How the Lakers' 'Genius Series' is helping rebuild their winning culture

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Thursday, June 28, 2018

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Seated in comfortable gray leather chairs in the team's state-of-the-art film room, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez and the Los Angeles Lakers are captivated by the scene in front of them.

The speaker at the front of the room is cursing -- a lot -- and begins pounding on the wall. No, this wasn't an irate Luke Walton reprimanding his inexperienced rookies for taking selfish shots, nor was this Magic Johnson trying to fire up his young team with a charismatic speech straight out of the Showtime era.

On this March day, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is holding court at the Lakers' training facility, and Hollywood's biggest action-film star is commanding the Lakers' attention like he once did with sold-out arenas as WWE's biggest and most entertaining draw.

The Rock walks over to the wall between a flat-screen television and a projector screen and places his right hand flat on it before knocking on the wall a couple of times.

Then Johnson rests his muscular back against the wall.

"This is what works for me," Johnson tells everyone of how he starts every morning. "Excuse my language, my back is up against this m-----f----- ... every day. It's against this m-----f----- because that's what I believe in, and when my back is against this m-----f-----, then there's nowhere to go ... but that way."

Johnson points both his index fingers forward, then continues his 30-minute-plus motivational talk, delivering the kind of insight that Fortune 500 companies pay big money to successful personalities to impart upon their leaders and employees. This past season, the Lakers brought in their own All-Star cast of movers and shakers in Johnson, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Hollywood heavyweight Jeffrey Katzenberg and Olympic and world champion sprinter Allyson Felix to share the secrets to their success as part of the "Los Angeles Lakers Genius Series."

Not only did some of the world's brightest help inspire young Lakers such asBrandon Ingram, but the Lakers' brass credits the series with helping transform Kuzma's body and Ball's diet, and even aiding the front office with further identifying the type of winning player the Lakers look to add as they try to return to NBA prominence.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and team president of basketball operations Magic Johnson have been trying to restore the team's culture as they rebuild the roster. The duo sometimes leans on what they refer to as "Lakers DNA" -- core pillars and characteristics they look for in players to add to their rebuild. Among those traits are a high basketball IQ, a healthy obsession with basketball, strong work ethic and habits, and a burning desire to win.

Before the Lakers set out to land superstars like LeBron James and Paul George in free agency in the coming weeks -- superstars who embody all of those traits -- Johnson and Pelinka exposed their young core to some of the most successful individuals on the planet.

"Under any scenario, [the Genius Series] will be a huge, rich benefit for the development of the guys," Pelinka said. "Whether it is getting them ready for when the other star geniuses come [to the Lakers] or becoming that themselves."

After spending two decades around Kobe Bryant as his agent and friend, Pelinka saw how obsessed the Lakers legend was with improving and constantly searching for new ways to find any advantage he could get over his opponent. It was Bryant's curiosity that in part inspired Pelinka to create the Genius Series.

"I remember one time [Bryant] called me and was like, 'Have you ever seen the way a cheetah attacks its prey? Like when it is hunting down a wildebeest?'" Pelinka said. "He said, 'I have really been thinking of ways to creatively change some of my movements and noticed that there was this incredible beauty in how a cheetah uses its tail to balance itself when it jumps in the air.' And he said, 'I have been moving my foot in different ways, almost like the tail of a cheetah, to learn how to have proper balance when I am shooting my fadeaway jumper.'"

Pelinka also wants to see his players develop diverse interests off the court, much like Bryant, who became an Academy Award-winning filmmaker (animated short category) after retiring. It's why the Lakers GM -- who constantly is reading up on what made some of history's most successful figures like Leonardo da Vinci tick -- organized team field trips to Broadway's "Hamilton" and Musk's SpaceX, where Walton and his players were surprised to see how young many of Musk's brightest rocket scientists are.

Musk was asked by one Lakers player what his take is on preparing for his competition.

"Like the mad scientist in the lab, he looks down and shuffles and is pondering the question," Pelinka said. "And he said, 'Well, I know if I am making the greatest rockets in the world, and if I am making cars that can do things that no other cars in the universe can do and drive themselves, be powered by the sun, the competition becomes irrelevant to me.

"'So if you as Lakers are committed to being so good at pursuing your own form of excellence, it won't really matter as much what the competition is doing.'"

For Felix, speaking to the Lakers gave the six-time Olympic gold medalist a chance to put competition into perspective, telling the players she envied their opportunities to play 82 regular-season games and -- if they achieve their goals -- playoff games beyond that.

"Every year you get a chance to go to the championship," Felix recalled of what she told the Lakers. "And for me, you get every four years, [when] my chance [and training] can come down to about 21 seconds."

Magic Johnson looked around the room and saw his players realize just how much they might take things for granted.

"She said, 'I can't even pick up a pound -- I got to stay in shape for four years,'" the executive said. "You can just see they were, like, amazed by the time and work that she has to put in to run her race that lasts less than 30 seconds."

Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had the room busting out in laughter when he challenged Felix to a race. Walton said with a smile that he wants to invite the champion sprinter to training camp to humble his fastest players.

"For me it was just really a cool experience, growing up being such a Lakers fan," said Felix, who is from Los Angeles. "One of the neatest things was that they brought in a woman to speak to them. I thought that was really special, that they could find the value there.

"As athletes, usually you are trying to hunt for the answers on your own, and you are trying to get in touch with certain people. To have them brought to you, and what I really love is people from all different industries, to me you find such inspiration in different places. ... I would love to have something like that during my career."

Magic Johnson, who might know more than anyone how special being a member of the Lakers organization can be, says the Genius Series has had a measurable impact on a young roster that included 13 different players with two or fewer years of NBA experience last season.

"Listen, this series has meant a lot to our Lakers," Johnson told ESPN. "To have them in front of our guys, explaining how they became successful, has meant a lot, and it changed their lives. ... I have been enjoying this just as much as the players. There's greatness in what they all do and how they do it. But everything came down to the same thing: preparation ... discipline.

"The Rock came in and was so passionate," Magic Johnson continued, as his eyes and voice grew more animated. "He really fired them up and got them going and [feeling] like, 'Hey, I need to stay in this gym and do the things I need to do.' [Dwayne Johnson] gave them the discipline. Making sure [to watch] what you put in your body. That was a big thing, too. Everybody changed their diets now -- Lonzo changed [his diet]."

Kuzma has taken full advantage of the Genius Series, forming a tag team connection with Johnson that already is providing visible results. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, as a fan of the WWE and The Rock, Kuzma has developed a relationship with Johnson since his visit to the Lakers' facility.

Hitting the weight room this offseason, Kuzma has noticeably added muscle. He recently posted a photo of himself in a sleeveless T-shirt on Instagram saying, "Yo @therock appreciate the tips on summer gainz" with a flexed-biceps emoji.

Johnson, who has given Kuzma nutritional advice, replied on Twitter, saying, "Kuz told me he wanted his best summer ever. Boy's puttin' in the work."

Assistant coach Miles Simon, who has been running Kuzma through individual workouts this offseason, told Walton he no longer can push the 6-foot-9 Kuzma in the post anymore. Kuzma was clearly listening when Dwayne Johnson told the Lakers that his anchor to success is waking up at 4 a.m. daily "before anybody else and grounding my thought process [that] no one will outwork me ... no one."

Regardless of what happens to the Lakers' roster this offseason, Pelinka plans to continue the Genius Series in 2018-19. He's keeping next season's lineup a secret, but Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar is a possibility after the Lakers tried getting him to talk to the team this past season.

Of course, if Johnson and Pelinka meet their lofty free-agency goals, the Lakers might have their own basketball genius residing in the Staples Center locker room.

"I think that Los Angeles is the most unique city in the world in terms of a place where, like, the greats or geniuses congregate," Pelinka said. "So why not take advantage of this here?"

"That has always been the Lakers and Hollywood," Pelinka later added. "When we are winning here, we know what it is like -- the [Leonardo] DiCaprios, the biggest stars come out to cheer for the Lakers. We want to bring that back."

Related Video