Dr. Jerry Buss drew up a plan before his death. His daughter Jeanie would run his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, acting as president, overseeing business operations, and representing the Lakers on the NBA’s Board of Governors. Her older brother Jim would control basketball operations. The plan was flawed from the start. First and foremost: Who would really be in charge?
Following their father’s death in February 2013, both Jeanie and Jim Buss confirmed in interviews that Jeanie would indeed be the boss. “We specifically brought that up so that people would know,” she tells me. “When it comes down to it, it’s important to our shareholders, our fans, our partners, that they know that ultimately I will take responsibility and authority, for every decision made by this organization, and that I am held accountable for it.”
Jeanie Buss is the boss. She’s also not. She is the decision-maker, the final hammer, the decider within the organization. Even when it comes to basketball operations, she has veto power over her brother Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak. She is their superior. But she does not, and says she will not, execute that veto power. She has empowered them to do what it takes to win. This is something she’s said over and over again. Buss is and is not the boss because she still answers to someone: her father. Even now, more than two years after his death, with the Lakers in the midst of a historically unprecedented season of struggle, Jerry Buss still dictates policy. It was his decree that Jeanie would run the business side with Jim handling basketball. And Jeanie — loving, adoring daughter that she is — will not defy her father. Not yet, anyway.
Jeanie Buss’s office inside the Lakers’ El Segundo headquarters doubles as a shrine to her dad and also to the team’s massive success — 10 NBA championships, 16 Finals appearances — since he purchased the franchise in 1979. A copper bust of Dr. Buss sits on a pedestal next to the door. The location has a purpose. It’s the first and last thing she sees every day at work. “It reminds me of the purpose and what this meant to him,” she says, “and how connected I am to him still and how he inspires me.”
Then there are the trophies. The 10 NBA championships are arranged in chronological order atop a desk overlooking the Lakers practice court. About five or six years ago, when Buss first moved into her father’s old office, she shut the blinds to thwart the fluorescent lights that flood the court. One day, Phil Jackson, Buss’s boyfriend since 1999 and then the Lakers head coach, opened the blinds. For added motivation, the players should see the trophies, he said. Buss recognizes that the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy is magnetic to anyone who hasn’t actually won one. When Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers in August 2012, he zipped here from his introductory press conference to marvel at the trophies. “Those are real?” he asked her with predictable Dwight Howard childlike awe.
“You can pick one up,” Buss tells me, having noticed that I’ve slowly migrated in their direction. “Let me hand it to you. Are you a parent? You carry it like a baby,” she says, gently cradling the 2002 trophy in her arms. “We get these buffed out all the time,” she says. “We love them and we cherish them and let them thrive because they are inspirational.”
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Buss, who is 53, is tall and blonde, a California archetype. She dresses like a Shark Tank judge: Her clothes are fitted and monochromatic in a way that communicates power. She wears a black, slim-cut blazer; a white shirt with two, maybe three buttons undone; and a black skirt hemmed just above the knee. She stows her cell phone in her bra. As if we needed further reminder as to who’s in charge here, Buss sports the 2002 championship ring on her right middle finger — even though, she says, championship rings are “the most gaudy, obnoxious things.” So hideous that they are gorgeous, she says. She can’t resist. One glimpse of the ring brightens her day.
These are challenging times for the Los Angeles Lakers. For the first time since the Buss family became the owners, the team has missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons; national TV games have been cut from the schedule; ratings are down; Kobe Bryant, their 36-year-old star, suffered a season-ending injury — again; everything from their style of play on the court to their front-office structure has been probed, criticized, and lampooned. Lakers fans, from the foulest Twitter troll to Magic Johnson, have publicly pleaded for Jim Buss, the embattled vice-president of basketball operations, to resign. All this has left Jeanie Buss, the boss, a little rattled; it’s why a reminder of past glories — in this case, a gaudy, obnoxious championship ring that’s more than 10 years old — can brighten her day.
In her book Laker Girl, part memoir, part diary of the 2009-10 championship season (the Lakers’ most recent), Buss writes following a three-game losing streak: “This is catastrophic for us. When I think about the teams that lose 10, 12, 15 in a row, I imagine that’s got to be really exhausting and demoralizing.”
I ask if this season has been exhausting and demoralizing. “Yeah,” Buss sighs. “This is uncharted territory. Things like this make me uncomfortable.”
The 2014-15 season began on an inauspicious note when prized rookie Julius Randle, selected seventh overall, the Lakers’ highest draft pick since nabbing James Worthy with the no. 1 pick in 1982, broke his leg on opening night, ending his season. Focus soon turned to everything the Lakers were doing wrong: Kobe Bryant’s usage rate; Kobe Bryant’s shot selection; head coach Byron Scott’s enmity toward the 3-point shot and the franchise’s perceived ambivalence toward advanced analytics.1 When a torn rotator cuff ended Bryant’s season in January, the Lakers, now embedded near the bottom of the Western Conference, could sensibly turn their attention to the NBA draft lottery on May 19.
Buss read the ESPN The Magazine article stating that the Lakers were among the most hostile franchises toward analytics. “In terms of how analytics are used in basketball, I can’t speak on that. That’s a basketball question,” Buss says. “The thing that bothered me was that there was some inference that the Lakers wouldn’t pay for SportVU. I would never say no. If that’s something our basketball people wanted or needed, I would never say no. We don’t cut corners that way. I kind of resented that.” (The league has since installed the cameras in every NBA arena that didn’t already have them.)
Lost seasons such as this one are often defined through some sort of bizarre controversy unrelated to the game. The 1993 New York Mets (59-103 record) had Bret Saberhagen spraying bleach at reporters and Vince Coleman scattering firecrackers like sunflower seeds. The 2009-10 Washington Wizards (26-56) were notorious for a gun incident in the locker room. The 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers (20-54) have a goofy postgame interview. On February 22, after the Lakers snapped a seven-game losing streak with an overtime win over their old rival, the Boston Celtics, Nick Young, Jordan Hill, and Carlos Boozer celebrated with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm for a last-place team. Coincidentally, Kobe Bryant was booked on Jimmy Kimmel Live the following evening. Kimmel, of course, replayed the footage for Bryant, who remained expressionless throughout.
“Would that happen if you were there?” the host poked. “Would there be a celebration?” Bryant, relishing the role of fun-crusher, fixed his tie. He said nothing. He seethed.
Jeanie Buss watched the Celtics game and Bryant’s talk show appearance. She anticipated Bryant’s reaction. It reminded her of Magic Johnson’s NBA debut, when he smothered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a bear hug after Kareem beat the San Diego Clippers with a sky hook at the buzzer. Afterward, the ornery vet scolded the rookie: Listen, we have 81 more of these games. Buss thought this recent postgame celebration was charming and endearing. She saw teammates connecting in a way that breeds camaraderie. It made her hopeful that the youngsters on the roster will develop together as part of the Lakers’ future. Still, she’s wary of getting attached.
“It’s really hard to be connected to guys on one-year contracts,” Buss says. Bryant, Randle, Young, and Ryan Kelly are the only Lakers with guaranteed deals for next season. “You have Jodie Meeks, who was great for us last year, but now he’s on another team. I’m going to get attached to a group of guys, then it’s like, Are they even going to be here next year? That’s the hard part for me. That’s good that I’m not part of the basketball side, because when they are on our team, they are our guys.”
Like her father, Buss falls hard for her players. She remembers in the early ’80s when her dad honored a verbal agreement on a contract extension with Charlie Simmer, left winger on the L.A. Kings’ famed Triple Crown Line, even after the high-scoring forward broke his leg. Now she and the organization are roasted for rewarding Bryant, one of the 12 best players in NBA history, with a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension. It’s a hard truth: It can’t be easy running a family business like a family business when the business has changed so much since the family bought the business. The Lakers are her family. Her family is the Lakers. She remembers one night ages ago when Dr. Buss brought home an injured Magic Johnson after a game, and they all sat on the couch watching the MTV premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”2
I was skeptical about this anecdote, but a quick Google search revealed that “Thriller” premiered on December 2, 1983 — the same day Magic Johnson dislocated his right index finger in a home loss against the Dallas Mavericks.
Lamar Odom was another favorite, another member of the family. Buss and Phil Jackson attended his September 2009 wedding to reality-television star Khloe Kardashian. Odom, a two-time NBA champion with the Lakers and a former Sixth Man of the Year, was heartbroken following his December 2011 trade to the Dallas Mavericks. He soon flamed out of the league. Rumors of drug abuse have since shadowed Odom. “I’m worried about him,” Buss tells me. “I’ve reached out to him. I don’t know how to find him now. He knows where to find us, though. He knows that I’m always there for him — now, 10 years from now. He knows I’ve always been in his corner.”
She looks hurt. Empathy is not an enviable trait in her business.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
This was always going to be the life for Jeanie Buss. “It didn’t really matter to me what the business was,” she says. “For me, it was about being with my family.”
The family business was real estate when she was a kid. She dreamed of being a developer like her father, a chemist who grew up in Depression-era Wyoming, then moved to Los Angeles, where he made his millions. Family time consisted of games of Monopoly or storming the pool at Dr. Buss’s Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs. Her parents’ divorce in 1972 was predictably devastating, and Buss carried that sadness with her through her formative years at Pacific Palisades High School, where former NFL quarterback Jay Schroeder and Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker were classmates. Winning Miss Pacific Palisades in 1979 helped break her out of her shell. Suddenly, the self-consciousness dissipated — she grew confident. “It was a big help for me in terms of my development,” she remembers. “Being Miss Palisades allowed me to stand up and talk to people face-to-face.”
A USC legacy, Buss lived with her father at Pickfair, the 42-room Beverly Hills mansion originally owned by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, during her college years. The estate also functioned as an event space for charity benefits, but Dr. Buss, a legendary man about town, often turned the home into a celebrity hangout. Once, Jeanie came downstairs at 4 a.m. to discover Rick James in her living room playing the piano. “Thank God there was no reality TV,” she says. “It was crazy. It was fun. Wow, what a crazy time.”
More than anything, living at Pickfair gave her an opportunity to get close to her father. “She wanted to get to know him, and be with him, and learn from him,” says Linda Rambis, Buss’s close friend and a longtime Lakers employee as well as the wife of former Laker Kurt Rambis. “They became very, very, very close friends, and he would confide in her about many, many, many things. She paid attention to everything he said.” She also often hung out with her father’s numerous (and much younger) girlfriends.3
“My dad had very good taste in women,” Buss says. “He, um, he inspired a lot of women to go back to school and get their degree and further their personal development. He was a fan of women.”
In the meantime, sports became the family business. In 1979, Dr. Buss bought the Lakers, the Forum, the Los Angeles Kings, and a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County from Jack Kent Cooke in exchange for $67.5 million and the lease to the Chrysler Building in New York City. A few years earlier, Buss had purchased the Los Angeles Strings of the World Team Tennis league; Jeanie, a teenager at the time, would tag along to meetings. The league went under in 1978, but once it resumed as TeamTennis in 1981, Dr. Buss named her general manager of the Strings. “One of the first things he did was ask Jeanie to take over,” says Dennis Murphy, founder of World Team Tennis and a cofounder of the American Basketball Association. “He always had a lot of faith in Jeanie, and rightly so. She was his right arm.”
She cut her teeth in TeamTennis, and later roller hockey, volleyball, and soccer — fringe sports organizations with long hours and small staffs. Everything was smaller: smaller ticket prices, grosses, sponsorship deals; she’d treat sponsors like precious gems when they came aboard. She learned the business of sports, marketing and promotion, how to deal with agents. She learned the importance of every customer. She also managed the Forum from 1991 to 1995, a 365-day-a-year kind of gig. Life was a blur. She booked rock concerts and tennis exhibitions. Depending on the night, Frank Sinatra or Prince or the Prince of Monaco would be in the house. There were relationships with athletes: Jay Wells of the Kings, John McEnroe, and a quickie wedding to Olympic gold-medal-winning volleyball player Steve Timmons.4 Her life was worthy of a sitcom: The Mary Tyler Moore Show meets Eddie.
At the reception, held a few months after the wedding, her father showed up with two dates.
She got divorced after three years of marriage, then posed for the May 1995 issue of Playboy5 (the shoot took place in her father’s office) right around the time she attended her first Board of Governors meeting, as the Lakers’ alternate governor.6 After toiling in second-class sports, absorbing the family business, she was finally poised to lead it. In 1999, Jeanie Buss was named the Lakers’ executive vice-president of business operations.
Dr. Buss, a longtime friend of Hugh Hefner, famously said: “It will be the first issue of Playboy magazine that I will never see.”
The day wasn’t all good. An NBA owner, whom she has never named, squeezed her ass in the buffet line. “I was so taken aback with it,” she says today. She gave the man a dirty look. “Women deal with that all the time everywhere. I just didn’t think it was going to be there too.”
The Lakers front office was a paragon of stability and competence throughout the 1980s and 1990s: Jerry West ran the show, Mitch Kupchak was his apprentice, and Ronnie Lester led scouting. Gene Tormohlen worked for the Lakers as a college scout for 28 years. He remembers Dr. Buss sitting down with him for a chat every year at training camp. Now in his late seventies, Tormohlen lives in Georgia, where he still follows the team.
The job was demanding. There was pressure, especially with the Lakers’ pick usually falling near the bottom of the first round. But Tormohlen didn’t mind making an extra scouting trip, even on short notice. “Everything,” he says, “was first-class all the way.” But Tormohlen sensed a shift in the organization when Jerry West resigned as vice-president of basketball operations following the 1999-2000 season. “When Jerry left, things changed a little bit. It was still good. But things had been great.”
In 1997, following a nine-year sojourn into thoroughbred racehorse training, Jim Buss returned to the family business; from 1985 to 1989, he had been president of the Los Angeles Lazers, the Busses’ indoor soccer team. Dr. Buss wanted his son, initially named assistant general manager, to learn the ropes. But the education got off to a rough start with an incredibly prescient November 1998 Sports Illustrated feature in which an oblivious Jim Buss spoke openly about his designs for the Lakers throne. He was also quoted denigrating the importance of scouts. “If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to those of the pro scouts,” Buss told the journalist Franz Lidz.7
Buss later maintained that he was referring to scouting the top prospects in the draft.
“Jimmy apologized for that,” Tormohlen says. “Jimmy was always nice to me, but he was wrong in saying that.”
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
An unflattering narrative was being sculpted. Elsewhere in the SI piece, a business associate of Dr. Buss described Jim as “easily distracted, and has no instinct for the jugular.” Peter Vecsey of the New York Post once called him a “professional party animal.” He became the Fredo to Jeanie’s Michael Corleone. In the public’s eye, Jimmy was, and still is, a product of entitlement — nepotism gone wrong, a grown man in a baseball cap.
His presence and influence within the organization are conveniently ignored when the Lakers front office pulls off a caper such as the trades for Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza or the rescinded Chris Paul deal. Yet he is held liable for each blunder: hiring Rudy Tomjanovich; trading Lamar Odom in an apparent salary dump; hiring Mike Brown without Kobe Bryant’s input; trading two first-round picks for Steve Nash, who played 65 games in three seasons for the Lakers before retiring last month. After more than 30 years of getting their way, 10 championships, and nearly every coveted superstar, Lakers fans need a punching bag to answer for these lean years. And it’s not going to be Jeanie, the little sister the city grew up with, nor general manager Mitch Kupchak, who apprenticed under the revered Jerry West. The former horse trainer who rarely appears at Staples Center and is heard from only about once a year is the perfect fall guy.
“Unfortunately, Jim does get a lot of criticism. But no decision is made here without me,” Kupchak says. “If something doesn’t go right, I should be criticized as much as Jim. We are judged, by and large, by our success on the court, and that has to do with the draft, trades, and free agency, and Jim and I decide who we draft, who we trade, and who we pursue in free agency. In terms of talent on the court, by and large that falls with me, and I work very closely with Jim. But Jim trusts my instincts. Sometimes they are good and sometimes they are not good.”
Jeanie Buss wasn’t associated with personnel decisions until head coach Mike Brown was fired five games into the 2012-13 season. With her father in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment, Jeanie didn’t want him to go through the stress of a coaching search. She thought her longtime partner, Phil Jackson, then 18 months into a retirement, was the obvious short-term replacement. Jim Buss approached his sister about talking to Jackson — the two men had clashed in the past. Following a meeting with Jim Buss and Kupchak, it appeared that Jackson would return to the Lakers. To Jackson’s understanding, it was his decision to make, and he had 48 hours to make that decision. The next night Kupchak called Jackson to inform him that the team had hired Mike D’Antoni; Jim Buss has said D’Antoni was Dr. Buss’s choice. “I never had that conversation with my dad,” Jeanie Buss says.
She was also furious about leaks from the organization concerning Jackson’s alleged contract demands: part ownership, an exorbitant salary, an increased role in personnel decisions, and a limited coaching schedule. “I wonder where all that came from,” she scoffs. “I wanted Phil to coach the Lakers forever. I’m not going to apologize for being biased, for thinking Phil is the greatest. But the decision was made. I’m fine with it. We’ve all moved on. We’ve got to move on.”8
Speaking to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in December 2014 about the Jackson-D’Antoni flap, Jim Buss said, “It hurts me every day how this all went. I’ve apologized to Jeanie.” Jackson is now president of the New York Knicks.
Buss has said that she and Jim speak “as necessary.” “I think our communication is good. Could I sit here and tell you what goes on on a day-to-day basis in the basketball office? No, I’m not up to speed that way,” she says. “Right now you are in our offices and the other half of our business is across the parking lot in the building over there because we’ve outgrown the space that we have here. So there is kind of a disconnect between basketball and business, because half of our operations are not under the same roof. But I think that in terms of working together, we have a really good working relationship.”
Jim Buss complicated things when he recently announced that he will step down from basketball operations “if this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the 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 ask Jeanie Buss — the boss — if she would fire her brother if he doesn’t keep his word and resign. “I think my brother would step down. I don’t think he’d ever want to be … ” she trails off. “He is very sincere in his efforts. I don’t think he has doubts that he’ll be able to get everything to where we need it to be, and there will be no reason to make any changes.”
For now, she is bound to her father’s plan. “Jeanie is doing what her dad wanted done. She wants to do it the way he saw it,” says Linda Rambis. “But I don’t think she is going to be afraid to move in another direction if we’re not successful.”
A few years ago, Jeanie Buss signed up for a stand-up comedy course even though committing three hours every week was close to impossible. She lasted two classes, but she learned a lot in those two classes. For starters, Buss jokes, she found out she isn’t funny. She also discovered that the best way to tell a story is to infuse it with personal details, her own point of view. And that if you find an anecdote that works, use it over and over and over again. Humor and personal details can add a human touch, and an important part of Buss’s job is standing in a room full of people and making them feel at ease during high-stakes negotiations.
“She’s exceptional in a room with powerful people,” says Kupchak, citing recent meetings with high-profile free agents like Carmelo Anthony as one example. “She knows the right thing to say at the right time to make everyone feel comfortable. But at the same time, you can tell she is in charge of that room, and when it’s time to make a decision, she is decisive.”
Buss’s management style differs slightly from her father’s approach. Her personality is not as flamboyant, but, like him, she isn’t a micromanager. She listens, offers counsel or an opinion, and has complete trust in her employees to do the job she hired them to do. I’m here if you need my help is a familiar refrain. Building coalitions, hearing all voices, forming consensus, empowering workers: That’s her style.
She says accessibility is her greatest strength as an executive. Inspired by an article in Sports Business Journal about the direct correlation between season-ticket renewal and fans’ faith in ownership, Buss became a more forward-facing executive. She can be seen interacting with the public at Staples Center, chatting, giving hugs, snapping selfies. She might be the NBA owner least likely to send a nasty email to a fan, and she is good for at least a few RT’s every week on Twitter; Buss is a sucker for babies in Lakers gear. “I think your reputation has to be that you don’t hide, you have to be out there, and not just when you are winning,” she says. “I think that’s what fans want, for you to care as much as they do. I think that is what made my dad great. He was a fan of the Lakers.”
Knowing this, have you asked your brother to be more accessible?9
The Lakers declined to make Jim Buss available for comment.
She takes a deep breath before I’ve finished the question. “He has to make that determination for himself,” she says, her fists now balled on top of each other, gently tapping the table in front of her. “Whatever he’s comfortable with.”
Buss also deviates from her brother on the issue of revenue sharing. “Fifty million dollars extra per year just kind of went out the door,” Jim Buss told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin in April 2012 regarding the league’s new revenue-sharing plan, which was introduced in the 2011 CBA. Teams must now annually contribute a set percentage of their total local revenue. For the 2013-14 NBA season, the Lakers, flush with cash from their 20-year $3 billion deal with Time Warner, contributed a league-high $49.6 million to revenue sharing; the team made $100.1 million in basketball operations, also a league high.
From her experience working in second- and third-tier sports, Buss deems a league to be only as strong as its weakest team. In many cases, she is against what would be in her best interests as owner of the Lakers.10 “She is very much what I would call a league-first person,” says NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “Another thing that stands out, and I think that in part it comes from her relationship with Phil, is that she often takes the perspective of the larger NBA family and reminds people in the room how many thousands of lives are impacted by our decision. She’s that voice of the broader view that reminds people this isn’t about big market vs. small market or team vs. player, there is a broader network of the NBA family involved in every decision we make. She is incredibly earnest when she makes those points — people listen. She’s often the kind of speaker where there’s a pause after she’ll say something. It’s not as if somebody needs to respond. It’s just a point that needs to be made.”
On the issues of the day, Buss supports legalized gambling, is anti-tanking, pro–lottery reform (“I think every business needs to plan and forecast 12 months, 18 months, 24 months away, and with something like a lottery, there is so much that you can’t control”), and defers to the coach and training staff when it comes to resting players.
But the Lakers, and the Buss family, have more skin in the game than other owners — in both small markets and big ones. While most franchises are propped up with earnings from other ventures — hedge funds, tech, nickel mined from the bowels of northern Russia — the Lakers are the primary source of revenue for the Buss family.11 “We’re a family-run business,” Jim Buss told ESPN in April 2012. “I mean, my God, we don’t have Carnival Cruises behind us or Kohl’s Department Stores and Microsoft up in good old Portland.”
The six Buss siblings — Jeanie, Jim, Johnny, Janie, Joey, and Jesse — own the team as a collective, meaning they are not individual owners. Four “yes” votes would be required if they were to ever sell the team. The Buss family owns 66 percent of the team. AEG chairman Philip Anschutz (27 percent), Patrick Soon-Shiong (4 percent), and Ed Roski (3 percent) have minority stakes.
“I didn’t like that quote,” Jeanie Buss says. “I’m not agreeing with that quote at all. We focus on our business. We don’t have any other distractions.”
Contrary to reports, Jeanie Buss says the money from the Time Warner deal is set, guaranteed regardless of ratings. The stakes, and consequences, however, are still high. “The team is obviously not doing as well this year — injuries and whatnot. Knock on wood, so far the effect [on business] hasn’t been horrible,” says Lakers COO/senior VP of business operations Tim Harris. “You look at the key indicators: OK, how are the ratings? The ratings are a little down.12 They are down relative to the Lakers, but they are still strong relative to an NBA team. Sponsorship interest is up. That’s good. The big indicator is tickets, and so far we are holding our own. Yeah, there are some soft nights every now and again, but by and large the interest is maintained. Now, if the team stays exactly where they are now, and you and I are having this conversation in another year, am I gonna say the same thing? I don’t know.”
Local TV ratings fell 49 percent for the 2013-14 season. As of February 2015, they were down 25 percent from that point last season.
During a tour of the Lakers facilities, I came across Kupchak chatting with assistant GM Glenn Carraro and Nick Mazzella, GM of the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders, near the stairs going down to the practice court. When Kupchak called me later that afternoon, he was still dismayed about the previous night’s close road loss to the Miami Heat. “It was a shame,” Kupchak said. “I think they played so hard. We just couldn’t pull it out at the end. I felt bad for them.”
As for an overview of the Lakers’ 2014-15 season, Kupchak began by stating the obvious: They were not making the playoffs. He liked a few things, however. He thinks Byron Scott has established a culture where the players play hard every night; at that point, the Lakers had only one double-figure loss since the All-Star break. The players appear motivated. And for a team loaded with guys on one-year contracts, Kupchak says they are playing the right way. No one is chasing stats. No one is gunning. Kupchak has dismissed a quick fix to the Lakers’ situation, even though they’ll have a significant amount of cap space this summer and, possibly, a top-five draft pick.13
Philadelphia receives the pick if it falls outside the top five.
Jeanie Buss is publicly optimistic that the Lakers can turn things around. Though unfamiliar with the nuances of the game, she says, she trusts the vision that her brother and Kupchak have for the team. More than anything, she believes in the brand.
Back in her office, she points to a large painting hanging on the far wall. “Let’s see how good you are. Can you name all the guys?” she asks. The painting features seven Lakers in their Sunday home white uniforms walking in unison in front of a white background.
I nail the first six — Brian Shaw, Robert Horry, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. And is that Samaki Walker?
“That’s not Samaki Walker,” Buss says.
It’s Devean George.
Buss moved the painting of the seven members of the 2000-02 three-peat into her office after Mike Brown requested its removal from the players lounge. “I felt like I needed it here. What I love about it is that they are all in white, and whenever you watch a movie, you know how when the characters are in heaven, they are always wearing all white, so that to me is basketball heaven. They are all in heaven together and they are teammates no matter where they are,” she says. “It’s an amazing piece. That’s what Phil is all about: If you get a core group of guys and they are that connected and you can keep them together, you can go on a run. That’s what the Spurs have done. That’s what the Bulls did. That’s what we did. Then we had another go-around when Pau came. We had a good group.”
We moved toward a bookcase in the corner. A Superman figure clock from the wall. A Wonder Woman mug resides on the bookcase. Buss loved comic books as a kid and was a regular at Comic-Con in the 1970s back when it was held at the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego. While her brothers all read Marvel books, Buss was a DC fanatic — Superman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Batman were her favorites. She loved when comics explored the relationship between heroes and villains, archenemies such as Superman and Lex Luthor. She’s even a Smallville buff.
Her current favorite television show, The Walking Dead, is also based on a comic book. And though Buss savors a good zombie scare, the show’s themes are more appealing to her.
“It’s about survival and learning who to trust and building something together. I think that’s what keeps me glued to the show every week,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to have people that you trust or else you can’t survive. It’s the humanity in all of us. You need other people to be successful. You can’t do anything alone.”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vibe, and Complex.