Lakers owner Jeanie Buss on Magic, Mamba wisdom and more
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Jeanie Buss sat down with Ramona Shelburne on the second day of the eighth annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit for a frank conversation on the current state of the Los Angeles Lakers. The only female owner in the history of the NBA, Buss addressed Lonzo and LaVar Ball, the controversy with her brother over the control of the team, her relationship with Phil Jackson and the legacy of her late father.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
On Lonzo and his father, LaVar Ball
The first time Buss met LaVar, despite his loudmouthed reputation, "I found him to be very nice," she told Shelburne. "He's a dad who loves his children more than anything, so I have to admire that. He believes in his kids and his kids respond well to him, so I think it's a joy to work with them."
As far as Lonzo goes, "Now we have a kid born and raised in Los Angeles -- that's exciting for our fans to know that this is somebody that truly represents the city," she said.
On her long-term romance with Phil Jackson
After 17 years together, Buss and Jackson called off their engagement last December, but she had only kind things to say about the former Lakers coach.
"He and I worked well together," she said. "During that time, the 12 or so years that he coached the Lakers, I really got into the role of team mom, being the coach's wife. I got to see another side of basketball that I hadn't seen -- that what Phil tries to create is a family."
But after her brother, Jim Buss, decided not to hire Jackson back, he took a job as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. The distance and time apart took its toll.
"One way or the other, it was going to cost us our relationship," she said. "If he would have stayed home and had nothing to do, he would have driven me crazy.
"It just didn't work out for us. And we're in a good place."
On Lakers' personnel decisions
A couple of months after the breakup, Jeanie named Magic Johnson president of basketball operations. She had previously written in her book, "Laker Girl," that her dad wanted her and Magic to eventually run the team. The two seem to have great synergy. "It's like we speak the same language," she told Shelburne, "because we were raised by the same man."
Still, Jim was in a prominent position as vice president of basketball operations. "I think there was some competition between all the Buss kids, especially the sons," she said. "I think it's a lot harder to be the son of Jerry Buss than the daughter of Jerry Buss."
Being the daughter, Jeanie later elaborated, meant she could somewhat fly under the radar.
"Traditionally the oldest son would be the one to inherit the business, and that puts a lot more pressure on a son than a daughter that people aren't focusing on," she said. "It allowed me to be able to do many different things in the organization without threatening people because I wasn't the obvious choice."
On her father's influence
Buss said her dad wanted her to run the business side while Jim ran the basketball side, "but when it was time to make a change, it was important to know that my dad gave me full authority."
For Dr. Buss, as Jeanie calls her father, age mattered more than gender when it came to his heirs' roles in the future of the team. Jeanie is the third-oldest of six -- yet her father left her in charge of the Lakers because, in her words, "he also saw the work ethic that I had."
In May, after several years of futility and coaching turnover within the Lakers' organization, Jeanie fired Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak. A contentious legal battle over control of the team followed, with Jeanie emerging on top.
Her relationship with Jim remains estranged. "When you see people play their cards and reveal who they are, there's not really a lot for us to talk about anymore," Jeanie told Shelburne.
"... It would be human nature that he would be concerned that we would take him out of his position. So he shopped around and found lawyers who thought they had a loophole that they would be able to create enough chaos with the organization that perhaps the NBA would suggest that we sell the team -- that it would leave a void in leadership. But my lawyers were better."
On Kobe Bryant
Buss said she is often asked if she will find a role in the organization for Bryant. He already has one, said Buss, who called the five-time NBA champion one of her biggest inspirations.
"He gave me some excellent advice and the Mamba mentality: 'If you're going to do it, do it clearly, decisively. Be strategic, have a plan,' " she said. "And he's absolutely right."