The most powerful female sports executive in the country was sweating profusely in the wilds of Montana, part of a month-long vacation at her boyfriend's lakeside retreat. During an afternoon outing picking huckleberries, she found herself playing a role--a sort of Beverly Hillbilly in reverse--that didn't come naturally, though she was coping. The former Playboy model could handle the sun beating down on her no-longer-fancy hairdo, the dust spoiling her usually flawless makeup, the shrubs scratching her nails. There are hardships you endure for love. But she'd become separated from her boyfriend in the woods, and suddenly he was talking about bears.
''I did tell you what to do if you run into a bear,'' he called.
''If it's a black bear, play dead. If it's a grizzly, climb a tree.''
She felt the panic rising and snapped: ''How do I tell the difference?''
''The grizzly,'' he said vaguely, ''is bigger.''
The moment underscores the paradox that is Jeanie Buss--girlfriend of Lakers coach Phil Jackson, daughter of team owner Jerry Buss and administrative vice president and likely future president of one of the richest and most successful teams in professional sports.
Jeanie Buss plays many roles. She can be the damsel in distress with her boyfriend, as she was that summer day in 2001, or the nervous child with her father, as she was when she first told him about her budding relationship with Jackson.
But beneath the giggly, vivacious personality and stylish clothes is a former model who can talk basketball with NBA owners, finances with Staples Center officials and marketing with television executives. She has proven that she can handle tough situations, as she did when she dealt with the funeral of broadcaster Chick Hearn, and she has shown that she has a few things left to learn about basketball, as she did when she initially opposed the hiring of Jackson as the Lakers' coach.
Jeanie Buss is preparing to sit at the helm of a sports empire that some estimate is worth half a billion dollars. Is she ready? Is Los Angeles?
Jerry Buss has been the majority owner of the Lakers for 23 years, but at age 69, he is gradually turning over the reins of power to his four adult children. Along with Jeanie (41), there is Janie (39) and sons Johnny (46) and Jimmy (43), the four children he had with his wife, Jo Ann, from whom he is divorced. He's also making room in his operations for three boys from another relationship, two of whom, Joey (18) and Jesse (14), the couple had together, and a third, Sean (31), who is the woman's son from a previous relationship. Buss considers him a stepson and employs him as a Lakers scout.
"All of them will someday play a role in the Lakers if they so desire," Jeanie says.
But with Buss removing himself from the day-to-day operation, rarely even coming into the office, and with Jeanie's two older brothers making it clear they prefer smaller roles, and with a sister who places homemaking first, Jeanie has already assumed command of the day-to-day operations of the Lakers, the crown jewel of the Buss sports empire.
Some find it hard to take Jeanie seriously in this role, and she's certainly not the first heiress apparent to face such skepticism. On the day in 1996 when Irvine's St. John Knits announced that daughter Kelly Gray was taking over the presidency of the family enterprise, the company's stock dropped 7.5%. Skeptics grumbled, too, when Christie Hefner took over the executive role that her father, Hugh, a friend of Jerry Buss, had long played in the Playboy empire.
Critics still think of Jeanie Buss as the girl who posed nude in an eight-page Playboy spread, including a photo in which she hid her breasts behind a pair of basketballs; as the girl who shopped and hung out with her father's college-age girlfriends when she was also that age; as the girl who cruised around town in fancy cars and was romantically linked with various sports celebrities. Although her father is a well-known adherent to the Playboy philosophy, Jeanie says she realizes adopting that lifestyle in her younger days was an open invitation to the tabloids. "I'm disappointed so much of that stuff got put in the media," says Jeanie, who concedes that detractors have called her "Jeanie the Bimbo." "But I understand people like to gossip."