Magic Johnson snubbed a lot of qualified black GM candidates by choosing Rob Pelinka
Although the NBA vet made a solid choice, he could have given African-American applicants a much-needed chance
As word got out that new Los Angeles Lakers president Magic Johnson quickly hired a general manager that doesn’t look like the former NBA superstar, there was a collective groan from qualified and aspiring NBA general managers who do.
“It’s always done in private and way in advance,” one high-ranking black NBA team executive said. “We got no shot once the news breaks.”
Another high-ranking black NBA team executive said: “I was surprised.”
The Lakers named Johnson president of basketball operations on Tuesday after he returned to the organization as an adviser earlier this month. The team relieved longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss of their duties. In anticipation of Johnson’s reign over the Lakers’ wobbly ship, current NBA general managers and aspiring NBA general managers went through back channels in hopes of getting an interview. Although the Lakers aren’t the Lakers anymore, the rarely available job is always coveted because of the team’s 16 NBA titles and legendary history.
Although the league was 74.5 percent black in 2015, the only black team president was Los Angeles Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers. Currently, the NBA only has three black general managers among 30 teams: New Orleans Pelicans’ Dell Demps, the New York Knicks’ Steve Mills and Nigerian Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors. Just hours after the Johnson news broke, surprising news followed that NBA agent Robert Pelinka, who is white, would soon be hired as the Lakers’ next general manager.
Pelinka represents former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a future Hall of Famer and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Even in early retirement, Bryant still has major influence on the Lakers.
“Los Angeles has always been about hype,” one high-ranking black NBA team executive said. “Kobe obviously had influence in getting Pelinka pushed through the door.”
“I heard that this was coming,” another high-ranking black NBA team executive said. “He has a real connection with Kobe.”
To be fair, Pelinka has a successful background as one of the NBA’s top agents.
The former University of Michigan guard had a star-studded client list composed completely of black players, including NBA All-Star James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Chris Bosh, Avery Bradley, Marquese Chriss, Dante Exum, Channing Frye, Buddy Hield and 2017 NBA 3-point contest champion Eric Gordon. Pelinka has to relinquish his duties at the Landmark Sports Agency, where he became quite familiar with the heralded 2017 NBA draft class. He also received votes of confidence by his now former clients.
“He’ll be unbelievable in that role,” Ariza, a forward for the Houston Rockets, told ESPN’s Calvin Watkins. “He knows basketball. He has a really, really good eye for talent.”
Gordon, a guard for the Rockets, told Watkins: “He’s going to be good. He had a good reputation as an agent and I definitely expect nothing but good things from him. I think he’ll be just fine.”
Pelinka has no previous experience in an NBA front office. His pending hiring by the Lakers has been compared to the Golden State Warriors’ hiring of general manager Bob Myers, who went from agent to front office. However, Myers originally joined the Warriors on April 14, 2011, as assistant general manager/vice president of basketball operations after a 14-year stint as an NBA agent. The former UCLA forward actually worked under then-Warriors general manager Larry Riley during his first season concentrating on contract negotiations, talent evaluation, roster management, scouting and collective bargaining agreement compliance. It was Riley who drafted two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry and NBA All-Star Klay Thompson. But as general manager, Myers guided the Warriors to a 2015 NBA championship, re-signed Thompson and Draymond Green, orchestrated a blockbuster signing of 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant, signed one of his former clients in Andre Iguodala and was the 2015 NBA Executive of the Year.
For Pelinka, there will be no season to be an understudy. And there’s no doubt the Lakers would love to sign some of his former clients, including Harden, who is from Los Angeles.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” one high-ranking black NBA team executive said.
Of the eight high-ranking African-American NBA team executives The Undefeated spoke to, none expressed any malicious intent toward Johnson or Pelinka. But they all said they would have at least appreciated an opportunity to interview for the job. All are more than qualified for the position. But many black assistant general managers and other high-level team executives said they have had a hard time getting consideration for any NBA general manager opening.
“We just want to compete. Guys with practical basketball experience, that’s what it’s about. Don’t give me anything. We just want to compete,” one high-ranking black NBA team executive said.
There are a number of qualified black men who were all snubbed: Oklahoma City Thunder vice president and assistant general manager Troy Weaver, Orlando Magic vice president and assistant general manager Scott Perry, Los Angeles Clippers assistant general manager Gerald Madkins, Utah Jazz vice-president of basketball operations Walt Perrin, New York Knicks director of player personnel Mark Hughes, Philadelphia 76ers vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley, San Antonio Spurs assistant general manager Brian Wright, New Orleans Pelicans director of player personnel David Booth, Sixers vice president of basketball administration Brandon Williams and D-League Westchester Knicks general manager Allan Houston. Former NBA general manager and Hall of Famer Joe Dumars, who won a 2004 NBA championship as a general manager and is a longtime friend of Johnson’s, was not interviewed. There are other black former general managers available, such as Milt Newton, Otis Smith, Ed Tapscott, Billy Knight, Billy King, Lance Blanks and Rod Higgins, who were forgotten as well. All qualified for the job.
Johnson is a highly respected businessman beloved by African-Americans and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The five-time NBA champion is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and has done amazing things from a business and philanthropic standpoint in black communities all over America. Johnson’s failure to interview one qualified black candidate for general manager stung among the ranks.
If Johnson had merely interviewed one or two black general manager candidates, the publicity would have been priceless. Those little-known names and their resumes would have suddenly become more well-known.
But don’t expect these aspiring black general managers to speak out on this matter either. Why? Fear of getting blackballed.
For example, Newton recently spoke to The Undefeated about why minorities in the league have a hard time getting top jobs.
“Those opportunities are few and far in-between,” said Newton. “It’s very rare for a final decision-maker to feel comfortable that a person not like them is capable of running their team.”
One NBA owner was offended by Newton’s comments and believed such talk wouldn’t help him get back into the league, a source said.
“Nothing surprises me in this business,” one high-ranking black NBA team executive said. “Analytic guys getting jobs. Coaches being named executives. Now it’s the agents’ turn. Everyone except the people who have the practical basketball experience are getting shots.”
Said another high-ranking black NBA team executive: “It’s sad. But we’ve been here before.”
There is no “Rooney Rule” in the NBA as there is in the NFL that requires teams to interview candidates of color. But would you expect Johnson — a black man who has done wonders in the African-American community — to need it? That is why not even being considered for the Lakers general manager job hurt several aspiring and qualified black NBA general managers. Who knows if it will ever be “Showtime” for them?