Getting to Know: Rob Pelinka

On March 7, the Lakers officially named Rob Pelinka their new General Manager, set to work alongside the (nearly-as-new) President of Basketball Operations, Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The two clicked instantly, and in the press release, Johnson cited Pelinka’s “Knowledge of the NBA landscape and the CBA, as well as his relationships with GMs around the league” as invaluable, adding that “Rob is a winner and the Lakers are fortunate to have him.”

So, you may be wondering – just as I was – what Pelinka is like? How might he approach this new job? What about his previous experiences might help him?

We sat down in Pelinka’s office just over a month into his tenure to try and answer those questions, plus discuss how he grew up in basketball, his transition from college player to agent, and then again from head of his own agency to the Lakers.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation:

Mike Trudell: I know your dad was a basketball coach and I have to assume he had a massive influence on how you grew up in the game?
Rob Pelinka:
My dad grew up in the farm country of Minnesota, where he was a coach and also taught auto shop. He tells a story about how he went home and the phone rang, and it was the superintendent at a school in Lake Forest (Ill.) outside of Chicago. He said, ‘We’re trying to hire a basketball coach and an auto shop guy, and we heard your roommate had a good resume.’ (My dad) said, ‘Well my roommate just took a job, but I’m available!’

So he moves from Minnesota to Chicago. What’s funny about the auto shop part is that when I was 2, he welded me this little hoop, I think with auto parts; so he always had a basketball in my hands. He had the mind of a coach. It wasn’t the crazy, fanatic dad that you hear about today, but just always encouraged learning in the sport and playing. I had a lot of fun with it from an early age.

MT: What’s your first memory of when you realized you were a good player that could play Division I?
When I was 10, my dad would bring me to Big Ten games (at nearby Northwestern) against Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State, all the great teams. In 1979, we went to see Michigan State, when everyone was talking about Magic Johnson. And it was like that classic moment from a television commercial where I put my hand out and Magic gave me five. That was a cool moment for me.

And then really in high school, I started having big games and getting recruited by Arizona, Duke, the Big Ten schools like Michigan, Northwestern and Illinois and some of the Ivy League schools. My biggest moment came in an all-star game where it was the suburbs vs. the city, and who’s going to stand out. They were like, ‘Oh he’s just a catch-and-shoot guy who sits in the corner and shoot 3s and has the high GPA, can he really battle in a game like this?’ I ended up having a really big game, and there were a lot of scouts there. That kind of catapulted my recruiting when we won the game.

MT: One of my first internships in college was in Chicago for Fox Sports, where we logged tape of a show that pitted high school basketball teams from Chicago against teams from the suburbs, and of course they used the white “shooter” for the ‘burbs and the “athlete” from the city as a plot line.
It’s interesting, because I grew up in the inner-city basketball circles. My dad was always giving me rides to play, and I always had such a good time. But anytime the suburbs went against the city, there was a pre-labeling of how the game might look and the players might play.

Rob Pelinka looks out over the practice court from his office

MT: So you decide to go to the University of Michigan, and become the only player to be a member of three Final Four teams, including as a National Championship winner in 1988, before the Fab Five came along in 1991. What did you take out of the experience?
We’re in the time of the year coming off March Madness, and you get nostalgic and incredibly grateful that I picked a school that played in three Final Fours. It was an incredible run. To win it my freshman year with Glen Rice and (everybody), and realize the road of excellence it takes to get there was a phenomenal experience.

And then when we recruited the Fab Five class to come in, where we have this model of excellence, can we as upperclassman help them see that and learn it? They had the great talent, and I chose Michigan knowing I’d be playing with great talent. A lot of people ask if it was tough when the Fab Five came in. Not really. I knew it’d be a great team, and I was essentially the sixth man my junior and senior years and played a nice role.

Jalen Rose used to make fun by saying, ‘You hit corner threes and keep the team GPA high, and we’ll be good.’ That was an unbelievable ride, with the culture around basketball and hip-hop; they were really trend setters with the black socks, the baggy shorts, the bald heads, the attitude and the swagger. It was just really cool, and it catapulted well into what I did after that with law school and then representing players just to kind of understand the mindset of a player. What they’re looking for, how they tick, how they function, which of course was a big part of my agent practice.

MT: So in essence, you were training for your job as an agent and for this job just by growing up as you did and staying involved in the game as you did?
Yeah … growing up in the basketball, there’s a vernacular to it, a culture and learning to it. Adding the layers of law school and business school (as well).

I remember an amazing moment from when we were playing in the Final Four at the Superdome in New Orleans, as we were getting ready to play North Carolina in the National Championship game. We were doing shootaround, and the NCAA had given me an award as the male student athlete of the year for really high grades and success playing sports at that level. The great coach Dean Smith came charging across the court towards us as we were walking off, and I figured, oh, ‘He must be trying to get ahold of Chris Webber to say hello or something.’ He actually grabbed me in front of the guys, and said, ‘What you’ve done is what the NCAA is all about. You excel in the classroom and you’re competing for the highest award, to win the championship. I’m very proud of how you’ve approached it.’ I was like, ‘Wow,’ a lightning-bolt moment.

I remember getting on the bus afterwards, and there were lots of NBA agents. Chris Webber asked what he thought I’d do after basketball and law school and stuff. I looked at all the agents being pushy and trying to give business cards, and I thought, “Definitely not one of those guys!” Sometimes you have to laugh at yourself. But my playing experience plus law school and business school really prepared me for the representation side, to dive deeper into the CBA, negotiating, building a brand and the other work that agents do.

MT: I hope I’m not mischaracterizing being an agent, but how are you enjoying being back in more of a team structure?
Well I think by definition, to your point, Mike, an agent is representing an individual and trying to maximize that individual’s brand and earning capabilities. This is building the Lakers as a community. It’s a unit of folks. It’s a team. It is a different approach.

As much as people want to say, ‘Oh the front office positions are ones of leadership,’ I’ve said before that for Magic and me, this is a position of service. We have to serve our player community so that they can become the best versions of themselves. We have to serve the fans, we have to serve the agent community and media community, and just do a good job. This Lakers brand can inspire so many people when things are going the way they can here. It’s a huge responsibility, and it is different from representing an individual. You see that when you come to work every day; there’s more of a team environment in a lot of the meetings, goals and things we discuss. The team approach that the players have on the court we have to have in the front office, and I see those things flowing together.

MT: So you now have a clear and singular thing to root for – the success of the Lakers, as opposed to varying on- or off-court interests for specific players…
By definition, if you’re into sports, you can choose an individual sport like golf or tennis, or a team sport. I’m not trying to put a team sport ahead of an individual sport, but just the way I’m wired, I think accomplishing something with a group of people is the highest and most meaningful level. In some way, we’re all kind of built for family community, friend community, and achievement with others is a really cool thing. That’s what fires us up to work so hard together, and to make sure the guys on the court, the players, are feeling the same way.

Magic Johnson sits alongside Rob Pelinka during his introductory press conference

MT: This may be a nature vs. nurture question, but what of all your experiences do you think will make you good at this job, in accordance with your personality traits?
Thankfully my parents raised me to try to pursue excellence really centered around education, basketball and family faith. It wasn’t just: ‘sit back and wait to be blessed.’ I learned early on (that) if you’re going to approach something, to approach it with everything you have. Along the way you meet people like Earvin Johnson, like Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss. You see it’s other people that have pursued excellence and you see the fruits of their life, and they become muses or an inspiration.

The hope that doing this job well, and having the team win, is that all of us here can have that effect on the next generation of people that have these positions of influence. But I think it was that early messaging from my mom and dad of using your gifts and pursuing excellence that was probably the biggest thing.

MT: So that fits with what you said at the press conference about Magic, where you clicked right away, since you seem to share that approach?
I say all the time, ‘Words only mean so much.’ It’s the follow-up actions. You can say that I want to pursue excellence, or be a hardworking player, or be a good defender. But your actions in proving that is what matters most. So, yes, I knew in my head that I had to follow that mantra.

But then I had to put in the work of: How do you get a 3.9 in college when you’re playing basketball and traveling all over and missing class? You have to be on it. How do you go to a top law school and graduate cum laude? You have to be disciplined to your books. How do you start an agency and work with some of the best players in the world? You have to want it bad, and you’ve gotta put in the work. How do you go to a Lakers platform and partner with Magic and ownership and get this place back to the standard Dr. Buss set for it? You have to put in extraordinary, smart work. So that thread kind of runs through the narrative.

MT: How do you also balance that thread with the rest of your life outside of work, such as your family?
If you’re pursuing excellence, it’s not just in being the Lakers GM, it’s also in being a dad and a husband and a friend, and a brother and a son. In taking a job that’s very demanding and consuming, I remember Earvin and Jeanie just saying, ‘We want extraordinarily hard-working people here, but we also want balanced people. Because everything shows that people who are balanced are more effective in the workplace. Workaholism can lead you to a destructive place. Knowing that you’re working with like-minded visionaries that understand that a balanced life is going to make you a better assistant coach or scout or player or whatever it is. Yes, you can be maniacal and obsessed with your craft, but you can still be a good dad.

MT: As part of achieving balance, one could assume you’d want to delegate a certain amount to people you trust. You’ve said that you want to evaluate every part of the basketball operations department to see what you’re doing well, and what could get better, and then address it. Do you know how that may play out?
(Lakers C.O.O./Sr. V.P. of Business Operations) Tim Harris has charged everyone with this whole concept of Lakers 2.0, and I think moving into the Lakers UCLA Health Training Center is a nice moment in time to think, ‘As we go into this next era, what is our DNA, what is our mindset, what is our mentality?’ And it’s making sure that everyone here buys into that philosophy.

It’s just like building a team on the court. We have to build a team and grow the team as an organization to make sure that we function well together. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s the same. A Swiss Army knife has many different parts that function together, but you have to make sure each part is good. The knife has to be sharp, the saw has to cut well, the scissors have to clip, the can opener has to work. The guiding principle is the one we’ve been talking about: people committing to excellence.

MT: Which brings us to Kobe. What did you learn from him the most through years of a professional relationship and a personal friendship?
Listen, first of all, there are people like Magic and Kobe where you can’t ever compare yourself to them because they’re .000001 percenters. I said in the press conference: You have the greatest players in the history of the universe, and Kobe and Magic are certainly in that conversation. You can go down the list of the true geniuses (in any profession) and you can’t really compare yourself to those folks. But 18 years of working with Kobe and hopefully many, many years of working with Earvin (to come), and I think those people do rub off on your character.

To your point, Kobe was obsessed with the sport of basketball and his performance, and I lived that with him. I learned what that really means to be truly obsessed with greatness in your craft from one of the great teachers of that in our era. So of course, you take bits and pieces and incorporate that into your life.

And now having exposure to Earvin, who as a business leader has that same level of obsession towards greatness. I just feel blessed I’ve had the opportunity to have two mentors like that in my life.

Earvin Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and Kobe Bryant chat before Pelinka's introductory press conference

MT: Magic may be known more for the smile and Kobe a glare on the court, but you know them more deeply than that simplification, of course…
Kobe and Magic are both so multidimensional that I think it’s hard to put them in one lane, like, ‘He’s the serious one.’ When you get to see Kobe the husband, Kobe the dad, Kobe the friend, you see a fuller side to the person. Same with Magic. You see him as the point guard of the Lakers, the philanthropic business builder and leader, but now to see him functioning in a day-to-day office environment where he’s so amazing with all the employees … just how gifted he is to understand people and how they think and galvanize the team. You see the nuances and the subtleties of a personality that you don’t see if you’re just watching games on TV.

MT: Looking at the current roster, do you know yet how to approach things? As in, how do you weigh trying to make a move to get a “star” ASAP vs. letting the young core more fully develop? Adding to it with trades, free agency and the draft, plus letting certain contracts expire? Is there a general philosophy or do you simply have to see what is available at first and then move from there?
The most important thing is that when there is extraordinary success, you can get to a place in life where you rest on that success. I think all of us – Luke, Magic, myself, Jeanie – feel like there’s a little bit of a sort of casualness that has crept in. Like, we’re done all these great things, so maybe we don’t have to outwork everyone else, or out-hustle everyone else, or have a greater version than everyone else.

So I think we’ve all gotten to that point where we say, ‘OK, we’re blowing up any of those notions and we’re going to bring back a new mentality … which is … what does it mean to put on the purple and gold Lakers jersey? What sense of pride is there? What am I signing up for when I do this?’ When I get out my keycard in the morning, I think, ‘What does that mean for this day?’ This is a position of responsibility for one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. What responsibility do I have to this day and to this moment? And I think bringing that back, all of us, to the players and the fans is one of the first things we’re working on.

And then to the specifics to team building, there are a lot of uncertainties. Do we have our draft pick in June, or do we not? What free agents do extensions? What free agents become true free agents? What players from other teams are teams going to think about trading? There are millions and millions of combinations. It’s almost like a Rubik’s Cube. If you’re trying to solve it, there are many different combinations and turns you could make to get to the end path. You have to really study that board hard and make all the right turns to get there, but there is likely more than one way to get to the end.

But you have to stay focused, and keep turning and looking at it like a chess game, keep moving the pieces around the board knowing what the goal is. The goal is to win a championship and we’re going to do everything we can to bring that probability here again. But to articulate and say ‘Here’s step one, step two and all the way to 10’ is just impossible.

MT: Lakers fans have been treated to almost unparalleled success for so many years that expectation was understandably raised, and these past few years of losing have certainly been difficult. How do you balance liking that high standard vs. understanding that young players need time to develop?
I’m glad that Laker fans every year have an expectation of championship. I wouldn’t want it to be anything else. That’s great. It just shows how passionate our fans our, how much they care, and that we have a huge responsibility. But then again on the practical side, you know that winning a championship every year for 20 years straight has never been done and probably will never be done in sports history.

There is a process of building, and moves that are made, stages to building a house. There’s drawing up the blueprint, then laying the foundation, and (so on). We feel like we are doing that, and we’ll get to a point of completion. I think the most important thing is not to say hey, ‘On day 333 of the plan, here’s exactly what’s going to happen,’ because none of us know. But the one thing we do know is today and tomorrow we can maximize our commitment to making sure we’re getting closer to that ultimate goal, which is winning a championship. Every day you have to put all that you have into that, and then eventually, it’s going to happen.

MT: Last thing: how have things been for you personally since this started just a short while ago?
The process has been really incredible. I think in terms of moving on from the previous career, all the guys were really excited about the opportunity, and after 20 years, felt like it was really a great next chapter. So the reception there was great. And I think the thing that has been such a pleasant surprise here is that it feels like there’s a team of people that are really excited about what’s happening right now.

There’s a lot of hope and care that’s building, and we can feel it internally. I know that won’t manifest itself until it’s win, win, win on the court, and I understand that’s the barometer. But you can just sense an excitement here, and for me, that’s been something every day. Just kind of waking up early, collecting thoughts for the day and what you want to try to accomplish … it’s been really fun and has ignited a new journey for me, which I didn’t see coming. And I’ve just really, really enjoyed it. The challenge has been awesome.