How Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka has guided team through Kobe and Gianna Bryant tragedy

LOS ANGELES – As he stood at center court during a recent practice, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka appeared to be juggling varying emotions.

Pelinka smiled with stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis after it appeared one of them made a joke. Later, Pelinka looked serious as he spoke with coach Frank Vogel. When he stood by himself off to the side of the court, Pelinka appeared forlorn.

Pelinka showed all the conflicting feelings this city and the Lakers franchise have wrestled with in the past month.

Pelinka is trying to help heal a Lakers franchise grieving over the unexpected death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. But he's also working to process his personal anguish over losing a former client – Pelinka served as Bryant's agent before he moved into his role with the Lakers – and best friend  and his goddaughter.

“I have the utmost respect for how he has handled it,” Vogel said of Pelinka. “He has shown an incredible strength in leadership.”

Pelinka has declined interviews. James has declined to talk in-depth about Bryant out of respect for his family. And Davis declined to answer how Pelinka has helped the team handle a difficult month. Accounts suggest, though, that Pelinka has become a source of comfort within the organization. 

“His way of helping is coming in and being positive every single day,” forward Avery Bradley told USA TODAY Sports. "With him being positive, it makes us a little happier. It helps us be comfortable about everything going on when we’re seeing a smile on Rob’s face.”

Pelinka became close to Bryant when he became his agent in 2003. Then, Bryant recalled he and Pelinka played a game imagining where each other would be in 20 years.

“It's just like a pie in the sky thing where I’m like, ‘Yo, I love storytelling.’ Can you imagine winning an Oscar, how ridiculous that would be?” Bryant said in his sit-down interview with USA TODAY Sports last month. “Then he’s like, ‘Can you imagine being the GM of the Lakers. How ridiculous that would be?’ ”

Shortly after Pelinka was named general manager and Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short "Dear Basketball," their families vacationed in Mexico and laughed about the whole incident.

Pelinka did not seem surprised with how Bryant transitioned from his NBA career.

“I knew that Kobe’s life after basketball would be driven by one word – curiosity,” Pelinka wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports as part of an interview last month about Bryant's post-NBA career. “Like most utter geniuses, Kobe has an insatiable desire to learn, grow and conquer. I knew that in whatever endeavor that manifested itself, Kobe would find incredible achievement.”

Kobe Bryant with then-agent Rob Pelinka in 2016. (Photo: Richard Mackson, USA TODAY Sports)

Pelinka gushed about seeing Bryant coach Gianna. Pelinka had watched Team Mamba games and had coached his 11-year-old son Durham’s team in occasional games against Bryant’s team.

“It’s truly one of my favorite things,” Pelinka wrote. “I often get asked, ‘What is your proudest accomplishment of Kobe’s career?' And I know without a doubt my answer is being one of his best friends for the incredible journey of watching his family unfold into what it is today.”

Four days after the crash, Pelinka said in a statement that “there has been an amputation of part of my soul” before expressing empathy for Bryant’s wife Vanessa and three other daughters, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 8 months. Pelinka added, “what I am daily learning is that after the tragic loss of these nine souls, life on this side of eternity will never be the same.”

Two days later, Pelinka spoke in front of the ’ coaching staff and players at the team’s practice facility. He participated in a team lunch where coaches, players and other employees were encouraged to share their grief and stories about Bryant. And during the team's second practice following Kobe and Gianna's deaths, Pelinka stood on the side of an outdoor field across from the Lakers' practice facility to watch the team throw football.

The Lakers have kept details about Pelinka's role private.

It is also unclear if he will be among the speakers when the Lakers host a memorial for Kobe and Gianna on Monday at Staples Center where the Bryant family and countless Lakers and NBA luminaries are expected to attend.

Pelinka has devoted much of his time consoling the Bryant family. He has leaned on his Christian faith. And he has still attended Lakers practices and games regularly.

“He’s still coming in to do the job,” Vogel said of Pelinka. “Obviously, there is therapy in the work and for him, individually. He has been able to keep the ball rolling, while managing things at home and with Kobe’s family.”

Pelinka has maintained hope partly because of Bryant. Although Bryant said he had zero involvement with the Lakers’ day-to-day operations, he and Pelinka often chatted informally about the team.

That helped last year when Pelinka fielded criticism for not acquiring enough shooters to pair with James during his first season. After Magic Johnson quit abruptly at the end of the season, he accused Pelinka of “backstabbing.” Bryant said he often told Pelinka, “It’s a tough job. If it was easy, anybody could do it.”

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