a sports agent.

"He was always a smart guy, a business-minded guy," said Terry Mills, 49, a former UM teammate of Pelinka's who's now on the Wolverines' radio broadcast team. "We always joked with him being one of those guys, 'This guy's probably gonna be an owner of a team' ... 'I'm gonna end up working for him.'

"I don't think anybody really can doubt his knowledge of the game or his experience."

Jay Smith, the men's basketball coach at Kalamazoo College, coached Pelinka — who played in 117 games but made just six starts in his career, averaging 4.3 points as a senior — for one year at Michigan, as an assistant coach in 1989-90, the season after Michigan won the national championship.

Like with most everyone who came across Pelinka, there was an instant impression: This guy's freaking smart.

"Without a doubt, Rob was always on the high end of the education system. He was a pretty serious student, a pretty serious player, very focused, very intelligent," said Smith, 52. "Nothing surprised you with him. He's thinking outside the box.

"I'm not surprised he tied in his basketball knowledge with his intelligence. He's in the right arena for him, I know that."

Mills said he always was surprised Pelinka became an agent, because agents have to be talkers, or "hustlers," as Mills called them. He said Pelinka always was a quiet guy. Nevertheless, the agent career was a lucrative one. Clients over the years have included Lakers star Kobe Bryant, former Michigan State star Morris Peterson, former Central Michigan star Chris Kaman (who played for Smith, when Smith was coaching the Chippewas) and Pistons center Andre Drummond when he was a draft pick in 2012.

Frieder has kept in touch quite a bit with Pelinka over the years, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Frieder’s daughter was attending UCLA for her PhD. Frieder then moved to Santa Monica, California, and Pelinka lived close by, just blocks over.

“You just knew,” said Frieder, “he was going to be very successful at whatever he does.”


Rob Pelinka, Lakers GM

Age: 47 (Dec. 23, 1969)

Hometown: Lake Bluff, Ill.

Education: Michigan (bachelor’s; juris doctor)

College playing career: 1988-93; played in 117 games, but started only six. He averaged 2.7 points, including 4.3 his senior year. He’s the only Michigan player to be on three Final Four teams, including the 1989 national-championship team.

Post-playing career: After attending law school, he eventually became a powerful NBA player agent, eventually landing clients such as Kobe Bryant, Morris Peterson and Chris Kaman.