Magic Johnson says Rob Pelinka's 'backstabbing' part of reason for leaving Lakers

The Detroit News
Magic Johnson, left, listens as Rob Pelinka talks during a news conference introducing him as the new general manager in 2017.

When Magic Johnson abruptly resigned last month as the Los Angeles Lakers' president of basketball operations, he cited a desire to return to his old life as a main reason for leaving.

On ESPN's First Take on Monday, the Michigan State legend shed more light on his departure, ensnaring general manager Rob Pelinka in what Johnson last month referred to as "backstabbing" from around the league

Johnson says Pelinka, a Michigan graduate who played for the Wolverines from 1988-1993, betrayed him, singling him out for the "backstabbing."

"I started hearing, 'Magic's not working hard enough, Magic's not in the office," Johnson told First Take's Stephen A. Smith. "So, people around the Lakers office were telling me, Rob's saying things. ... And I didn't like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn't in the office enough and so on and on.

"I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. ... People got to remember something: Being in this business for over 40 years, I got allies, I got friends everywhere."

When Johnson quit last month, he said he wanted "to go back to having fun. I want to go back to who I was before taking this job." On Monday, the Lansing native and Hall of Famer said Pelinka was a source of that fun getting sucked from his role, though Johnson said part of his job was grooming Pelinka to become his successor. 

"I'm not a guy who is like, 'Oh, man, he said this about me,' and I worry about it," Johnson told Smith. "What happened was, I wasn't having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I've got to work beside you, knowing you want my position. And I'm OK with that ... I told him, in Year 2, I'm only going to be here three years, so my job, Rob, is to get you ready for this position. So, I was going to help elevate him to the president's position ... when all this was coming back to me, and guys calling me, saying you better watch out for him."

Johnson says the "straw the broke the camel's back," however, was when he didn't receive support to fire head coach Luke Walton.

"I got things happening that were being said behind my back,": Johnson said. "I don't have the power that I thought I had to make the decisions."

At news conference Monday to introduce Frank Vogel as the Lakers' new coach, Pelinka denied the accusations.

“I have talked to him several times since he decided to step away; we've had many joy-filled conversations," Pelinka told reporters. "In fact, two days ago we were reliving the combine, the fourth pick and talking about the great future that this franchise has, 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.

"I stand beside him, I stand with him as a colleague, as a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and continue to and I think that’s the best way to address that.”

Johnson was the Lakers' president for a little more than two years, running the franchise he led to five NBA titles as a player and won three league MVPs in 12-plus seasons. Johnson retired in 1991 after testing positive for HIV and coached the Lakers for 16 games during the 1993-94 season.

He led Michigan State to the 1979 national title, winning a showdown with Larry Bird and Indiana State before he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Lakers in 1979.

Pelinka has been the Lakers' general manager since March 2017 after a career as a sports agent. He played four seasons at Michigan, helping the Wolverines reach the NCAA title game in three of those seasons, winning a title in 1989. He averaged 2.6 points in 119 games, including two starts.