Rob Pelinka Discusses Maintaining Hope, Kobe, and Nelson Mandela

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

As the VP of Basketball Ops and GM of the Lakers, a big part of Rob Pelinka’s job is synthesizing all of the departments and trying to bring the whole organization together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pelinka – like almost anybody in a leadership position across any number of careers – has had a new and unique challenge.

The most important thing at the moment, Pelinka emphasized throughout a Zoom call with assembled reporters, is to stay at home and play our part in limited the spread of the virus, and thinking about the health and safety of others. And from there, trying to do what we can in our respective roles.

“With the coaching staff there’s been a lot of communication over Zoom while we wait and get directives of where this thing goes,” said Pelinka. “Our coaching staff (is) studying extra game film, they’re getting prepared for if we get the green light at some point … For the (players), we work hard with our strength and conditioning staff to make sure they have fitness bundles delivered to them where we can do Zoom workouts."

In short, the health of everyone is in their minds, but “at a micro level we want to continue to be prepared if we get called to finish this season,” he explained.

Pelinka was asked whether or not he thought the season would resume, a question that can be echoed for many, many businesses these days.

“I think all of us right now have to live with hope and we have to live with faith and trust and courage and those attributes because it’s a really, really hard and dark time for the world,” he began. “And so I’m going to choose to fix most of my thoughts on that we will have a chance to finish the season. I think that would be a great thing for us. But we also know that this situation is so much bigger than basketball.

“I’m going to continue to hold onto the hope of sports being back and look forward to that day because we know that this current crisis, like everything, this too shall pass. We don’t know when that will be. But we do know that sports will be on the other side of that at some point and I’m going to continue to hope for that day.”

Part of Pelinka’s job has been participating in phone calls set up by the NBA to its various management groups.

“That’s the one thing in this time that has been so impressive from Adam Silver and really his whole base of employees, is just the leadership and the information flow,” he said. “I do know that as everyone has this hope and desire to find a way to finish the season, they are looking at every option to get to the end. Including fan-less games. Including remote locations where teams could gather and create as safe an environment as possible."

Pelinka said he hopes that come May, there will be more and clearer information, but we’ll have to see what the world looks like in a few weeks.

“I can say definitively that all of us hope there's a way to have an NBA champion crowned,” he continued. “I think that is something that the whole world and sports fans and NBA fans hope is that we can find a way to have a champion for the 2020 season. But we will only do that if the health officials and if Adam Silver and the league and everyone thinks that's the best thing for the safety of the players."

A possible return to play would have to check a lot of boxes, with health being No. 1, and then extending into how much practice time would be needed for teams to get back in it physically, whether regular season or at least ramp-up games would happen, and so on.

That discussion becomes interesting specifically around LeBron James, who was building up physically in a very precise way to get ready for the playoff push.

“Everybody knows that LeBron is a pro’s pro and I know that the way he dedicates himself to his profession is unparalleled,” he said. “I know he’s been committed to leadership, he’s been committed to continuing to inspire his teammates.

"Anthony Davis has also done that. It’s a special group of guys, they want to stay connected, they want to stay ready. If we’re fortunate enough or blessed enough that the health officials and the league find a way for us to get back to playing basketball, I know from a physical standpoint and a mindset standpoint those two guys will be as good as any athlete in the world at staying mentally and physically ready.”

With the season’s return such an unknown, I wondered what Pelinka made of his first NBA campaign with final decision-making power. He hired Frank Vogel and his staff and shaped the roster that has L.A. 5.5 games up on the Clippers in the West and was clicking quite impressively when the season was suspended.

“When the suspension came in, we were in first place and I look at it I guess with schools being cancelled – my kids are 12 and 10 so I've got school on my mind with all the professor teaching I'm doing and history reports – but it's almost like I look at our season like a series of tests, and we got a lot of As. And we got some A pluses and some A-minuses. And I think there has been a lot of success in that.”

But they have not, of course, had a chance to take the final exam. They want to finish what they’ve started.

On a personal level, Pelinka’s been able to stay connected with what’s happening in part because his wife is a physician. He’s also drawn help from the team’s partnership with UCLA Health that “keeps us so close to what’s going on in our city.”

It’s certainly been difficult not to have among his closest friends, Kobe Bryant, during this time, especially with the pain from Kobe’s passing still so incredibly present. Kobe would often say that the trials of life is where greatness is forged, and while it’s been a really tough year in the NBA from the situation in China to Kobe and now COVID-19.

“In a time like this, a friend like Kobe is especially missed,” said Pelinka. “If you were on a night’s journey with him and a huge fire-breathing dragon ended up in the pathway ahead he would say, ‘OK, this is why this is good right now. We’re going to meet this challenge and here’s how we’re going to get around it and here’s how we’re going to defeat it.’ That was just his nature, is that obstacles or hard times would lead somehow to growth and I think that’s the way I’m going to look at 2020 not just in terms of the loss of Kobe but just in general, I think some of these hard times we’ll have to grow through to get stronger because of them and just hold on to the future hope.”

We just learned that Kobe was elected into the Hall of Fame, a bittersweet moment for Pelinka.

“It was a moment that was full of mixed emotion,” he said. “I think all of us are heartbroken that he couldn’t be there to receive that moment in person. But I have a level of confidence he’s with us in spirit and still is celebrating that.

“He was one of the players I think that led the charge of really reaching out to all-time greats to try to collect wisdom and advice from them,” detailed Pelinka. “I think back to him reaching out to Hakeem Olajuwon to have a footwork workout with him, or the countless conversations with Michael that have been chronicled so well over the past few weeks to Lakers legacy and history with Magic. He was one of the first players, I think, to really, really tap in to getting knowledge from the all-time greats and to be inspired by them. And to think now that a part of him will live in the Hall of Fame, a part of his spirit will always be there, the inspiration flips I think from those type of players inspiring him to now him being an inspiration to all of them and to all of us.”

Pelinka has been known to weave a story or two into his press sessions, so let’s leave it with this one:

"One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is just the role of sports in all of this. There’s a quote that I have on my desk from Nelson Mandela that I look at every morning and it gives me hope. He says sports has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in the way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. Right now first and foremost for all of us around the world is everyone’s health and safety. I think people have taken extraordinary measures to smooth and flatten the curve of COVID-19. We’re starting to see some numbers that hopefully are showing some success there. While that’s happening, of course our thoughts and prayers are with those around the world that are in cities that are having the hardest times. We certainly hope that at some point as Mr. Mandela says that sports can come back and be a beacon of hope to get all of us through this. I think we all need it, we all want it. It does bring hope to us. When the government health officials, the leagues, feel like it’s safe for our fans and safe for our players. We look for that platform that hopefully will be a part of the healing that’s gonna be needed as a result of everything we’re all going through."

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