Magic Johnson did a lot of things wrong during his brief presidency of the Los Angeles Lakers. One thing he inarguably did right was luring LeBron James to the franchise. While James’ motivations in joining the team are still debated today, what isn’t is the recruitment process that took place on July 1, 2018. As has been widely reported and spoken about publicly by both parties, Johnson arrived at James’ Brentwood home for a one-on-one meeting right as free agency began. Less than 24 hours later, James was a Laker.
But the Lakers don’t seem to remember it quite that way. On Friday, the Lakers promoted Rob Pelinka to vice president of basketball operations. Pelinka, formerly Johnson’s general manager, now occupies functionally the same role that Johnson had when he was still officially a part of the team’s front office. As part of the press release, the Lakers engaged in a suspicious bit of revisionist history. In listing Pelinka’s accomplishments, the press release stated that “during the 2018 offseason, Pelinka made one of the most significant signings in franchise history, with the acquisition of four-time MVP LeBron James.”
That statement, based on everything we know about James’ recruitment, is factually untrue. While Pelinka was technically the team’s general manager when James signed, Lee Jenkins’ account of James’ decision to sign with the Lakers for Sports Illustrated makes no mention of even a conversation with Pelinka (though he did speak to Kobe Bryant, whom Pelinka used to represent). While James and Pelinka have almost certainly crossed paths, there is no evidence of a preexisting relationship between them. Johnson, who was the only Lakers employee known to have spoken with James during his free agency, is not mentioned anywhere in the press release.
Johnson and Pelinka did not have a strong relationship while working together in Los Angeles. It was Jeanie Buss’ decision to hire Pelinka under Johnson rather than allow him to hire his own general manager, and as Johnson detailed in multiple interviews with Stephen A. Smith, he felt that Pelinka was “backstabbing” him during their time together. Johnson claimed that Pelinka questioned his work ethic and was openly angling for his job.
Now Pelinka functionally has it, and the Lakers are acting as though he did all along. While such public relations chicanery might make sense on a typical team, the Lakers rewriting Johnson’s greatest achievement as their president is surprising on several levels. Not only is he arguably the greatest player in team history, but he has always been incredibly close to the Buss family. While the end of his presidency was obviously painful and his numerous interviews blaming other team personnel made the offseason more difficult for the team, it’s not as though Magic Johnson can be erased from Lakers’ history.
That they tried is an extremely telling look into where Johnson stands with the organization right now. While he will always be a beloved team legend, statements like this suggest that Johnson no longer has even an unofficial role within the team hierarchy and that he simply lost his power struggle with Pelinka, Tim Harris and the rest of the still-employed front office.