L.A. Lakers Drama: Owners Jeanie and Jim Buss on Power-Sharing, Phil Jackson and Filling Dad's Shoes
Jim concedes that Jeanie is not consulted on basketball decisions but denies he wields unilateral authority. He insists the Lakers are a democracy that includes GM Mitch Kupchak, to whom Jim says he often defers. "I don't run the franchise," he says. "We run it as a family. I'm just a figurehead. I like it collective. Now I might have to put my name on a [decision], but I can't have the ego to make those calls alone."
Jim nonetheless is credited -- some say blamed -- with orchestrating events last season that contributed to the team's poor performance. Head coach Mike Brown was replaced five games into the season with current coach Mike D'Antoni instead of Jackson, who presided over the Lakers' past five titles. As Dr. Buss lay dying at Cedars-Sinai, D'Antoni and Jackson were approached about the job. Jackson thought he was being given time to mull his interest when he received a call from Kupchak saying D'Antoni had been hired.
"The Lakers went into that week prepared to offer the job to Phil," says one source. "Dr. Buss may have rubber-stamped [the D'Antoni hiring], but he clearly wasn't at the helm. If he had been healthy and involved, that never would've happened."
It would have been Jackson's third stint with the Lakers. During his first, he molded Bryant and center Shaquille O'Neal into one of the most dynamic inside-outside combinations in NBA history, resulting in three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. The Lakers were upset by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, though, and Jim for the first time appeared to be ascending within the management team's hierarchy. With Bryant and Jackson at odds and Bryant a free agent, the Lakers dismissed Jackson. Jim was credited with orchestrating the hiring of Rudy Tomjanovich as coach as well as selecting center Andrew Bynum in the 2005 draft.
The Tomjanovich hire proved disastrous. The coach signed a five-year, $30 million deal but bowed out midway through the first season. That left assistant coach Frank Hamblen to mop up a 34-48 season, the only one of the past 19 in which the Lakers missed the playoffs. With Bryant signed to a new seven-year, $136 million contract and perhaps more appreciative of Jackson, the coach returned for the 2005-06 season for a six-year run and two more championships. Jim, meanwhile, receded into the background.
With Dr. Buss' health failing and Jackson announcing his retirement after the 2010-11 season, Jim returned to prominence and hired Brown, a much younger coach.
As the Lakers rushed to hire Jackson's successor, the rest of the organization was thinned out as NBA owners locked out players while negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Nearly two dozen employees with a combined 100 years of experience working for the franchise were shown the door, including assistant GM Ronnie Lester after a 24-year run, members of the training staff and nearly the entire scouting department.
The Brown era was viewed akin to Tomjanovich's -- another misstep by Jim. The hiring of D'Antoni over Jackson, despite the Staples Center crowd chanting, "We Want Phil!" and Magic Johnson outright stumping for him in his role as an ESPN NBA analyst, was portrayed as Jim refusing to concede.
Jim denies that perception is reality. "I have zero problem with Phil, and Phil has zero problem with me," he says. And while Jim and Kupchak interviewed both D'Antoni and Jackson, Jim says the final decision was made by Dr. Buss. "Mitch and I interviewed Phil together and then reported back to my dad at the hospital for hours upon hours," he says. "He gave the final hammer; we just enforced it."
Jackson couldn't be reached for comment, but he told the Los Angeles Daily News in June that his relationship with Jim is "casual." The consensus is that Jackson has never taken Jim seriously. Jeanie's take on the rapport between her fiance and her brother: "Phil has a great relationship with Mitch."
The L.A. sports media sometimes portrays Jim as a slacker who inherited his father's tastes but not his business savvy, but he says those characterizations are outdated. "That playboy image is from 30 years ago, when Dad was out and I was hanging with him," says Jim, who lives with his ex-wife Tish and helps raise her two teen daughters. "As far as socializing, I hate to bore people, but I'm a stay-at-home guy. That's where I like to work. Have someone find out the last time I went to a club; the owners are probably all dead."
Still, while Dr. Buss often would attend predraft workouts and study the action (albeit with young women at his side), Jim, says one assistant GM, once was spotted streaming a horse race on his computer while scouting. Jim also once told Sports Illustrated that "if you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar," they could assess NBA talent as well as pro scouts do.
But one league executive who has worked with the Lakers says Jim is underestimated. "Jim is an easy target," he says. "But he's smart, no question about it. He's smarter than Jeanie."
For all of their efforts to present a unified front, it seems awkward that Jeanie remains close with several of Jim's harshest critics. There's Jackson, of course, who shares with Jeanie his house in Playa del Rey and his ranch in Montana. Jackson has been fired, rehired then retired from the Lakers since they began dating in 2000, so there never has been a question about the relationship influencing Jackson's standing. But that might be because everyone knew Dr. Buss never would allow it.