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Lady of the Lakers

Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

Lady of the Lakers

Jeanie Buss inherited a team, and a legacy, from her father. What will her imprint be?

Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

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In November 2015, when Kobe Bryant had decided it would be his final basketball season, he requested a meeting with Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Lakers. They met at the house she was sharing with her then-fiance, Phil Jackson.

“I have a way I want to do it,” Ms. Buss recalled Mr. Bryant telling her. She said that he planned out his retirement announcement, which included giving a special letter to each fan attending that game. “Everything Kobe did was very thought out and it had purpose,” she said.

It has been a tough few years for the Lakers, and for Ms. Buss. She had a public fight with two of her brothers for control of the team, and then her handpicked aide, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, quit suddenly and publicly. The team had been trying to rebound from its dismal record by leaning on LeBron James, but the 2018-2019 season unraveled in spectacular fashion when he got hurt on Christmas.

The Lakers, which by that time in franchise history had won 16 National Basketball Association championships, had not qualified for the playoffs in years.

Then Mr. Bryant and his daughter Gianna died with seven others in a helicopter last January. And, of course, there was the coronavirus pandemic.

But this past October, after the team had spent three months in the N.B.A. bubble in Orlando, Ms. Buss accepted the championship trophy. It was the first time in the history of the N.B.A. a female owner has won.

“You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history,” she told her players after a long embrace with Mr. James, who led the team to a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in the sixth game of the best-of-seven series.

It’s a new chapter for Ms. Buss, too. The eldest daughter and successor to one of the most famous N.B.A. owners, Dr. Jerry Buss, who died in 2013, she’s emerged as the franchise leader in her own right.

“Jeanie is not just one of the best owners in the N.B.A.,” said the former Lakers player, coach and investor Magic Johnson. “She is one of the best owners in all of sports.”

ImageMs. Buss before the Lakers’ opening night game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on Dec. 22 in Los Angeles.
Ms. Buss before the Lakers’ opening night game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on Dec. 22 in Los Angeles.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images

Among its few charms, 2020 was a year when women in professional sports ascended: Danita Johnson in soccer, Cherie Pridham in cycling, Kim Ng in baseball. Earlier this week, the San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon became the first woman to direct an N.B.A. team after head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from the game (against the Lakers) for fighting with a referee.

“To see women in these decisions making positions is of paramount importance,” said Billie Jean King, “because we are never going to have a woman president until people understand that women can lead everyone, not just women.”

In her career, Ms. Buss, 59, has rejected many of the conventions about how a female executive should act. She dated the team coach, Mr. Jackson. A former beauty-pageant winner, she posed for Playboy in 1995. “It was an empowering decision,” she said. “I got a lot of pushback from people, but too many people want you to fit you into what their aspirations are for you.”

She is also known for negotiating key deals, like a $3 billion broadcast agreement with Time Warner Cable, and playing a central role in league business, like sitting on the influential labor committee. “Her views carry enormous weight, both with the other owners and the players,” said Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner. “She is N.B.A. royalty.”

The Lakers franchise was valued at $1 billion when Ms. Buss took control in 2013, according to Forbes, and is now valued at an estimated $4.4 billion, the second only to the New York Knicks. “You only have to look at the value of the team to know it’s in good hands,” said Lon Rosen, the executive vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who has known Ms. Buss since 1979, when he interned for the Lakers.

She was then a young sidekick to Jerry Buss, the chemist turned real estate investor turned revered sports figure who’d bought the team that year, and was eventually credited with helping transform the N.B.A. from a sports league into a global entertainment conglomerate. He had six children — Johnny, Jim, Jeanie and Janie — with his wife JoAnn Mueller, and later Joey and Jesse with Karen Demel, a girlfriend.

Jeanie’s training began as soon as he bought the team. “I think his intention was always to have his sons work for him, the classic father-and-son family business,” she said, while tooling around her neighborhood of Playa Vista in Los Angeles with a teacup Maltese, Dolores. “I never approached my place with the Lakers as ‘but I want to be the one.’ I just said to my dad, ‘I want to work in the family business. What do you want me do?'”

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Los Angeles Lakers World Championship rings sitting inside a case by Jeanie Buss’s office at the UCLA Health Training Center.Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

She had grown up privileged but shy in Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she and her siblings were little. Living with her mother in Pacific Palisades, Jeanie longed for more time with her father, a colorful, charismatic figure who was known for his business savvy, poker playing and place in the scene at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.

When Dr. Buss bought the Forum, the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings (hockey) and a ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million, Jeanie was about to enter her freshman year at University of Southern California. She spent the summer with her father in Bel Air.

“I didn’t get enough time with him when I was growing up, he was working a lot, that was his focus, building his empire, building his wealth through real estate,” she said. “But when I got out of high school, I learned there was more we could do together around sports.”

Dr. Buss gave Jeanie the job of managing the L.A. Strings, a team he owned in the World Team Tennis league, whose roster included Martina Navratilova, and suggested his daughter live with him rather than on campus. To give them enough room, he bought Pickfair, the Beverly Hills estate made famous in the 1920s by the actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and known until its demolition in 1990 as “the Buckingham Palace of Hollywood.”

“I felt like I had found an adoptive grandmother watching over me,” Ms. Buss said of Ms. Pickford, who with Mr. Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith founded United Artists in 1919. “She was a woman who had a seat at the table,” Ms. Buss said. “She had power and she did things to make things better for her fellow actors.”

To help his daughter with the Strings, Dr. Buss paired her with an employee named Linda Zafrani (who became Linda Rambis when she married the former Lakers power forward Kurt Rambis in 1985). The professional partnership between Ms. Buss and Ms. Rambis has spanned 40 years. “Two strong women can, in fact, work very well together, as we have done for a long time,” said Ms. Rambis, now the Lakers’ executive director.

With Ms. Rambis, Ms. Buss managed the L.A. Strings and booked exhibition matches at the Forum, attracting stars like Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Mr. Connors, now a host of “Advantage Connors,” a podcast, said Ms. Buss helped heighten professional tennis’s popularity in Los Angeles. “These were one-off exhibition matches where you would get 20,000 people coming to the Forum to watch,” he said.

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“Dolores is my wingman,” Ms. Buss said of her teacup Maltese.Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

Ms. Buss brought new spectators to the Forum with volleyball and roller hockey. She and Ms. Rambis traveled to the former Soviet Union to negotiate (unsuccessfully) to book the Great Moscow Circus. “Jeanie learned what’s required in these smaller sports first, which is the right way to go because the theory is that they’re all the same, you just add zeros,” said Ms. King, a founder of World Team Tennis and an owner of the Dodgers with Mr. Johnson and others.

All the while, Jerry Buss was sprinkling Hollywood dust on his corner of the basketball league. Lakers games in the 1980s at the Forum were referred to as “Showtime”; HBO is developing a series about that era, directed and produced by Adam McKay.

Dr. Buss was first to price the chairs right on the court as “beachfront property,” Ms. Buss said; “the Nicholson seats,” they became known (as in Jack). Special entrances were earmarked for V.I.P.s. The Laker Girls were created. (Straight up, Dr. Buss is responsible for helping make Paula Abdul famous.)

But his most important move was drafting Magic Johnson, who would lead the team to five championships over a decade, in 1979.

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Ms. Buss and Magic Johnson in 2009.Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Mr. Johnson became a regular dinner table companion at the Buss home.

“Jeanie is my sister,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Magic is my brother,” Ms. Buss said.

She married Steve Timmons, a volleyball Olympian, in 1990 but he was playing in Italy and her ever-expanding responsibilities were in Los Angeles. They divorced in 1993.

In 1999 Dr. Buss hired Mr. Jackson, a former New York Knick who had become the celebrated coach of the Michael Jordan-era Bulls. “I didn’t think it was good idea,” Ms. Buss said. “I told my dad, ‘We have Kobe and Shaq. If you bring in a coach who thinks he’s the star, it could upset the balance.'” (Mr. Jackson coached the team to another five championships.)

Nonetheless, after Mr. Jackson took the job, Ms. Buss found herself drawn to him. In September 1999, she asked her assistant to bring a piece of cake that had been served at an office party for her birthday. He responded by asking her to dinner. “That would be normal, for me to get to know the coach,” she said.

But there was immediate chemistry. “I’m not interested in an affair or dating on the D.L.,” she said she told him. “‘If you’re interested in me, it has to come with full disclosure to the team because otherwise, it will compromise me.'”

They dated until 2016.

Ms. Buss said Mr. Jackson taught her how to nurture a team. “I knew the business side,” she said, “but Phil’s way of creating a family unit in basketball, how he treated players as a whole person, I learned so much about the love of the game and what it meant, but also about the sacrifices people made, the way players sacrifice the ‘me’ for the ‘we.'”

In an email, Mr. Jackson, who is known to fans as “the Zen master,” said he was able to share with her the insecurities often harbored by coaches’ and players. “Owners often consider them peripheral compared to the players and probably rightly so,” he wrote, “but the organization runs on the harmony created by the whole.”

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Phil Jackson and Ms. Buss at a Lakers victory party in 2002.Credit…Kevin Winter/ImageDirect

But the “harmony of the whole” turned discordant after Jerry Buss died, leaving equal inheritance to each of his six children but deeming Jeanie controlling owner in charge of the franchise, and the team’s representative to the league.

At the time, Jim Buss, one of Jeanie’s older brothers, was executive vice president for basketball operations, responsible for picking the coach and drafting and trading players. After Mr. Jackson and Mr. Bryant led the Lakers to the championship in 2010, the team’s performance faltered, with a turnover of six coaches in five years.

“With my brother, I couldn’t understand what he was doing, it was opposite of what we were taught by our dad,” Ms. Buss said — namely, signing a superstar and building a team to complement that player’s talents.

In 2014, Jim told his siblings that he would step down if the team wasn’t a championship contender within three years.

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The 2019 – 2020 Los Angeles Lakers World Championship Flag hanging up inside the UCLA Health Training Center gym. Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

When the team failed to meet Jim’s mark, Ms. Buss fired him and hired Mr. Johnson for his role.

“I said, ‘I know you’ll tell me the truth and I trust you because we were raised by the same person,'” she said. “He understood how my dad ran the business.”

This drew the ire of her brother Johnny. “I read in the paper that my brother is fired, publicly,” Johnny Buss said. “I called my brother and he said, ‘I had no idea that Jeanie could fire me in the first place.'” A legal brawl between the siblings cemented Jeanie’s control.

Johnny, the owner of the Ice House Comedy Club, said he now isn’t speaking to his brother Jim and maintains an emotional distance from the management of the family business and from the sister in charge. “Jeanie really matured in the last two years, to a point I’m really proud of her, but it doesn’t mean I’ll talk to her much,” he said. (A lawyer for Jim Buss could not be reached for comment.)

Ms. Buss makes no apologies.My dad had his children, but the Lakers was his baby,” she said. “My father said, ‘You are ultimately in charge, you have to protect the baby.'”

Hiring Mr. Johnson, she said, “put us back on a path to stability and respectability.”

But in 2019, less than a year after he helped to sign LeBron James, Mr. Johnson quit, telling the press before Ms. Buss. “If I talked to her first,” said Mr. Johnson, “I would have never stepped down, that’s why I had to do it the way I did it. We would have been in the room crying together.”

His exit — “the Magic abdication,” as Mr. Jackson called it — drew all the media scrutiny of royal family drama.

“I wish it had been handled less publicly,” Ms. Buss said. But she showed herself to be the club’s steady leader amid crushing pressure: the death of Mr. Bryant and a pandemic that pushed the grieving team into an isolated bubble, away from family and detached from a civil rights movement of personal relevance to many players. “I get a lump in my throat just thinking about what the players did under the most difficult circumstances,” she said.

For many observers, Ms. Buss’s own milestone was equally moving.

“Little girls are watching,” Ms. Rambis said. “They saw her get that trophy, and that doesn’t happen that often, or ever.”


The photographer used a star filter when taking portraits of Ms. Buss in December.

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