L.A. Lakers Drama: Owners Jeanie and Jim Buss on Power-Sharing, Phil Jackson and Filling Dad's Shoes
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A pair of reading glasses sits atop the dresser in Jeanie Buss' bedroom. There's nothing remarkable about the frameless specs except for one detail: They sat on the nose of her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, whose smiling face forever will be identified with the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA franchise he owned for 34 years until his death in February at age 80. Under Dr. Buss, the Lakers' purple-and-gold colors became so synonymous with both winning and entertainment that it's hard to decide who resides in whose shadow, the team or the star-glutted city it calls home. "I wanted to keep something that was as close to him as possible," says Jeanie of her dad's glasses, discussing him publicly for the first time since his death from kidney failure after a battle with prostate cancer. "And they help me remember how he saw the world."
The challenge facing Jeanie, 51, and her 53-year-old brother Jim -- along with four other Buss siblings who share a 66 percent controlling interest in the Lakers -- is not merely to see the world as their father did but to act on that vision with equal success. The Busses have inherited a team at a crossroads. The Lakers are the NBA's most successful franchise of the past 30-plus years -- winner of 10 championships since 1980, valued by Forbes at $1 billion, with a local TV deal worth $3.6 billion over 20 years -- but it is an organization whose allure has been defined by a peculiar mix of success on the court and Hollywood flash among its fan base. Dr. Buss understood both sides of that coin. Now, after a lackluster season in which the Lakers exited the playoffs in the first round, longtime star Kobe Bryant, 34, ruptured his Achilles tendon and center Dwight Howard opted to depart after one season, it remains to be seen whether this Buss generation can keep Tobey Maguire, Ari Emanuel and Jack Nicholson dropping $100,000 apiece for courtside season tickets. "The shoes they're stepping into are so huge and epic," says Bryant. "It's on the next generation in line to figure out what their leadership style is going to be and to do it their own way."
Complicating matters, the basketball world Dr. Buss conquered is not the same one his kids are attempting to navigate. Most notably, a salary cap prevents the big-market Lakers from far outspending small-market rivals. "Things have changed," says Pat Riley, coach of the Showtime Lakers teams of the 1980s and now president of two-time champion Miami Heat. "It's nowhere near the innocent, wonderful years of the '80s, when we all got on the train and Dr. Buss was the conductor."
Jerry Buss was a chemist-turned-self-made real estate mogul when, in 1979, he bought the Lakers, the NHL's L.A. Kings, the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. Defying his advisers, Dr. Buss was among the first NBA owners to televise home games, believing it wouldn't keep fans from buying tickets. His flamboyant personal life informed how he ran his team: Decked out in jeans and open-collared shirts and arriving at games with several beauties on his arm, the divorced Dr. Buss was a pioneer in offering premium seats along the court where luminaries could see and be seen. He built an exclusive club inside the Forum (and, later, Staples Center) for Hollywood bigwigs, and he paid and presented his players as stars as important as the actors sitting courtside. Bryant says he considered leaving the Lakers twice -- as a free agent in 2004 and again via trade in 2007 -- and both times Dr. Buss talked him out of it. "You can tell by how someone runs their business if they're full of shit or not," says Bryant. "He could tell you exactly what he had in mind and how he planned to get it done. And he had a track record."
As he was building the Lakers dynasty, Dr. Buss also was preparing his two budding proteges for life in the family business. Jeanie was 19 and a USC undergrad when her father made her GM of his pro tennis team, the Strings. She would serve as president of the Forum before becoming the Lakers' vp business operations in 1999. A year earlier, Jim had become an assistant GM with the team and has been involved in some capacity since then.
In many ways, the siblings represent opposing sides of their father's personality -- and the conflict is evident in how the team is run. Jeanie leads the business operation and now is the Lakers' representative on the league's board of governors. That means the NBA views her as being at the helm. Although she retains her vivaciousness (she once posed for Playboy and now is engaged to former coach Phil Jackson), she can be found during business hours in the office once used by her father overlooking the team's practice court in El Segundo, Calif. Talk to an NBA executive about Jeanie, and he or she likely will rave about her business savvy and attention to detail.
Jim, conversely, prefers to handle his duties as executive vp player personnel from home. While Jeanie typically wears tailored suits, Jim has adopted his father's style, with jeans and a black baseball cap his trademarks. Ask someone in the NBA about Jim, and he or she probably will say they don't really know him. But the media and fans see Jim as being in charge of the team -- the only part of the Lakers organization that matters to them.
"My brother ultimately makes the [basketball] decisions," says Jeanie. "I defer and will continue to defer because that's what my dad believed would be successful." Deferring, though, clearly is different from agreeing, and while Jeanie is supportive of her brother, she barely hides her frustration at not being included in major team moves. "I would be more comfortable if I understood what the decision process was, and I'm not always involved in it," she says. "To be held accountable by the league and not have a seat at the table when decisions are made is hard."