Magic Johnson on Monday laid bare just how rocky his relationship with the Lakers was at the end of his tenure as team president, confirming many of the rumors that emerged after he abruptly resigned in early April, in what amounted to a thorough dismantling of his former team on ESPN's "First Take."
Not only did Johnson say that he was referring to general manager Rob Pelinka when the franchise icon discussed being backstabbed, but also Johnson felt his power had been undercut by others in the Lakers hierarchy, including owner Jeanie Buss.
Johnson recalled his initial talks with Buss about returning to the management team of a franchise he helped return to glory in the 1990s.
"When we sat down and negotiated, I told her, “Look, I can’t give up all of my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers. You know I’m going to be in and out. Are you going to be OK with that?' She said yes," Johnson recalled. "I said, 'Do I have the power to make decisions?' Because that was important to take the job as well. She said, ‘You have the power to make decisions.'"
Johnson said agents called him to warn him about Pelinka, but he said that he decided to give the GM "a fair shot."
After he and Pelinka embarked on a rebuilding job that included getting under the salary cap, dealing D'Angelo Russell and drafting players such as Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball, Johnson said, "Things were going in the right direction."
It didn't take long, however, for things to run astray, Johnson said, because of things Pelinka was saying about him purportedly behind his back and eventually outside the Lakers' offices.
“I started hearing, ‘Magic's not working hard enough,’ ‘Magic’s not in the office.’ People around the Laker office were telling me Rob was saying things and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back. … I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball saying those things were said to them ouside of basketball, now not just in the Laker office. Now it’s in the media and so on.”
With turmoil — and losses — mounting this season, Johnson said he reached a point where he felt the Lakers needed to go in a different direction, leading to a situation with then-coach Luke Walton that Johnson described as "the straw that broke the camel's back" in his tenure.
"I wanted to fire Luke Walton. We had three meetings. I showed (Buss) the things he did well and then 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. So, the first day: ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ The second day: ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then the next day: ‘No, we should try to work it out.’
"So when we went back and forth like that and then she brought (Lakers COO) Tim Harris to the meeting … and Tim wanted to keep him because he’s friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy, great guy. So when I looked up and said, ‘Wait a minute. I only really answer to Jeanie Buss and now I’ve got Tim involved. I said, 'It’s time for me to go.’
"I’ve got things happening, that’s being said behind my back, and I don’t have the power that I thought I had to make the decisions. And I (had) told them, 'When it’s not fun for me and when I think I don’t have the decision-making power I thought I had, then I gotta step aside.”
Catching many in the organization — most notably superstar LeBron James, who had signed with the team in the offseason — by surprise, Johnson abruptly resigned on April 9, at the time saying merely that working the job didn't allow him to be himself.
On Monday, Johnson was more pointed. He wondered aloud about Pelinka's alleged behavior, primarily because Johnson said he told the GM that he planned to serve as team president for only three years, presumably clearing the way for Pelinka to ascend to that position.
"If you want to elevate yourself, I'm all for that," Johnson said. "But there's a way to get that, and it's not talking about the person that's above you."
After Johnson's departure, the Lakers announced they would not fill the position that Johnson left. Walton was fired and the team eventually hired former Pacers and Magic coach Frank Vogel to replace him.
Watch the entire nearly hourlong Magic Johnson interview on Monday's "First Take" below: