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The Family Plan

Jerry Buss never intended to sell the Lakers, and now it's clear his kids will inherit his empire, with son Jim taking control of team

October 25, 2005|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

In the mind of their patriarch, the Lakers were always a family affair, even if only his sons and daughters, who stood to inherit what Dad had wrought, took it seriously.

Even in recent years, as Jerry Buss named Jim assistant general manager of the Lakers, handed the business side to Jeanie and the Sparks to Johnny, speculation about an eventual sale never stopped.

In the '90s, the prevailing rumor had the Lakers going to Sony for a then unheard-of $500 million. More recently, speculation centered on Rupert Murdoch. Then it was Philip Anschutz, their Staples Center landlord, who bought 25% of the club along with a right of first refusal, should the team be put up for sale.

However, Jerry Buss never wavered. Last season it became clear that he was preparing for a succession, not a sale. Jim moved into decision-making at the highest level as his father put it squarely: "He'll replace me."

This occasioned no celebration amid the tumult of their season-long disaster with Shaquille O'Neal going, Rudy Tomjanovich fleeing and the good times ending with a thunderclap. Jim's title had been ceremonial for years and within the organization, the reaction to his accession was more like resignation.

However, if Jim represented something new and scary, he also was starting to work alongside the professionals in the front office. Now, as he becomes aware that everything he says has impact, he's learning to be circumspect too.

"I envisioned me getting to the point where I am now, and I'm very happy that it happened," he said recently. "It's the way to learn. Having all these guys, Jerry West, Mitch [Kupchak, the general manager], Ronnie [Lester, assistant general manager], you're surrounded by all these guys who are great teachers.

"I've had eight years of teaching, and I'm learning every day. When I hear somebody say, 'Are you qualified?' I'm like, 'If you had eight years of Jerry West, plus Mitch Kupchak and all the talented scouts working on a daily basis tutoring you, I don't know what other credentials you could have.' "

Be it ever so zany, continuity means something. The Dodgers, who refined the family organization in half a century under Walter O'Malley, Branch Rickey and their heirs, were sold to Murdoch, who barely acknowledged they existed while his lieutenants cavalierly traded off Mike Piazza during a business call. Seven years later, the team was sold to Frank McCourt, a Boston developer who has run it under tight budget restraints while drawing 3.5 million fans annually.

The Lakers will, at least, be run by people who came up within the organization, however belatedly.

Of course, they have their own challenge, trying to create another phoenix from the ashes of the last one. It isn't easy to follow Jerry Buss, even for Jerry Buss.

Not Quite Your Normal Dynasty

Jerry Buss wanted a crowd-pleasing basketball team the movie stars could relate to but might have gone too far. He wound up with the greatest floating soap opera in sports, and basketball was almost beside the point.

Buss has won eight titles in his 26 seasons, the most for any owner of any American major-sport team in that time, even more impressive for having been done in the age of the salary cap.

His franchise is a colossus. Laker finances are closely guarded, but the franchise is conservatively thought to gross more than $150 million and to net more than $50 million annually. Forbes has valued it at $500 million, an astounding total for a team that comes without real estate and an arena.

Estimates of the Lakers' annual profits run as high as $75 million. Based on that figure, says Dwight Manley, a local player agent and a nationally known collector, the franchise would be worth $600 million to $700 million.

The Lakers don't even have to play to captivate the nation. How many teams finish 11th, rehire their old coach and find themselves scheduled for the maximum eight appearances on national TV the next season?

This is based on the popular belief that sparks will be flying because of Jackson's literary criticism of Kobe Bryant. And one of those games will be the now-traditional Christmas game against O'Neal's Miami Heat, based on the popular belief that Shaq and Kobe will try to crush each other for the nation's holiday viewing pleasure.

Nor are many 11th-place teams featured nightly on the new "ESPN Hollywood," with Bryant and wife Vanessa pictured in the ads and Jeanie Buss explaining how the Lakers sprinkle movie stars throughout the crowd for maximum effect. This may be old here, but it still plays in the hinterland. But then, how many teams have a former Playboy model out front who is the owner's daughter and the coach's girlfriend?

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