LOS ANGELES >> During his two-decade career representing Kobe Bryant and other prominent NBA players, Rob Pelinka developed an enormous respect for the Los Angeles Lakers, both as a team and a global phenomenon.
Pelinka is getting the chance to restore that tarnished brand as the Lakers’ new general manager, and he is approaching his new job with evangelical zeal.
“It didn’t feel like a decision,” Pelinka said Friday. “It felt like a true calling.”
Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson introduced Pelinka at a news conference, hiring Bryant’s longtime agent as his top deputy in the team’s new leadership regime. Both men spoke glowingly of a 16-time NBA champion franchise currently mired in the worst four-year stretch in team history.
Pelinka is recognized as a sharp negotiator on the other side of the NBA’s bargaining tables. In moving to the Lakers’ front office, he described his goals in terms far beyond dollars and cents.
“To put the Lakers back on the proper place of being the gold-standard franchise in all of sports for others to look at and try to emulate,” Pelinka said. “Because that’s what Dr. (Jerry) Buss did with this team, and what our calling is here. … We’re going to deliver on Jeanie’s challenge to us to make the Lakers the greatest sports franchise in the world. That will happen.”
Jeanie Buss fired her brother, Jim, and general manager Mitch Kupchak last month to clear the way for Johnson and Pelinka.
While the Hall of Fame point guard will be the Lakers’ frontman and big-picture leader, Pelinka will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day work of contract negotiations, talent scouting and salary cap management. Together, they’ll attempt to rebuild the Lakers, who are wrapping up what’s certain to be their fourth straight non-playoff season, a franchise record for futility.
“When I thought about who I really wanted to start this journey with, and who could I pick that would complement my style and the way I am, and also who is strong where I’m weak, there was no other than Rob,” Johnson said. “We have the same personality. We have just a passionate love for this franchise. I wanted somebody who understood the Lakers and what it means to represent the Lakers, and Rob knows that better than anybody out here.”
Johnson’s word choice was bold at a news conference attended by none other than Bryant, who wrapped up his 20-year career last spring with five championship rings. Johnson also won five NBA titles in the 1980s with the Showtime Lakers.
Pelinka described Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, as his “best friends,” recounting group camping trips and mutual concern for each other’s children.
He also echoed the strong support for rookie coach Luke Walton voiced by Johnson and Jeanie Buss, calling Walton “a championship coach.” The Lakers have made it abundantly clear they’re thrilled with Walton’s work despite the current team’s 20-45 record.
While he offered few specifics about his plans for the Lakers, Pelinka spoke with enormous optimism about the importance of the Lakers’ reputation and location. He plans to highlight the abundant opportunities in endorsements, business deals and Hollywood exposure as factors in attracting free agents.
Yet Pelinka is also thinking much bigger. During an anecdote about a friend who saw a child in a Kobe jersey at a Syrian refugee camp, Pelinka spoke of the purple and gold as a worldwide force for good.
“This brand resonates around the world,” Pelinka said. “This brand, this Lakers brand, can give hope in the corners of the globe. If we’re doing our job here, and we’re the Lakers, we can bring joy and hope to everyone across the world.”