Last offseason, after Magic Johnson abruptly resigned from his post as president of basketball operations, there was a theory within NBA circles that the Lakers had a “shadow executive” from a playoff team conducting operations for the team, oftentimes acting above Rob Pelinka in the pecking order.
That turned out to be misguided speculation, and we should have recognized it as such at the time. The Lakers don’t generally recruit outsiders; they keep things in the family. That was the case then, as the unnamed executive was none other than Linda Rambis, best friend of Jeanie Buss and wife of former Laker player and coach Kurt Rambis.
Even though it’s common practice within this franchise to value Laker blood, it was still strange to see the executive director of special projects sitting in on head coach interviews and reportedly exerting influence in the hiring process. But Buss entrusted Linda Rambis with that role.
Buss, like her father, was comfortable empowering the people she knew and trusted, regardless of their theoretical qualifications, as Tania Ganguli reported for the L.A. Times:
She leaned on Linda Rambis, someone she’d worked with for decades and someone her father also had trusted. People began calling Rambis the team’s “shadow owner” and wondering why and to what extent she had power in the organization.
“I do think that there’s people that might be uncomfortable with women in power positions,” Buss said. “Whatever that triggered in other people that started the hatred or slinging the mud whatever, calling her a shadow owner, things like that, was very demeaning and disheartening. Hurtful. But it didn’t change the mission at all. Didn’t change how we were gonna operate. Didn’t make me not trust her. Nothing can penetrate that 30 years of trust.”
That trust was particularly important with Pelinka, whose reputation around the league took a real hit during his first year in Los Angeles. The Lakers were charged with a pair of tampering violations and mocked for their failure to execute a trade for Anthony Davis at the deadline. Then, Johnson threw the whole operation under the bus on his way out. It would have been remarkably easy for Buss to move on from Pelinka, but she instead trusted her instincts, that she knew him better than the outside world did.
“These are people who I trust with my life,” Buss said, specifically mentioning her younger brothers, the Rambises, Harris and Pelinka.
Pelinka’s power grew despite calls for his ouster.
“I know Rob, I know he is a man of integrity,” she said. “Professional. Extremely bright. Approaches things in analytical way. Is a problem solver. All the things that were going on in the media I don’t pay attention to because you can’t get validation from the media. … That never made me doubt him for a second.”
The Lakers are a family business. They were passed on from Dr. Jerry Buss to his children. Jeanie is the team governor, her younger brother Jesse is in charge of scouting for the Lakers, and her other younger brother Joey is the general manager of the South Bay Lakers.
It’s only logical that the other people Jeanie chose to work with were people she had developed long-time friendships with, like Linda Rambis and Pelinka. Linda married Kurt Rambis when he was a Laker in 1985, and Pelinka represented Kobe Bryant for over a decade before moving into management. They are a part of the extended family Buss has built in the front office. Maybe they didn’t have the basketball resume that would have gotten them hired at other teams, but they understood the culture that Buss was trying to build in Los Angeles, and the was more important.
“There’s an ease in conversation because if I say something that they may not agree with I don’t have to worry that it’s gonna be posted somewhere,” Buss said last week. “‘Jeanie made this dumb suggestion or Jeanie’s going off course here.’ That freedom, that trust, is so valuable to bounce off ideas and grow together.”
There were doubts about whether Buss knew what she was doing last offseason. But the Lakers won the championship, and they reached that precipice thanks to the contributions of some of Pelinka’s more curious decisions. Having LeBron James tends to paper over some of the cracks in a team’s operations, but for one season at least, Buss’ approach was validated. The sustainability of that vision may be tested in the coming years.