When things were at their most difficult and trying during 100-plus days inside the NBA bubble, Rob Pelinka said he often heard Kobe Bryant's voice in his head telling him to "stay the course" and "finish the task."
After the Los Angeles Lakers returned to the top by winning the franchise's 17th championship Sunday night, Pelinka looked toward the ceiling during his postgame interview session and got emotional thinking about his best friend.
"When I took the job, I remember he said, 'Hey, I know what you did for me for 20 years,'" said the Lakers vice president of basketball operations and GM, who used to be Bryant's agent. "He said, 'I'll give you two, three years, you'll fix this. You'll get the Lakers back on top.'"
Looking up, Pelinka got choked up as he uttered a message to his longtime friend.
"I guess you were right, man," Pelinka said. "You give me the energy to do it."
Vanessa Bryant posted a picture of Pelinka and Bryant on her Instagram story with the words, "Congratulations Uncle P! Congratulations @lakers Kobe was right, RP! 'Stay the course blockout the noise.'
"Wish Kobe and Gigi were here to see this."
From top to bottom, the Lakers franchise was devastated when Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles in January. But few, if any, were as close to the Bryant family as Pelinka. Pelinka spoke daily to Bryant, his best friend, and was Gianna's godfather.
He had described losing them as "an amputation of part of my soul."
"2020 has been a tragic and very difficult year in many ways, with what happened on Jan. 26," Pelinka said. "And I think Kobe and Gianna have guided this team the entire year. Kobe's voice is always in my head, always, every day, every minute. And I think to be able to -- for LeBron [James], Anthony [Davis], Coach [Frank] Vogel, myself and for Jeanie [Buss], for us to be able to win this championship doesn't take away the sting of the loss, but what it does is it helps us add to their legacy."
Pelinka joined the Lakers as GM with Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations in 2017. The two signed James as a free agent in 2018. But in April 2019, Johnson rocked the franchise by shockingly stepping down, later saying that he was tired of the "backstabbing" by Pelinka.
Pelinka took a lot of heat prior to trading for Davis in June 2019. But he never responded to any of Johnson's accusations, and he and Johnson eventually kept in frequent touch. After the Lakers beat the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to win the championship Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Pelinka called Johnson.
"I still have such gratitude for the two seasons I got to work with Earvin," Pelinka said. "And he's definitely a part of tonight with his vision and working side by side. He's an unbelievable person, and we have a great, incredibly strong relationship. He was one of the first calls tonight. Had a great talk with him.
"But I think what I have learned in life is the hard times or the trials is when you grow, and you turn to your faith, you turn to your family, your loved ones, and more than anything else, I think the lesson that all of us on the inside know is you've got to just be about the work."
Johnson tweeted: "Rob Pelinka really made me feel good tonight reaching out after the Lakers won the NBA Championship. It means the world to me because I know he's in the middle of celebrating with all of the Lakers players, coaches, and Jeanie Buss he didn't have to!"
Pelinka said it was "hard for me to take any personal credit."
"There's so many amazing people," Pelinka said. "From Jeanie at the top to Frank Vogel to other people in the basketball operations department, to our captains. I'm just grateful to be along for the ride and really, my work is mostly done for other people. I'm excited about Jeanie's success, LeBron's success, Anthony Davis' success, Frank Vogel's.
"I don't tend to work for myself, so it's hard for me to get caught up in personal validation. That's not something that really drives me. It's more doing great work to help other people succeed and that's what I was able to do for Kobe and the other players I represented. And to be able to do that here, is more just what fuels me and energizes me."
Pelinka will remain busy this offseason with Davis probably opting out of his contract and becoming a free agent. James, who has two years left on his deal, is eligible for an extension. Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard and Dion Waiters are free agents. And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo all have a player option for 2020-21, according to a report by ESPN's Bobby Marks.
For now, Pelinka will enjoy helping lead the Lakers back to another championship after going through incredibly difficult times, none more heartbreaking than losing Kobe and Gianna.
"There would be times in my hotel room here, when you're in a bubble for a hundred days, it's tough," Pelinka said. "There would be times in the middle of the night, I would hear his voice: 'Stay the course. Finish the task.' To be able to have a friend who changed my life, and helped me understand what greatness was about and sacrifice was about, there's not many greater gifts. To be able to share this moment right now, knowing that he and Gianna are looking down from heaven, and I know he's a proud friend -- I know he is."
"Kobe and Gianna's legacy will last forever," Pelinka added. "It will impact lives around the world in positive ways, and this championship and this Lakers championship in 2020 is partly to build on that legacy and honor them, and for us to be able to do that, the moment couldn't be any more special to do that for them."
Information from ESPN's Dave McMenamin was used in this report.