• Another soap opera is playing out in Los Angeles, with Magic Johnson calling out Rob Pelinka as a backstabber who betrayed him. The Lakers should have been prepared for this and made proper concessions.
By Michael McCann
May 20, 2019

The soap opera-like departure of Magic Johnson from the Los Angeles Lakers entered a new phase on Monday when Johnson appeared on ESPN’s First Take and accused team general manager Rob Pelinka of deceit and treachery.

Johnson, who had served as Lakers president of basketball operations from February 21, 2017 until abruptly resigning on April 9, denounced Pelinka for alleged “backstabbing” and supposed “betrayal."

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Magic exacts revenge on Pelinka at First Take

Johnson’s remarks were spurred by Stephen A. Smith’s question about the reasoning for his unexpected resignation. Johnson began his answer by thanking Lakers owner Jeanie Buss for the opportunity to have served as team president.

He then quickly pivoted to attack mode.

Johnson expressed frustration that despite possessing the title of president of basketball operations and despite Buss allegedly giving him “the power” to make basketball decisions, he came to believe that he lacked final say. This was crystalized when Johnson wanted to fire Luke Walton as head coach in April, but Buss—Johnson insists—deferred instead to the more cautious views of Tim Harris, the Lakers chief operating officer. Harris, at least as Johnson tells it, objected to letting go of Walton, who would nonetheless be fired on April 12. Johnson felt that he should only have to answer to Buss. 

Johnson’s depiction of a disagreement with Buss was interesting, but not especially jaw-dropping or unique. Team executives and owners sometimes part ways over who has final say on organizational choices. Johnson would not be the first NBA team executive to quit for that type of reason.

The more compelling segment of Johnson’s response came in his stunningly harsh depiction of Pelinka.

Johnson began by stressing that his working relationship with Pelinka was not of his own choosing. Buss, Johnson asserted, partnered him with Pelinka, whom Johnson did not know. Pelinka, 49, had been a player agent and, at different points in his career, represented Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, James Harden and other elite players. Pelinka, who is also an attorney, arguably had more contemporary insights into player transactions and salary-cap issues than Johnson, who had been an NBA analyst for TNT but also focused on his personal business, Magic Johnson Enterprises, as well as his ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Sparks.

Johnson explained that he and Pelinka worked reasonably well together in the first year, but that by 2018 the relationship had soured. Johnson revealed that he heard from friends on other teams and in the basketball media that Pelinka would make unflattering remarks about Johnson while behind his back. One of Pelinka’s supposed gripes was that Johnson was seldom in the Lakers office—with the obvious inference that Johnson either was lazy or did not prioritize his Lakers responsibilities. Johnson clearly took offense to this insinuation, particularly since—as Johnson tells it—Buss gave him the explicit assurance that he did not need to work from the office given his other business interests.

Johnson continued to smear Pelinka on First Take when recalling that after he became Lakers president, agents would reach out with friendly advice that Johnson needs to “watch out for” Pelinka. Johnson suggested that Pelinka was gunning for his job. “If you want to elevate yourself, I'm all for that,” Johnson observed. “But there's a way to get that, and it's not talking about the person that's above you.” Johnson went on to explain that he actually wanted to “help elevate” Pelinka to the top position given that Johnson only intended to be with the Lakers for three seasons, but that Pelinka’s alleged two-faced approach to their relationship caused Johnson to view Pelinka in a very dismal light.

Johnson’s claims on First Take contrast sharply with his original explanation for stepping down. On April 9, Johnson spoke of how he would have more “more fun” if he could mentor young players and serve as an “ambassador” for the game without having to worry about NBA anti-tampering rules and other league policies that restrict the actions of team executives. On First Take, Johnson’s explanation focused on a power struggle and organizational distrust.

Johnson’s public rebuke of Pelinka is extremely unusual

It is rare, if not unprecedented, for a team executive to leave a team and then quickly accuse his or her former employer and co-workers of dishonesty and other wrongdoing. Even sports executives who are unceremoniously ousted tend to refrain from badmouthing the team and those who they believe wronged them—especially when on the record.

This is typically the case for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the fired executive presumably wants to continue to work in the industry. A prospective team would be less inclined to hire an executive if he or she disparaged the team that had fired him or her. Such disparagement could show a lack of discipline and a thin-skin. The executive’s agent also repeatedly reminds him or her to take the high road, particularly while speaking on the record or while conversing in circumstances where they might be recorded.

Second, the fired executive might be contractually barred from badmouthing their former employer. It is customary when a business executive leaves a company that he or she sign a non-disparagement agreement with the company. This agreement says, in sum and substance, that everyone agrees to not badmouth each other and that a failure to adhere to such a convent would constitute breach of contract and result in monetary damages. The departing executive normally signs additional terms as well, including a mutual release so that neither side sues each other over activities that took place during the executive’s employment and an agreement relating to permissible and unauthorized forms of disclosure of trade secrets and other proprietary information.

It’s not clear if either of these two reasons apply to Johnson. With a net worth of reportedly $600 million and with a legacy as one of the greatest players in NBA history, Johnson doesn’t have to worry about whether he’ll get another job in the NBA or elsewhere. He might figure that he can say basically whatever he wants, without the risk of meaningful repercussions. After all, he is 59-year-old Magic Johnson, a one of a kind. He is not a 30-something or 40-something year-old aspiring general manager whose reputation is built around being a rising star with analytics expertise, nor is he a 50-something or 60-something year-old seasoned executive looking for one more opportunity to run the show. Johnson doesn’t have to play by the same set of rules.

It’s also not clear if Johnson signed any sort of termination agreement with the Lakers. If not, the Lakers are likely regretting how they managed Johnson’s departure from the team.

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The Lakers shouldn't have expected Johnson to stay quiet

Johnson’s problems with Pelinka were likely not a mystery to Buss and other high-ranking Lakers officials. It stands to reason that Johnson did not keep his feelings inside for two years only to suddenly reveal them to Stephen A. Smith on national TV. Assuming the Lakers knew about Johnson’s misgivings of Pelinka, the team probably also knew the public relations risk Johnson would represent.

Plus, the Lakers already knew that Johnson’s unique brand of celebrity, candor and loquaciousness can prove organizationally problematic. To that point, Johnson’s frequent willingness to answer journalists’ questions and straightforwardly express his views have proven detrimental to the Lakers on several occasions.

In 2018, the NBA fined the Lakers $50,000 for tampering caused by Johnson’s public remarks. During an ESPN interview, Johnson compared his game from the '80s and '90s with that of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Johnson made these statements while in the course of complimenting Antetokounmpo. This favorable comparison constituted tampering because Johnson was a Lakers executive and his admiration of Antetokounmpo could have been perceived as an overture by an executive to a player who is under contract to another team.

A year earlier, the NBA fined the Lakers $500,00 for tampering stemming from unauthorized contact between Pelinka and Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz. The NBA based this penalty in part on the franchise not heeding the league’s warning about Johnson’s earlier comments on Jimmy Kimmel Live. During an interview with Kimmel in August 2017, Johnson admitted that he hoped to find a way to trade for George.

More recently, the NBA scrutinized Johnson for his apparent interest in mentoring Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, who is (obviously) under contract to another team. The Lakers were also connected to alleged tampering in the team’s pursuit of New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis. The league, however, did not find that Johnson engaged in any improper conduct with respect to either of those players.

Sincerity and a willingness to mentor young persons are normally virtues, but in Johnson’s capacity as a Lakers executive and in the context of players employed by other teams, neither quality was especially helpful. Both raised questions about Johnson’s ability to stay within organizational lanes.

The Lakers hired Johnson in the middle of the 2016-17 season to turn around a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013 and that had one of the league’s worst records over the preceding few seasons. Buss and other Lakers officials presumably did not hire Johnson to merely serve as a public face for the team—they wanted him to make sound basketball decisions and return the franchise to the level of success it enjoyed in the early 2000s and when Johnson starred for the Lakers in the '80s. Johnson at times garnered more attention for his statements than his actions. That said, given that the team signed LeBron James last year and now has the fourth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the franchise’s future is hardly bleak.

Also, in his defense, Johnson was somewhat a victim of a lifetime of accomplishments. He is a former franchise player, head coach, business executive, media mogul and television personality. It’s understandable that he would be called upon in ways that are atypical for NBA executives.

Yet other former NBA superstar players who ascended to team leadership positions, such as Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan and former Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, have avoided the kinds of controversies that Johnson experienced while running the Lakers.

In sum, the Lakers knew that Johnson, with a history of bluntness and one of the highest profiles of any person in American sports, would be asked by media about his experience running the Lakers and why he left. To that end, in negotiating Johnson’s departure, the team had an interest in mutually agreeing with Johnson that neither he nor anyone on the Lakers badmouth each other. It’s possible the team signed Johnson to such an agreement and Johnson is merely ignoring it. If not, the Lakers might question why they didn’t attempt to better mollify disagreements with Johnson before he left the Staples Center.

No, Pelinka isn’t going to sue Johnson for defamation

Johnson’s unforgiving depiction of Pelinka could be construed as slander. Johnson has made a public claim that Pelinka is a backstabber who is known in the agent world as a distrusted figure. This claim against Pelinka could be damaging to his professional reputation and harmful to his standing with the Lakers, particularly with Lakers players who were close to Johnson.

That said, don’t expect Pelinka to sue Johnson anytime soon.

First, Pelinka knows that if he sues Johnson, the public controversy would grow, not recede. Likewise, the last thing Buss would want Pelinka to do is sue Johnson, thereby igniting a public controversy and one where pretrial discovery could lead to the public airing of unflattering emails and text messages. Pelinka would also risk seeming thin-skinned if he rushed to court over Johnson’s criticism.

Pelinka’s initial response is to politely reject Johnson’s accusation and to take the high road. According to Ryan Ward of Clutch Points, Pelinka dismisses the accusation as “not true” while calling it “saddening.” Pelinka also complimented Johnson, saying “he’s an unbelievable person to work with.”

Second, Pelinka knows that some will dismiss Johnson’s animosity towards Pelinka as the mere rantings of an aggrieved and biased person who lost an organizational power struggle. To that point, Pelinka might be unable to prove that he suffered any lasting damage from Johnson’s hurtful portrayal.

Third, Pelinka—a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School—is no doubt familiar with the difficulties of successfully pursuing defamation cases, particularly when brought by public figures. Pelinka would have to show that Johnson’s comments are statements of fact rather than statements of opinion. Calling someone a backstabber is at least partly a statement of opinion since it is a somewhat loose depiction. Also, public figures must prove “actual malice” and Pelinka, as general manager of the one of the most celebrated franchises in America, would likely be classified as a public figure. In this context, a finding of actual malice would only exist if Pelinka could show that Johnson either knowingly uttered a false statement or had reckless disregard for his insight’s truth or falsity. If Johnson genuinely believed that Pelinka was a backstabber, chances are a defamation claim by Pelkina would fail, even if the depiction proved objectively false.

Short story: don’t expect a lawsuit from Pelinka, but don’t expect the controversy to end anytime soon, either.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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