Pat Riley on Magic Johnson: 'He's going to speak his mind'

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Magic accuses Pelinka of 'backstabbing' (2:11)

Magic Johnson says Rob Pelinka was the person to whom he was referring with his "backstabbing" comments when he resigned from the Lakers. (2:11)

As an official alumnus of the Lakers "family," Pat Riley doesn't qualify as merely a bystander when Earvin "Magic" Johnson plops himself down on the set of ESPN's First Take and sends tremors throughout Los Angeles by confirming he was talking about former associate Rob Pelinka when he referenced the "backstabbing" that went on during his brief tenure as Lakers president.

"I started hearing, 'Magic, you're not working hard enough. Magic's not in the office,'" Johnson told hosts Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman. "People around the Lakers office were telling me Rob was saying things, and I didn't like hearing those things being said behind my back."

Riley and Magic won five championships together under the ownership of Jerry Buss, the father of current owner Jeanie Buss. It was the springboard of a long and illustrious career for Riley, who remains forever linked both to the Buss family and to Magic.

"Surprised by his comments? No, not at all," Riley told ESPN on Monday afternoon. "I'll tell you about Earvin -- and it's what I love about him, but also what I have cautioned him about -- he's going to speak his mind. If that's how he felt, that's how he felt.

"He's not going to leave a hanging curveball out there about backstabbing and whispering. He manned up today. That's who 'Buck' is. He would never tolerate that. He never has tolerated that."

In his First Take interview, Johnson eviscerated Pelinka, the team's general manager, pointing the finger at him as a divisive force in the front office.

"What happened was, I wasn't having fun coming to work anymore, especially when I've got to work beside you, knowing you want my position," Johnson said. "And I'm OK with that. Because this is what happened: I told [Pelinka] in Year 2, 'I'm only going to be here three years. So, my job, Rob, is to get you ready for this position.'

"I was going to help elevate him to the president's position. When all this was coming back to me, guys were calling me saying, 'You better watch out for him.' What was crazy was when I took the job, do you know how many agents called me and said, 'You better watch out for Pelinka'?"

Riley made it clear that though he respects Johnson's right to speak his mind, he doesn't concur with Magic's distrust of Pelinka, adding, "I've never had a problem with Rob."

"But this kind of s--- goes on in organizations every day," Riley says. "The organization gets too big, there are too many people who have been around a long time, and they start voicing their opinion about things, and that's when the culture starts to crack.

"Maybe Earvin's honesty will do something to get [the Lakers] thinking."

There were murmurs that Jeanie Buss, whose blueprint has been to surround herself with people her father knew and trusted, had reached out to Riley in an attempt to coax him back to the West Coast in some front-office capacity. Riley shot down that notion on Monday.

"I have thought [about returning to the Lakers] only from a sentimental standpoint," Riley said. "But I was never pursued by them. Nobody officially contacted me. I have about 20 friends wishing I would come back, but nobody asked.

"They had Magic. When you are in the position that Earvin was in, when you turn over the organization to somebody like him, there's only one person who can say no to you. That's your owner. It's the same for me here in Miami. If [Heat owner] Micky Arison says no, that's it. Now, that doesn't mean I don't have power.

"But when others find a way to gain influence to do this or say that, it gets a little dicey."

Riley said that Johnson's concern for the Lakers is genuine, and that, just like when he was a player, he won't ever hesitate to express his opinion.

Riley recalls a game against the Seattle Supersonics while he was a Lakers assistant during the 1979-80 season, when, as Riley explains it, "Earvin looked over at the bench, and the coach [Paul Westhead] had a certain player on the court that neither Kareem or Earvin wanted out there."

That player was Spencer Haywood, a Hall of Famer who, at the time, was struggling with a horrible cocaine addiction and would eventually be suspended by Westhead during the 1980 playoffs. During this particular regular-season game, the insertion of Haywood corresponded with a 20-point lead quickly evaporating into a four-point deficit.

"At that point," Riley recounts, "Earvin looks to the bench, puts his thumb up and gestures, 'Get this guy out of here.'"

Johnson shocked the Lakers when he abruptly resigned on April 9 without notifying Buss or LeBron James, whom he recruited to Los Angeles to be the centerpiece of a Lakers reclamation project. In a tearful news conference inside the Staples Center, Johnson said the job was no longer enjoyable.

Riley said he's known Jeanie Buss since she was 19 years old and quickly listed her siblings in order.

"When I was there, it was always about Jerry and his kids," Riley said. "What you're seeing is all part of the family growing into the next phase. If they don't feel like anybody [from within] is ready to step in, then you hire someone. But once that happens, everyone has to stay in their own lane."