Professional sports is often viewed as a method of entertainment for a large based audience. If one zooms in, there is a lot that goes on besides the actual game and product produced for the viewer. The Los Angeles Lakers, thanks to Dr. Jerry Buss, were able to be remembered as an organization that produced entertainers and stars, not just basketball players. To be clear, it all starts with the ownership. A strong front office translates into many successes on and off the court. For the longest time, the Lakers had a strong ownership group with Dr. Buss being the majority owner; however, after his death in 2013, his kids have yet to prove that they can handle the pressures, workload, and bright lights of Los Angeles. After many questionable decisions regarding basketball operations and finances the team has made in the past five years, the franchise has spun into a downward spiral.
Dr. Jerry Buss was remembered for wearing his notorious Levi Blue Denim jeans with his bright white teeth smiling in almost every picture. His success story is second to none. After turning a 1,000 dollar real estate investment into the keys of the Lakers, he went on to become the most influential and honorable owner in the history of sports. However, by being held to this high standard, there had to be some luck on the way as well. After a lopsided deal with the New Orleans Jazz, the Lakers were able to get the number one overall pick in 1979. The rest was history. Magic Johnson fell into the Lakers’ arms and quickly cemented his legacy as one of the best players in the history of the game. More importantly, he elevated the Lakers into a franchise that quickly became known as a high profile franchise in all of professional sports. Jerry Buss, a poor young boy living in Wyoming didn’t credit the luck that caused him to be in the position he was; he credited his vision.
Buss first got a glimpse with the Lakers when he was nine years old. However, he worked as a shoe shiner in a hotel barely making it with his family. Yet, in that brief experience with the Lakers, he was able to see a long term vision, his youthful glimpse that would inspire him for the future. There was just something different with Buss. He just didn’t want the Lakers to win championships, he wanted them to win with an edge, in an effortless manner, a cool calm and collected way, just like the city of LA. In 2010 interview with ESPN, Buss stated that his "dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same." There isn’t a doubt he accomplished that. He saw something nobody else saw: a show. He introduced the idea of premium courtside seats for celebrities. He opened up the idea of a dream that everyone else would be able to sit there one day. He brought live bands, changed the name from Laker cheerleaders to the Laker Girls. These fun events during time amounts were as fun or even more than the actual game, something unique yet unorthodox. All of this worked for him because it never seemed as if Jerry Buss was flaunting his goods and showing off. Preferably, he was inviting you to the "Fabulous Forum" and being an audience member to the show. Because of his great success on and off the court, the rise of the "Beat LA" chants grew and most teams hated the Lakers. However, there weren’t many who disliked Buss himself.
Buss’ intelligence and patience were likely his two greatest attributes. "He’s extremely, extremely intelligent and extremely patient," Kobe Bryant said in 2013. These two attributes were seen in 2007, when after three mediocre years since Shaq's departure, Kobe Bryant was fed up with the lack of wins. However, before this, there was a similar instance in 2004. Buss interrupted his summer vacation in Venice, Italy to call Kobe in a last resort effort to sway him to resign with the Lakers rather than going to the Clippers. Though Buss was successful, after the Lakers were in the middle of the pack for the next few seasons, Bryant demanded a trade. However, just like his great poker skills, Buss called Bryant's’ bluff. He knew Kobe would eventually come through for the team if they were able to trade for a high caliber player in order to get the legendary organization and owner back into championship contention. The result of Buss calling Kobe’s bluff was one of the most successful moves in the history of sports. He was able to trade for All Star Pau Gasol resulting in two more titles, in 2009 and 2010.
From the day Buss bought the team from Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers were a family-run organization. His six children all have roles within the organization now. Everyone who either played on the court or a role for the franchise became a part of his extended family. It is interesting to see if there will ever be a man or woman with a story like Buss’ again. "A self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps with smarts and savvy to achieve a life of luxury and leisure among the beautiful people and things" (Ramona Shelburne ESPN). In 2010 Buss stated about his children: "What makes me feel that way is not only that they are running the organization, but that they are doing so well, perhaps better than I would do." Though these were some kind words for Jerry, his death in 2013 caused discombobulation between the kids running the franchise. However, before this is discussed, Jerry Buss let out all of his emotions from the beginning to his eventual end in his 2013 Hall of Fame induction speech.
In this speech, he talked about how he was just an average entrepreneur living the dream. Though that is cliche, it doesn’t get any better than that. He made references to his "Hall of Fame cup." This was a reference to how spoiled he was as an owner with the amount of Hall of Fame players and coaches he received. The extended list includes: Jerry West, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, and future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’neal. However, the one person he didn’t notice was himself. This just goes to show the kind of person Dr. Jerry Buss was: humble and unselfish. In his speech, he divided his ownership into three chapters. The first being the "showtime era" where Magic and Kareem dominated the NBA landscape. As we know, all chapters eventually end and the downfall of this chapter was the learning that Magic had AIDS. The next chapter was the early 2000’s where Shaq and Kobe ruled the NBA landscape. Shaq had expressed his desire to want to come to the Lakers from Orlando and Buss got it done. Then Jerry West, a former player and GM of the Lakers at the time said that there was this "17 year old phenom" at Lower Merion high school named Kobe Bryant. He took a chance on him. The rest is history. This tandem is known as the best one-two punch in the history of the game, leading to a three peat of championships from 2000-2003. As stated earlier, all chapters come to a close and this one resulted in many mediocre years in the mid 2000’s. However, in 2008, word came out that Buss and the Lakers were interested in then 27 year old Paul Gasol to join the team. Many thought that he was the missing piece of the puzzle that gave Kobe a few more runs at the grand prize. This proved to be just that. In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won NBA championships most notably a 7 game series win against their historical rival the Boston Celtics. After a second round sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, the Lakers’ dynasty was over. Right now, Laker Nation is in that transition from chapter 3 to chapter 4. But how long will this transition take? Since that 2011 loss, the Lakers have been dismally poor winning only 64 games in the past three seasons. Who’s to blame for this? The players? The coaches? It all starts from the highest level. Since Dr. Jerry Buss’ death, all the blame has been put on his children, especially the bigger voices Jim and Jeanie Buss.
Jerry Buss’ death hit the entire basketball community hard. His passing shifted the Lakers’ world in ways beyond compute. The most notable changes were his daughter Jeanie taking over as franchise president, while Jim officially gained final say on all basketball decisions, a role he had shared with his father for the past decade. Moreover, all six Buss siblings inherited equal shares of their father’s 66% stake in the team.
After a season of mediocrity following Dr. Buss’ death, the kids, especially Jeanie and Jim, began to feel the pressure. In a meeting with his five siblings, Jim surprisingly stated to the LA times that he has his own expiration date. He told the times: "If this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on top - and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed,". "I don’t know if you can fire yourself if you own the team … but what I would say is I’d walk away and you guys figure out who’s going to run basketball operations because I obviously couldn’t do the job." This statement shows that Jim started the ticking of the clock on himself. Now, in 2017, the clock has revolved one revolution and Jim has lost his position of president of basketball operations. However, what happened between this time interval?
The timeline became a thing of great discussion and criticism over the ensuing three years. On April 13, 2016, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game against the Utah Jazz. Though this may not seem significant when talking about the mess in the Buss family, the contract of Kobe Bryant hindered the Laker’s growth as a team and development for the last few years. A washed out 34 year old Kobe Bryant was given a three year contract extension that made him the highest paid player in the league. Because of this, the team wasn’t able to afford free agents and young talent, stunting their growth. Thus, it was tough for Jim to make his promise that the Lakers would be back on top. Jim and GM Mitch Kupchak put together the rebuilding effort that defined Bryant‘s final seasons, one of losing and lotteries that had no hope of a playoff berth.
As a result of Jim’s failures, the "Magic moment" commenced. The Lakers announced that Magic Johnson, perhaps the greatest Laker Legend, would return to the franchise as an adviser on basketball matters. It is important to note that at this time, Jim was still director of basketball operations and Magic was just there to help with anything. However, Laker Nation knew Jeanie was up to something with this hiring. On February 21st, only 19 days since Magics hiring, Jeanie fired Jim Buss along with GM Mitch Kupchak and placed Johnson in charge of basketball operations for the Lakers. At the time of this firing, the team was 19-39 and had no chance at the postseason. Longtime Lakers spokesman John Black, a legend, also was fired. "This was a very difficult decision," Jeanie said in an appearance on Spectrum Sportsnet. "It was probably so hard for me to make that I probably waited too long. And for that, I apologize to Laker fans."
It was mid afternoon on Friday when Jeanie Buss turned off the lights in her office and closed the books on "one of the most tumultuous weeks in Los Angeles Lakers history (Ramona Shelburne ESPN). The decision was dramatic but decisive-a similar bold move Jeanie’s father would make. The move wasn’t controversial, almost all of Laker land approved of it, giving the franchise a new direction following four years of chaos. However, this breath of fresh air was only temporary for Jeanie as she had received a letter from her eldest brother Johnny Buss that would outline a plan to oust Jeanie as the Lakers’ governor and controlling owner. As a result of this, her lawyers felt that she would have a persuadable case to shoot down her brother’s plans, but it would need to be solved in court.
The Laker have sparsely been in some funks, but never a prolonged one like this. In Jerry Buss’ 34 years as the Lakers owner, they had only missed the playoffs twice. Jeanie has always tried to think what her father would have done. One can’t blame her, because he is the most successful sports owner in the history of professional sports. Jerry had giver her the final say on running the Lakers upon his death. What did Jerry want of his daughter? What decisions and choices would he have wanted her to make?
The idea of this really depends on if Jerry cared more about his family or the Lakers. If he cared more about the Lakers, then Jeanie firing her brother was justified. Or was the whole plan to keep a family owned business. Jeanie knew this decision was right saying that "It’s overdue, and I need to do this." It is important to note that "there was no joy in making the final decision to fire the three men and promote Magic." Jerry Buss always talked to Jeanie about poker, a game he played that had a bigger meaning than life. "People think it’s luck or you have to be aggressive and ballsy. And he’s like, ‘No, you have to know your spot, and you have to be disciplined and ballsy enough to hold back but then not get so tired and run down that you’re still sharp." Rather than going to the All Star game to take a break, Jeanie worked with a small, trusted group of advisers, and lawyers to execute the restructuring of the Laker’s management and front office. After this news was released, it was an all out war between the families.
It was always clear that Dr. Buss was going to give Jeanie the keys to the franchise. Magic even knew that Dr. Buss couldn’t put him in that position, it was best for her. Johnson had always been an "adopted child" to the Buss family, Dr. Buss even giving him 5% of the team after his retirement. This move by giving Magic a small stake in the team was a driving motive that resulted in Jeanie’s decision to promote him and fire her brother. Jeanie stated, "He would not have done that if he didn’t want Earvin to be a part of it." However, the reason this whole situation has brewed is because of the Buss’ children’s tense relationship with one another.
As close as Jeanie is to Magic, her true bothers at birth have taken a sudden halt. Her own brother Johnny Buss filed a court notice in order for the brothers to take over the Lakers from Jeanie. There were four names he submitted for the Lakers’ 5 person board of directors: Jim Buss, Johnny Buss himself, Dan Beckerman, and Phil Anschutz. Who was not mentioned? Jeanie Buss. This "election" had a bigger impact than just a board of directors seat. A rule from the NBA states that a controlling owner must be re elected from the board of directors; however, if logic is used, if she was not a director, she couldn’t be re-elected as a controlling owner.
It almost seems as if there are two teams of siblings. Jim and Johnny vs the others including Jeanie. However, Jeanie knows what’s going on. She knows that Johnny and Jim both want to cash out. They don’t want to deal with the stress that brings glory when dealing with the Lakers. They want the easy way out: to grab the money, leave, and go on with their lives. Johnny was always a kid who could never face a challenge, even his younger sister Janie stated this. "Growing up, Johnny was the kid who brought the ball to the park and when things didn’t go his way, he took the ball and ran." Jeanie Buss’ lawyer, Adam Streisand, says that he will continue the lawsuit of the brothers until they commit to supporting Jeane as both a director and controlling owner of the Lakers. Anyone can compare the situation of the Laker’s to historical events. The idea of passing down an empire to multiple children can cause havoc. The Lakers, the most powerful empire in the kingdom of the NBA is going through its downfall. Can Jeanie save the downfall?
To dive into the finances, as stated earlier, Jeanie thinks her older brothers are looking to cash out. Because all Buss children inherited 66 percent of the team via four trusts established by Dr. Buss and his first wife, Joann, the trusts states that four out of six Buss children would need to sell their interests.
Even before this whole debacle between Jeanie and Jim, their relationship has been anything but great. After legendary coach Phil Jackson retired in 2011, the relationship weakened between Jeanie and Jim as Jeanie was dating the long time coach. However, they wanted Phil Jackson back, thinking he is the only answer to the Laker’s problems. Jackson only felt that taking the job would be a favor to his fiancee and to save the family from falling to their knees. Right after this moment, on November 11th 2012, the heartbreak Lakers fans never want to hear commenced. At the same time Phil Jackson booked a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles to accept the job, GM Mitch Kupchak began negotiating a deal with Mike D’Antoni. Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson were stunned, hurt, and furious. This was Jeanie’s team, and she was involved in the hiring of the next Lakers coach. What was even worse, Jeanie would now have to pick between the Lakers and the man she loved, Phil Jackson, who eventually ended up in a management role with the New York Knicks.
Despite the difference in emotion over D’Antoni’s hire, the Buss siblings made an effort to work with one another after Dr. Jerry Buss died in 2013. Although Jeanie had no say on basketball operation, her brother Jim and GM Mitch Kupchak informed her on what their blueprint was. Everything was going well between the two siblings until All Star center Dwight Howard decided to depart from Los Angeles; after he left the Lakers in return for nothing, the "divides re-emerged." Jeanie asked her brother the same question in why they got nothing in return. The idea of a rebuild was looming for the Lakers. The whole issue was that would the spoiled Lakers fans for half a century be okay with a string of losing seasons? Regardless of what the fans think, the Lakers will enter the fifth season of rebuild and Lakers fans are optimistic.
If Jim kept on running basketball operations, the Lakers would have never entered a rebuild and would have been mediocre for decades and decades to come. Do you remember the time table Jim set on himself? Well, it didn’t work, and Magic is the man. In an interview conducted by ESPN in 2014, one can see the lack of optimism Jeanie had in Jim.
"ESPN: Where are the Lakers in five years?
Jim: On top.
Jeanie: [Gestures toward Jim] I'm looking to him to make it happen, so I'd like to hear about that.
ESPN: Jeanie, do you believe in Jim's vision?
Jeanie: My dad saw Jimmy's ability to see the game that way. I know what I don't know. I don't see basketball in that way, so I leave that to the experts."
When Jeanie was asked the question about if she believes in Jim, she didn’t directly answer yes or no. Anyone who listened to the interview can notice that the ice still hasn’t been broken between the two and this has directly affected the team's success for the last half decade. Believe it or not, this was the first and only joint interview they had done with one another.
Fast forwarding to 2017, as president of the Lakers, Jeanie decided that it was overdue to stand by and watch the team fail. Although she knew the team's fortune wouldn’t change overnight, she made a rare "basketball decision" and hired Magic Johnson. From that moment, unlike Jim Buss, Magic was in the office everyday checking out the team. For someone who owns a portion of the Dodgers, Atarbucks and many other companies, to have all his attention with the Lakers was something Jeanie admired. Johnson would call GM Mitch Kupchak to ask about possible trades or strategies that were being considered; however, because he was just an advisor he didn’t have much of a say. The reason many trades weren’t going through was Jeanie wasn’t ready to tell the GM and media that she was going to fire Mitch and Jim. Once this happened, Magic was promoted to president of basketball operations and immediately pulled the trigger on a trade.
As stated, Johnson wasted zero time getting to work. Ramona Shelburne wrote beautifully that "[Magic] knows he can’t fix this team with a no-look pass or by flashing this charming, bright smile. The Lakers have years of rebuilding to do." If there is any concern with Laker Nation, it’s that Hall of Fame players like Magic don’t always correlate into Hall of Fame executives. Johnson and his team made the first big step into the right direction when hiring Kobe Bryant’s long time agent has GM in Rob Pelinka. It is rare for a players agent to be GM, but at this point, the Lakers need to roll the dice. As a new regime begins in Los Angeles, a breath of fresh air has swept through the entire organization. The motto for Pelinka: what does it take to be excellent? The Lakers can provide the players workout facilities, nutritionists, and many other amenities that can benefit a player; however, it starts from within to strive for excellence.
Regardless of what people feel about the Lakers, there is no doubt that the NBA needs for them to be good again. The bright lights Dr. Jerry Buss bought to the Lakers have dimmed. Magic and Rob are attempting to light them back up. With a young core with loads of talent, the team is looking towards being entertainers in addition to basketball players. It is nearly impossible to replicate what Dr. Buss did in the showtime era, but if the young core develops their own brand of basketball, the sky's the limit.
After this tumultuous week for Jeanie Buss, any observer sees her leftover sandwich and packets of candy on her assistants poker table, the long game of poker she has been playing with her brothers. It is clear to note that most of the tension is between Jeanie and her two older brothers; she has a strong majority of support with Janie, Joey, and Jesse Buss, her younger siblings. Jesse Buss showed his support of Jeanie when stating: "Jeanie's always supported me if there's ever been something I needed to talk about, whether it's with basketball operations or something personal. I know she always has my back. I'm a loyal person, so I'm forever going to have her back."
With the Johnson and Pelinka hirings official, there are those skeptics who are upset that Jeanie didn’t look outside her inner-circle of the franchise to hire men for the job. However, there are times where the team hired people who didn’t have ties to the Lakers, and it didn’t work out. Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni are some to name a few. There were rumors that Kobe Bryant would be hired as an executive with the team; nevertheless, Bryant is too fresh off his playing career and has more of a passion for storytelling. However, it was easy for Jeanie to hire Pelinka has Kobe advocated for his former agent. It was almost a blessing in disguise that Jeanie’s engagement to Jackson was called off. Jackson works with the Knicks, and finding the right balance of dealing with him on the other side of the country while trying to hold on to the keys of the Lakers was too much of a mental and emotional challenge.
The question if this was Dr. Jerry Buss’ plan all along will never be answered. What did he truly want for the Lakers? What we do know is that he gave his daughter Jeanie the power to make that call, she was the one who would navigate the franchise to either a new chapter of excellence, or continuing failure. Jeanie knew if she continued her cautious approach with her brothers, the franchise would make no progress. As a result, just like how Jeanie played poker with her father from a young age, she has finally pushed all of her chips into the middle of the table.