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Magic Johnson explains his abrupt resignation from Lakers

Franchise icon accuses Lakers GM Rob Pelinka of betraying him

Before the Los Angeles Lakers’ final game of the 2018-19 season, Magic Johnson stunned the team and the NBA world at large by stepping down as the team’s president of basketball operations. More than a month later, Johnson appeared on ESPN and said that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was the one who was “backstabbing” him.

Johnson did not hold back on “First Take” this morning, saying that Pelinka had circulated talk within the Lakers that Johnson was not working hard or showing up at the office enough. Upon stepping down from his role on April 9, Johnson alluded to the fact he was tired of “all the backstabbing” and “whispering” going on within the Lakers organization.

The Lakers hired Johnson and Pelinka within weeks of each other in the spring of 2017. In his interview Monday on “First Take,” Johnson said he and Pelinka worked well initially as they sought to clear the Lakers’ salary cap situation through a series of trades to collect future assets. However, Johnson said he soon started hearing talk questioning his work ethic.

“Things got going in the right direction. And then I start hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So people around the Lakers office was telling me Rob was saying things. And I didn’t like those things being said behind my back,” Johnson said. “That I wasn’t in the office enough and on and on. So I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball and those things were said to them outside of basketball. Now it’s in the media and so on.”

“If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob,” Johnson said later in the interview.

On Monday afternoon, the Lakers officially announced the hiring of new coach Frank Vogel at a news conference. Pelinka addressed Johnson’s comments, saying he spoke to Johnson two days ago about the NBA Draft combine and the Lakers’ No. 4 pick in the 2019 Draft.

“These things are surprising to hear and disheartening. … They’re just simply not true,” Pelinka said. “I stand beside him. I stand with him as a colleague and a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to.”

Pelinka said he plans to talk to Johnson eventually and said his claims today are “simply not true.” Additionally, Pelinka said that Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has eliminated the position of president of basketball operations. Pelinka will now run the basketball operations as general manager and when it comes to basketball decisions, those are made in collaboration with the staff. A recommendation is then made to Buss who then “blesses that or not.”

Johnson said he was also upset by two other events during his tenure: not being able to fire former coach Luke Walton when he wanted and Tim Harris, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations/NBA alternate governor, becoming too involved in basketball-related decisions.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “We had three meetings [and] I showed [Lakers owner Jeanie Buss] the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. I said, ‘listen, we gotta get a better coach. I like him, he’s great, former Laker the whole thing.’ The first day, ‘well, let’s think about it.’ The second day, ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then, the next day, ‘we should try to work it out.’

We went back and forth like that, then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting. … Tim wanted to keep him because he was friends with Luke. When I looked up and said ‘wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeanie Buss. Now, I got Tim involved.’ I said, ‘it’s time for me to go.’ I’ve got things happening that were being said behind my back. I don’t have the power that I thought I had to make decisions.

“I told them, when it’s not fun for me, when I think that I don’t have the decision-making power that I thought I had, then I’ve got to step aside.”

Johnson added that he tried to also help Joey Buss (the team’s co-owner and the team president of the South Bay Lakers) and Jesse Buss (co-owner/director of scouting and assistant GM) find ways to move up in the Lakers’ front office hierarchy. However, he also said there are too many people providing input on decisions for the Lakers, which is hampering Jeanie Buss.

“I didn’t like that Tim Harris was too involved in basketball. He’s supposed to run the Lakers business, but he was trying to come over to our side,” Johnson said. “Jeanie’s gotta stop that. You’ve got to stop people from having those voices. It’s too many people at the table. What happens is everybody gets to share their opinion and it’s so much information coming at her, then when I say ‘hey, we have to do this,’ she can’t make a decision because they said ‘no, don’t go the way Magic go. You should go left instead of going right.’ Her love for those people and respect for those people often caused us to not make the right choice or there’s no decision. I said, ‘listen, you can’t run a corporation like this.’

“You can’t have everybody think that they can have a voice or an opinion about the final decision. That was supposed to be me as the president, having that final say.”

When asked about who else backstabbed him, Johnson would only name Pelinka.

“Just Rob,” Johnson said. “Other people didn’t bother me… what happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I got to work beside you, knowing that you want my position.”

Last summer, Johnson was a key figure in the Lakers’ recruitment of LeBron James and remains a proud supporter of former No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball. Yet Johnson and the Lakers’ front office faced scrutiny for their other moves, including the role players they signed around James, their inability to acquire Anthony Davis at the trade deadline, and the emergence of former Laker D’Angelo Russell after being dealt to Brooklyn in 2017.

Regarding the trade attempt for Davis, Johnson said the former New Orleans Pelicans GM leaked particulars of trades to the media while the sides were negotiating.

“I told Dell Demps, let’s do it in private,” Johnson said. “What we offer, let’s keep it between us. Well, Dell didn’t do that. So that’s how it got out.”

Johnson, who will turn 60 in August, also has many thriving business interests along with ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles FC. He remains confident that James will succeed in leading the Lakers to a championship after the team missed the playoffs this season.

“It’s gonna happen. Just like me going back to my business and doing what I’m doing, LeBron’s gonna win that ‘chip,” Johnson said. “He’s gonna be in that room recruiting. It’s gotta be Jeanie, LeBron and Rob and probably [new coach] Frank [Vogel], that’s it.”

Johnson was hired along with Pelinka when Buss dismissed her brother, Jim, and GM Mitch Kupchak just 27 months ago. The Buss children’s father, Jerry, had long envisioned Johnson in a powerful role in the Lakers’ front office, and Jeanie put Magic in charge of shaking up her storied franchise in decline.

The Lakers compiled their best record in six years this season, but were eliminated from playoff contention by Russell in a March 22 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Los Angeles had never missed the playoffs in more than two consecutive seasons before this six-year drought.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.