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Magic Johnson celebrated the Lakers’ championship with, of all people, Rob Pelinka

Rob Pelinka, left, and coach Frank Vogel, facing Jeanie Buss, clap in celebration of the Lakers win.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, left, and coach Frank Vogel celebrate with owner Jeanie Buss during the NBA championship trophy presentation Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

They have let bygones be bygones, their love for the Lakers and controlling owner Jeanie Buss the common thread that has allowed Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to be of one accord.

The truest sign that their relationship had grown stronger despite some obstacles was when Pelinka reached out to Johnson on Sunday night after the Lakers won the NBA championship by defeating the Miami Heat. Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, wanted Johnson to share in the glorious moment.

After all, Johnson recruited LeBron James to L.A., setting the stage for the Lakers’ return to glory, which Pelinka also helped engineer by trading for Anthony Davis.

The two have repaired their relationship since Johnson abruptly resigned as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations on the last night of the 2018-19 season because he felt Pelinka was “backstabbing and whispering” about him within the organization.

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Johnson and Pelinka have had continuing conversations over the last year, culminating in that phone call after the Lakers won their 17th NBA championship, tying the Boston Celtics for the most.

“I still have such gratitude for the two seasons I got to work with Earvin, and he’s definitely a part of tonight with his vision and working side by side,” Pelinka said in a videoconference late Sunday night. “He’s an unbelievable person, and we have a great, incredibly strong relationship. He was one of the first calls tonight. Had a great talk with him.

“But I think what I have learned in life is the hard times or the trials is when you grow, and you turn to your faith, you turn to your family, your loved ones, and more than anything else, I think the lesson that all of us on the inside know is you’ve got to just be about the work. You can’t really get caught up in the noise. … I’m just grateful that the work that we put in led to this, and all the other stuff really doesn’t mean anything when you’re holding the trophy.”

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Johnson said he was not about living his life “holding grudges,” perceived or otherwise.

The success of the franchise is most important, Johnson said. Seeing James, Davis and the rest of the Lakers climb to the same heights as he and Kobe Bryant both did while capturing five titles wearing the purple and gold meant everything.

“After I left, that stuff was in the past,” Johnson told The Times by phone. “But I was still a Laker and nothing changed there. And the love that Jeanie and I have for each other will always be there and always has been there. That didn’t change either. I’ve always wanted the best for the Lakers, and that’s why anything that I can do to help the Lakers back to winning an NBA championship, I was going to do. Rob and I were able to move past the situation, and now we’re good. We’re friends. We were talking about repeating last night.”

The respect Johnson and Pelinka have for Buss is what pulled them together. Buss has impressed both with her stewardship of the franchise made famous by her late father, Jerry Buss.

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“We have the best owner in all of professional sports in Jeanie Buss,” Pelinka said. “She’s unbelievable. What she does is she leads with a really rare combination of courage and passion. I think our Lakers culture is centered on making sure that the players have everything they need to succeed, and it’s a player-centric, player-first organization. That’s our culture, and she sets that.”

The deaths of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash were front and center during this COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season, which concluded in a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

That also made Johnson reflect.

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“You know Kobe is sitting up there in heaven proud,” Johnson said. “Dr. Jerry Buss is in heaven proud. Chick Hearn. All three of them, I know they watched the game together.

“But also, LeBron James. What LeBron James said he was going to do when we were in his living room — myself, him and his agent Rich Paul — he said, ‘Earvin, I’m going to bring the Lakers back. I’m going to take us to the championship.’ Everything that he said he was going to do, he’s done just that. It was just great to know he was the centerpiece to bring us back.”


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