Earlier this summer, TheGreatMambino discussed whether it was foolish to believe the Lakers would continue to be a great franchise just because they always have been in the past. Teams are great (or not great) because ownership is great (or not great), Mambino said, and we don't know if the Buss children will be the great owners that their esteemed father most certainly was. At the time, I disagreed with his premise on a variety of fronts; I think ownership is important, but that the Lakers have enough advantages to still be a successful team with decent, but not great, ownership. I think that Dr. Buss was an amazing owner, but that he also got extremely lucky during his time in charge, and a downturn in that luck may have been coming even if he had remained alive and well. And I think the Lakers are coming up on the end of a different kind of era as well; the Kobe Bryant era.
It is very, very difficult to see the end of an era with so important a player as Kobe Bryant, a player who has been the franchise's sole focus for a decade, and not take some lumps. Every (brief) downturn the Lakers have experienced has come after one of the pillars of the franchise has departed. George Mikan, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Shaq ... after they were gone, the Lakers squad which existed for the sole purpose of supporting them crumbled, and a new squad, built around a new star was assembled from the ashes. Mambino's point about the importance of ownership was not lost on me, but the NBA is a star's league, and the Lakers still have enough inherent advantages so as to make the acquisition of the next great star an eventual probability. At least, that's what I thought when he wrote what he wrote.
Now I'm not so sure. Nothing has really changed since then; the Lakers remain (in my opinion at least) a very marketable team and location, the personnel brought in this off-season make sense in a certain kind of way, and we have nowhere near an appropriate body of evidence to pass judgment on the managerial decisions which have been made after the passing of Dr. Buss. So why am I suddenly concerned that Mambino's warnings of a potentially dark future might be more accurate than I first thought? Because the Buss children just won't shut up.
Over the weekend, in the basketball-news starved world that is mid-September, we were treated to yet another entry in the "Buss children make their own lives harder" pantheon that has been steadily increasing all summer long. Jeanie Buss treated the press to some excerpts of the upcoming updates to her memoir Laker Girl. Here are some of the choice quotes:
[S]he felt the hiring of Mike D'Antoni as head coach last year instead of Jackson was "a betrayal."
"Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn't sincere about it?"
"When he hung up, I asked him what that was about, and he said, 'Mitch called to tell me they've hired D'Antoni. He said that they feel given the personnel they have that D'Antoni is a better fit. He said they know they are going to take a bit of a PR hit, but he thinks it will blow over in a month.' "'He said it will blow over in a month?' I repeated in disbelief."
I can only assume, based on the provided excerpts, that there's more where that came from. In fact, pretty much the only reason that exists for Jeanie Buss to update her already written memoir is for her to provide the inside dirt on her side of the debacle that was the Lakers' mid-season coach hiring process. Well, that, and of course, to sell more copies of her book. But we'll get back to that in a second.
Jeanie Buss has every right to think these thoughts. She has every right to think that D'Antoni's hiring was a betrayal, both for her and the man she loves. She can think it's a slap in the face, or whatever other kind of insult she wants to take it as. And her reading of the PR situation, laughing at the concept of the whole thing blowing over in a month, was absolutely correct. Instead, we're left with a PR disaster that still clouds over everything the franchise does. The problem is that Jeanie Buss' prediction of a long term PR problem has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the long term PR problem is being driven by the fact that the involved parties can't seem to stop talking about the incident.
Jeanie isn't the only problem. Jim Buss has said plenty this summer. He was the subject of an in-depth profile by Ramona Shelbourne in which he offered quite a bit of insight into the hiring of Mike D'Antoni. He portrayed the final decision on D'Antoni's hire as being entirely made by his father. Assuming Jim wasn't lying just to pass the buck of responsibility, this was actually an important message to share, because there are a lot of folks out there who blamed him 100% for the whole incident. But it is a story that would better have been told in November, when the shock of the situation was still fresh. Instead, the details were provided in the dead of summer, and now we're all talking about Phil Jackson for another few months.
Then there was the incident in which Jim Buss said that Dwight Howard was never really a Laker. I happen to agree with what Jim said about Dwight. I said as much myself, at the very first opportunity. I know exactly where Jim was coming from. However, I am a fan and a writer. I am not the head of basketball related operations for a major team. For Jim to say that was a stupid and petty thing to do, something that may end up reflecting poorly on him and the franchise in the eyes of other stars. Just like Jeanie's thoughts on the D'Antoni hire, Jim's had every right to think what he did about Dwight Howard, but voicing those opinions only made his job harder, making him seem petty and small.
Both of the Buss children who are primarily responsible for the future of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise need to learn a lesson from their departed father. Dr. Buss was a public figure, because you cannot own a team like the Lakers and not be, but he did not live his life like it was a reality show. He didn't give scornful sound bytes when things didn't turn out his way, or constantly and publicly re-hash past failures (of which there were admittedly few). Despite a life very much worthy of documentation, Dr. Buss never even wrote a memoir. He was a great man, with many great qualities, but right now, the quality that stands out the most in contrast to his children is that he knew when to shut up.
The article about Jeanie Buss ends with an important quote: "I want my brother to realize that I'm not the enemy", she says. Well, maybe Jeanie should stop acting like an enemy. Jeanie was also recently quoted as saying that her father would have been able to convince Dwight Howard to stay if he were still alive. That may be true, and it may have been meant as a tribute to her late, great father, but it is extremely easy to read between the lines and get an underlying message of "My brother's not good enough." Maybe if the Buss children would stop acting like enemies, constantly feeding the story of behind-the-scenes conflict and ineptitude, there would be more trust there (Especially when the purpose behind doing so is what? To sell more books?). Maybe if Jim Buss didn't feel the need to constantly attempt to prove that Mike D'Antoni's hiring was not because "he doesn't like Phil", then we wouldn't still be discussing whether MDA was hired because Jim Buss doesn't like Phil. This isn't just about Jeanie, despite the most recent evidence. Jim has contributed plenty to the public toxicity of the relationship, and it needs to stop.
Phil Jackson is gone. Dwight Howard is gone. Worst of all, Dr. Jerry Buss is gone. There are lessons to be learned from the past, but those lessons should be learned and applied in private. The future of the Los Angeles Lakers will now be determined by the successes and failures of Jim and Jeanie Buss, and I, for one, would feel a whole hell of a lot better about that future if the two of them would just shut up and get to work.