As he embarked on a new chapter in his life, one aimed at reversing the fortunes of a proud Lakers franchise, new General Manager Rob Pelinka thought back a decade to another time he had a hand in changing its fate.
It was May 2007. The Lakers were amid a rebuilding project much less stark than what they are trying now. They had just lost in the first round of the playoffs. Kobe Bryant, Pelinka’s client, wanted change. So he told Stephen A. Smith, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer, that he wanted the Lakers to trade him.
“What happened after that call to action, I’ll never forget,” Pelinka said. “Dr. [Jerry] Buss called us up to his house, like only he could, and welcomed us into his home. I’m sure Earvin [Magic Johnson] has experienced this time and time and time again. We sat around the table and everyone shared their vision and what needed to change. There was collaboration. There was listening. There was thought exchange. It was powerful.”
About seven months later, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol. They were back in the Finals that season, and won back-to-back championships the next two. Bryant, of course, never left the franchise, finishing his 20-year career right where he first began playing. On Friday, he sat in the front row as Pelinka told that story.
The memory recalled two things Pelinka and Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, hope to bring back to the Lakers: collaboration and championships. With Johnson by his side, Bryant in front of him along with three members of the Buss family, Pelinka gave a message every bit as big as the star power around him. It was the first time Bryant attended a Lakers function since his 60-point career finale.
“We are going to deliver on Jeanie’s challenge to us all to make the Lakers the greatest sports franchise in the world,” Pelinka said. “That will happen.”
Friday’s news conference lasted about 40 minutes, and marked a brief break in the actual work. Pelinka quoted Bible verses and told stories about his close relationship with Bryant. He lauded Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ controlling owner, for what an example she was for his 6-year-old daughter. He said the idea of a female owner leading a team to a championship inspired him.
And he made the pitch he’ll make to free agents starting this summer.
“We still have an intrinsic advantage,” Pelinka said. “When Earvin put on the 32 and Kobe put on the 8 and the 24, that can’t be replicated anywhere on the globe with any other team. We are going to make sure that’s how players that come here feel and want to be a part of this. We’re getting back to that place. This L.A. platform and this Lakers brand, the Buss family and legacy of winning cannot be replicated.”
The news conference came three days after Pelinka officially became the 13th general manager in franchise history. His official appointment came two weeks after Johnson joined the front office and decided to hire him.
“You have to have a guy who’s already formed a lot of relationships whether that’s with players, with agents, general managers, teams,” Johnson said. “Rob has all of that. He’s a great negotiator. Boy, that session we had yesterday … was amazing.”
That session happened Thursday, he said. The Lakers were in Phoenix, preparing to play the Suns, with their new front office back in Los Angeles. Pelinka laid out the free-agency classes for the next five years. He noted how much each of those players could earn if they stayed with their current teams, and compared that to what the Lakers could offer them at the same time.
Free agency hasn’t been kind to the Lakers lately. They haven’t been able to land a star in the last few summers, and couldn’t even get a meeting with Kevin Durant last season. The new collective bargaining agreement includes incentives for players to re-sign with teams that drafted them. Despite that, Pelinka thinks the Lakers can still be competitive.
“Every single agent in the NBA knows that this platform is the best platform for their client in terms of marketing and in terms of the relationships in L.A.,” Pelinka said. “We’re in a city that has a powder keg of relationships.”
Pelinka and Johnson didn’t forget the Lakers’ young core. But neither did they give any reason for those players — even lottery picks D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle — to get too comfortable. The Lakers are 20-45, a season after having won only 17 games. Johnson demanded more consistency from all of them.
Asked whether the young core can be the foundation of a championship and Pelinka said he didn’t know. But he did call Luke Walton a “championship” coach.
“You have this genuine honesty and coolness about you that just makes every player in the league want you to be their coach,” Pelinka said, looking down at Walton. “We’re going to capitalize on that and make sure you have the best talent in the world to coach this Lakers team.”
They’ll be watching practice to learn more about the players’ habits. They’ll be filling out their front office, adding positions and interviewing others.
“We are happy with some of those guys, no question about it,” Johnson said, when asked specifically about current members of the front office such as Ryan West, director of player personnel, and Glenn Carraro, assistant general manager. “… We understand we have to have world-class talent with us. We’re going to see if we have that in house, and if we don’t we’ll make changes.”
After their media availability ended, Pelinka and Johnson were whisked away to an event with Lakers sponsors. They returned to the business of reviving what was once basketball’s most glamorous brand.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli