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.”
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.
Magic Johnson, as close to a deity among Lakers fans as there is, also has criticized Jim’s leadership. “I don’t believe in Jim Buss,” said Johnson on national TV after Jackson was passed over for D’Antoni. Jim says those words hurt him and his dad and affected Dr. Buss’ feelings about Johnson, who sold his interest in the Lakers in 2010 to join the group that now owns the Dodgers. Jeanie, on the other hand, says of Johnson: “Whenever I’ve needed his help, he’s always been there for me. I couldn’t be closer to him.” (Johnson couldn’t be reached for comment.)
If all this makes Lakers fans uneasy, it should. “The one thing we had when I was there was one singular voice,” says Riley. “We had Dr. Buss, [GM] Jerry West and Pat Riley parroting the same thing. When you have three men on the same page talking to Kareem or Magic Johnson, that’s powerful. The single voice is so important.”
Dwight Howard made that painfully clear this summer: The free-agent center actually bought his way out of Lakerland. League rules intended to coax free agents to re-up with their existing teams allowed the Lakers to offer him a five-year, $118 million deal; any other team could offer a maximum of four years and $88 million. Howard left $30 million on the table to go to the Houston Rockets.
Even with his departure, the Lakers have the fifth-fattest player payroll ($75.6 million) for this season. That includes more than $30 million owed Bryant, who is in limbo after his injury. In short, the Lakers are not close enough to the 2014 championship trophy to see it with binoculars, much less reading glasses. The good news is that the team only has $11 million committed to player salaries for the 2014-15 season, making it a big-time player in next year’s free-agent market, which could include LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
But the Lakers need to acquire more than salary-cap room if they want to be in play for the league’s biggest superstars. “They’re living on the History channel,” says one free agent, meaning the team remains convinced that the attraction of playing for the Lakers in L.A. is enough. As one NBA agent notes: “The Lakers were built for a different era. Their personnel has been depleted and [research] infrastructure is outdated. It’s important to be in a major market, but not as important anymore. And they were always able to spend more than other teams. Now they can’t.” A longtime opposing assistant coach adds that free agents feel the Lakers‘ track record is impressive but the team is not on the cutting edge when it comes to marketing, physical therapy or analytics. The sense is that institutional arrogance has caused a slow but evident decay. “It hurts to hear that,” says Jeanie, without contesting it.
And the idea that the present-day Lakers will ever again enjoy seven trips to the Finals during a stretch of eight seasons, as they did in the ‘80s, is hard to fathom for various reasons. Start with the fact that the NBA is set against it.
“The changes in the collective bargaining agreement and revenue-sharing have made it more difficult for any team to stand out, at the will of the owners,” says NBA commissioner David Stern. “It’s a changed and difficult atmosphere.” That Dr. Buss was ill during the latest talks probably contributed to a deal that hurts big-market teams. “Because of his illness, his voice and leadership weren’t as aggressive as in the past,” says Tim Leiweke, who worked with Dr. Buss when Leiweke was president and CEO of Staples Center owner Anschutz Entertainment Group. “He wasn’t there to fight for their view of the world, and this new deal is tougher on them than anybody other than maybe New York.”
Working within this new framework, Jim still has had his successes. He helped orchestrate the deal that landed Howard from Orlando, and he dealt his prize draft pick, Bynum, to Philadelphia right before knee issues cost him the entire 2012-13 season. Prognosticators touted the team he built last season as the favorite to reach the Finals before injuries to Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Bryant left them struggling to make the playoffs. He also has a chance to rebuild the team after next season.
Jim insists he’s just following his father’s blueprint, but the Howard situation suggests he missed a page. Instead of Jim spending time with Howard, the team launched a widely derided media campaign that implored “Stay” on billboards. After Howard bolted, Jim turned on his former star, saying he wasn’t surprised or dismayed. “He was never really a Laker,” says Jim. “He was just passing through.”
Those close to Howard say the Lakers could have persuaded him to stay. Even Jeanie believes that if her father had not been sick, he would have sealed the deal like so many before it. “It’s disappointing that Dwight isn’t here,” she says. “I feel like we failed him.”
Jeanie and Jim say selling the Lakers is not an option, though the list of suitors is long and rumored to include Lakers minority owners Patrick Soon-Shiong and AEG as well as Dodgers owner Guggenheim Partners (parent of The Hollywood Reporter). Instead, they must settle on a figurehead who will guide the team as their father did. It won’t be easy.
“Each great organization in the NBA has a great personality that defines them,” says Leiweke, now president of the Toronto Raptors’ owner, ticking off Riley in Miami, GM Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford in San Antonio.
And who could that be for the Lakers? Riley is not interested. Neither is West. Jim Buss has made it clear he’s fine with Jackson being on the payroll if Jeanie chooses, but he sees his role as a consultant and nothing more.
“Therein lies the great challenge for the Lakers,” says Leiweke. “Can they redefine that organization now? The greatness of a franchise is attributed back to great leadership. That person was Doc Buss. Always.”