Apr 8, 2020
Dave McMenaminESPN Staff Writer
- Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
- Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.
Before the NBA shut down four weeks ago in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the only thing more impressive for the Los Angeles Lakers than their No. 1 record in the Western Conference was their team camaraderie.
They were a team that went to dinners together, attended one another’s charitable events on off nights and dressed up for LeBron James‘ Halloween party.
Although Lakers players were placed into a 14-day, self-isolation period after two unnamed players tested positive for COVID-19 and the team continues to practice social distancing through the government-mandated April 30 time frame, it’s no surprise they’re trying to come together while being physically apart.
“For the guys, we work hard with our strength and conditioning staff to make sure they have fitness bundles delivered to them where we can do Zoom workouts,” Rob Pelinka, the team’s vice president of basketball operations and general manager, said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. “This is a team that just loved being together, whether it was on the bench, on the bus, in the locker room. These guys just have a great chemistry of being together. So they’ve tried to stay as connected as possible in the ways they can, working out together virtually.”
Pelinka took advantage of the technology, as well, conducting the call over Zoom — a video-conferencing service — with about a dozen reporters who regularly cover his team.
The Lakers’ executive — who said he keeps a quote from Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, on his desk: “Sport has the power to change the world” — thinks that resuming the NBA season could bring people around the globe together once the coronavirus crisis is contained.
Pelinka, who was Kobe Bryant’s longtime agent before he worked for the Lakers and was the godfather of Bryant’s daughter Gianna, said the organization could benefit from a little Mamba Mentality right now.
“I have to believe these hard things will be redeemed. That’s just the way I live because I think that in a time like this, a friend like Kobe is especially missed,” Pelinka said. “If you were on a night’s journey with him, and a huge, fire-breathing dragon ended up in the pathway ahead, he would say, ‘OK, this is why this is good right now. We’re going to meet this challenge, and here’s how we’re going to get around it, and here’s how we’re going to defeat it.'”
Despite all the challenges that exist, Pelinka can’t help but be optimistic.
“I think all of us right now have to live with hope, and we have to live with faith and trust and courage and those attributes because it’s a really, really hard and dark time for the world,” Pelinka said. “And so I’m going to choose to fix most of my thoughts on that we will have a chance to finish the season. I think that would be a great thing for us.
“But we also know that this situation is so much bigger than basketball. The reason I have that hope is not for personal accomplishment. Just it’s more that I think it could be the best thing for the world — going back to that Nelson Mandela quote, I think sports can really be powerful.”
Still, Pelinka recognizes that putting the wheels in motion to play games again — be it with no fans or gathering all the teams in one location, like Major League Baseball is proposing to do in Arizona — is premature right now.
“I think all of us hope that we get to May and there will be more information and clearer information,” he said. “We’ll put the health of the world and our fans and our players first and foremost, but hopefully, once we get past this initial phase, where we’re all putting in these efforts to flatten the curve, if we see success there, hopefully it will get to a place where we can see more definitively what those plans might look like. But I think it’s too early to know.”
If returning to the court to salvage the 2019-20 season proves to be impossible, Pelinka said he will still feel some sense of accomplishment regarding the Lakers’ campaign.
“It’s almost like I look at our season like a series of tests, and we got a lot of As. And we got some A-pluses and some A-minuses. And I think there has been a lot of success in that,” he said. “We haven’t had the chance to take a final exam yet. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to celebrate the As that we’ve gotten so far.”
Pelinka kept basketball in the proper perspective during the nearly 30-minute call.
He reflected on Bryant’s being named to the Naismith Hall of Fame’s 2020 class: “I think all of us are heartbroken that he couldn’t be there to receive that moment in person. But I have a level of confidence he’s with us in spirit and still is celebrating that.”
Pelinka spoke in reverent tones about his wife, Dr. Kristin Pelinka, who is a physician, and the medical community combating the coronavirus: “Just to hear the conversations that the doctors are having, it’s really incredible, it’s inspiring to know that all of them first and foremost are concerned about the health of other people.”
He recognized that COVID-19 can still be stigmatized and respected the anonymity of his players who contracted it: “The only people at the Lakers that know about the identity of the individual players are the two players who tested positive and our team doctor. And that was just the protocol that we had set up.”
Finally, he embraced being part of the Lakers’ top brass who will voluntarily defer 20% of their salaries to protect lesser-income employees in this unsettled economy: “Anything I can do to be a part of an initiative that allows people to keep their jobs during crisis and hard times, I’ll be a part of that.”