While the Lakers were competing for the 2020 NBA championship in the bubble last fall, both LeBron James and Jeanie Buss opened up about the first dinner they had together after James joined the team, and the relationship they forged over their shared values in that conversation.
It was clear that James was affected by that talk, calling Buss an “unbelievable owner” and “powerful woman” during the NBA Finals, and shouting her out during his plea for him and everyone else involved in the team to get their “damn respect” after they won the title.
But while Buss had previously said that James “touched (her) heart” with his knowledge of Lakers history and kind words about her father, the legendary Dr. Jerry Buss, during that sit-down, she had never previously admitted the effect it had on her going forward.
However, during a recent conversation with Lakers legend Robert Horry on his eponymous “Big Shot Bob” podcast, Buss revealed that her talk with James that night motivated her to help him get the team back to where it belonged: The very top of the NBA.
“The first time I had dinner with him in his first season, he said he knew obviously about the Lakers growing up and everything, (but) he said he did a really deep dive into what the Lakers were all about and how my dad built the team and built the business, and he said ‘you know, it’s really such a compliment to you that your dad put you in charge. It was something that he really cared about... Make sure you keep it that way.’ Kind of motivation to remind me of how great in the 32 years that my dad owned and ran the team, they only missed the playoffs twice. And here we were going on five, six years without being in the playoffs. It was really not the Laker basketball that Dr. Buss had envisioned when he left the team in a trust to the family.”
The result of that motivation? That summer, the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis, ripped off the best record in the Western Conference in the regular season and dominated their way the 2020 title. Then, during the offseason, the team was aggressive in free agency and on the trade market, upgrading their roster by signing Montrezl Harrell and trading for Dennis Schröder, among other moves.
Those additions haven’t resulted in the regular season success that some prognosticated for the Lakers in the preseason — James and Davis both suffering serious injuries made that impossible — but this team looks well-positioned to compete for a title if their stars can get fully healthy, and are set to pay the luxury tax for the first time since Buss took over as primary decision maker. She’s said that she’s willing to pay the tax for a contending team, something we can (at least in part) attribute to James motivating her. She herself hinted at his influence there when explaining why she’s happy to pay up.
“The luxury tax is for teams that have championship aspirations, and certainly that is something where we want to keep the Lakers at the top of the conversation,” Buss told ESPN a few weeks ago. “Once LeBron James decided to join the Lakers, the way he’s playing it doesn’t seem like he’s 36 years old, but when you have a player like LeBron James on your team, you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to use that opportunity to win.”
Does she only feel that way because of her dinner with James and his understanding of Lakers history? Probably not. Buss is even more familiar with said history, given that she was a part of much of it while learning under her late father, and if there was one thing she probably picked up over those decades of success, it’s that the Lakers always a) financially take care of their stars and b) try to give them a chance to compete.
Those were likely both factors in James entrusting the team with what is probably the last chapter of his lengthy prime, and so it’s not surprising that Buss is willing to make sure that James gets the same treatment as prior stars who helped the team win a title. But it is notable that she feels so empowered by his words to her at that first dinner, which will be worth remembering as this team faces potentially the biggest tax bill in NBA history this summer. We can’t know that Buss will pay it until she does, but all signs seem to point towards her wanting to make sure James and the Lakers both get to compete at the level their fans are accustomed to. That’s some small good news and a reason for optimism during a stretch of the season that hasn’t had much of either.