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The Lakers have joined the Dodgers and Clippers as the latest professional sports team in Los Angeles to have a family feud worry its Hollywood fan base — but experts say this fight won’t be like the others.
Four years after the death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his daughter is asking the court to determine who controls the NBA team.
Jeanie Buss wants the court to compel her brothers Jim and Johnny to comply with the terms of their father’s trust — which named her controlling owner of the team — according to a petition filed last Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Johnny, she claims, had attempted to organize a coup to remove her from the board during the annual shareholders meeting.
“Taking off my fan hat, just as a lawyer, I don’t see any legal grounds to oust her as the controlling owner,” says Greenberg Glusker litigator Pierce O’Donnell. “Her father put her in control, and I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s done anything to warrant being removed.”
O’Donnell was involved in the last dispute involving an L.A. sports dynasty. He represented Shelly Sterling in her fight to sell the Clippers for $2 billion — after her then-husband Donald Sterling was ousted following a racist rant that was caught on tape by his mistress.
The biggest difference between the Lakers dispute and the others is how Jeanie Buss is viewed by her peers, fans and the general community, experts say.
“Frank McCourt was persona non grata and certainly Donald Sterling was — in bold all caps — persona non grata,” says O’Donnell. “She’s a very bright woman. She’s very capable. She’s highly respected. Some people think it’s long overdue that she’s reasserted her prerogative as the controlling owner.”
Plus, unlike McCourt and Sterling, Buss has the league on her side.
“The NBA wants to see Jeanie Buss continue to stay in her position,” says sports attorney Jeremy Evans. “The commissioner and some of the other owners have shown, either through word or action, that they trust her in that position.”
In February, Jeanie made headlines by firing her brother Jim and the team’s longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and putting Lakers legend Magic Johnson in charge of basketball operations — which is widely considered the cause of this dispute.
“My remembrance is there was an agreement, either formal or informal, that she would give Jim ‘x’ number of years to run the team and make something of it,” says Fox Rothschild litigator Jeffrey Kravitz. “Bluntly, the team didn’t perform.”
The Buss brothers reportedly responded to the move by calling for a vote that would have removed Jeanie from the team’s board of directors. Under the Lakers‘ bylaws, only one of the five board members is eligible to serve as the controlling owner.
“The petition is necessary because Johnny with the active participation of Jim breached the express terms of the Trust that require them to take all actions reasonably available to them to ensure that [Jeanie] remains the Controlling Owner of the Lakers,” writes attorney Adam Streisand in the petition. (Read it in full here.)
Four trusts enacted by either Jerry Buss or his ex-wife Jo Ann collectively own about two-thirds of the outstanding shares of the Lakers, so Jeanie has filed four “essentially identical petitions” with respect to each of them.
“It was perhaps somewhat aggressive for her lawyers to go into court seeking a declaration,” says Kravitz. “On the same token, I have no idea what kind of negotiations went on behind the scenes.” He added that the move may be an effort to “lance the boil” and put to rest the question of who is in control.
Evans says he expects the dispute to be resolved quickly, “unless the brothers have some really bad legal advice coming in.” He adds that they appear to be backing off. According to the Los Angeles Times, the allegedly surreptitious vote has been canceled.
A trial is currently set for May 15 before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David J. Cowan, who is no stranger to heated Hollywood fights. Last year, he handled the ugly probate battle involving Sumner Redstone that was launched by the 93-year-old mogul’s former companion.
O’Donnell, who was also involved in the Redstone matter, says he wouldn’t be surprised if this dispute never reaches trial. “Ninety-eight to 99 percent of these cases settle,” he says. “If I were a betting man, there might be a settlement and maybe even a buyout.”
Speaking purely as a season ticket holder, attorney Richard Simmons says he’s rarely missed a game in more than three decades and he feels better about the team’s prospects now than he has in several years. The resulting dust-up with her brothers aside, Simmons says Jeanie’s decision to hire Johnson and newly-minted GM Rob Pelinka are a big part of that excitement.
“While we prepare for a marathon, not a sprint, this is the demarcation of a new beginning that can take us to the promised land — a title in due time,” says Simmons. “The road to the championship is seldom easy and will require that we overcome some bumps. Jeanie’s new additions to the leadership team represents the future, and I am hungry for it.”
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