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It's just not the same for Jeanie

NBA

Buss, a longtime face of the organization, has attended only four home games this season. She says she's been spending time with Phil Jackson, but her absence suggests a disconnect with the team.

February 17, 2012|BILL PLASCHKE
  • Jeanie Buss takes part in the ring ceremony after the Lakers' last championship in 2010.
Jeanie Buss takes part in the ring ceremony after the Lakers' last… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)

She sits in the first row behind the courtside seats, directly across from the Lakers' bench, the coolest seat in the house.

For years, fans have stopped by to cheer with her, mourn with her, question her, or just hug her.

For years, through showers of confetti and storms of boos, Jeanie Buss has always been in that seat, evolving into one of the most active, visible and trusted connections between Lakers management and the fans.

Which makes you wonder why, this season, she's barely been around.

Some longtime season-ticket holders say they have seen her at only a couple of games. When I call her this week, she says she's been to four.

That's four out of 14 home games, which is 29%, which is about what her Lakers are shooting from the three-point line.

When you're talking about the team's executive vice president for business operations, a high-profile executive for whom the Lakers are family, it's just plain weird.

''This year has been just different for me," she says.

Different for her, different on the court, different in the standings, and you wonder, if like many of us, Jeanie Buss just doesn't feel connected to this team.

The obvious change is that her boyfriend of a dozen years is no longer the head coach. She used to drive to every home game with Phil Jackson, sometimes even sitting with him in the stands during the D-League games in the late afternoons before taking her seat across from him at tipoff.

''When I go to the games now, I can't even drive in the carpool lane," she says, laughing.

Buss says that with Jackson now retired and living here, they are making up for all those nights they spent apart.

"I'm catching up on all the things I missed doing with my boyfriend for 12 years," she says. "He was always working, and he's not now, so I like to stay home and hang with him."

But there's obviously more here. Attending 10 more home games wouldn't seem to have a huge impact on hang time with a retiree. Buss' absence seems to be a statement that is less about her personal life and more about her basketball team.

Is she as befuddled by their approach as everyone else? Or, like many others, is she just plain bored?

"This year has been unusual ... unique," she admits. "They should put a star next to it."

To understand Jeanie Buss' situation, one must first understand her position in the organization, where her father, Jerry, has essentially split the handling of the team's operations between her and her brother Jim.

Jeanie runs the business side, Jim runs the basketball side, yet Jeanie is a far more established presence because of her enduring connection with the community and deep understanding of what Lakers fans want. Although Jeanie has never made a basketball decision, she has long been the one to remind the basketball people what sells, and to push her father into sparing no expense in acquiring it.

Jeanie is the front-office personification of Showtime while Jim is, well, we really don't know what Jim is yet, do we? Right now, I guess, he's the guy who gave away Lamar Odom for nothing.

"This team is all about my father's love affair with L.A.," says Jeanie. "He wants the fans to shine, he wants the city to have something to be proud of, and that's the course I try to follow today."

Under Jim's increased involvement, however, the organization seemed to veer off course last summer when, upon Jackson's retirement, the Lakers appeared to purposely rid themselves of any remnant of his reign, including not seriously considering longtime Jackson ally Brian Shaw for the head coaching job.

The hiring of Mike Brown meant the end of the high-powered triangle offense, and the atmosphere at Staples Center hasn't been the same since.

"Change is hard, nobody likes change; this has been hard for me," Jeanie admits. "I like the old coach. I was biased. But you can't freeze time, and we have to move on."

The Lakers' first move in the new era was potentially a great one that didn't happen, as the trade for Chris Paul was wrongly canceled by NBA Commissioner David Stern. But the Lakers' next move turned out even worse, as they gave a pouting Odom to the Dallas Mavericks, ending all chance of a deep Lakers playoff run barring another trade.

"I'm a huge Lamar fan; he will be part of the family whether on this team or not," Jeanie says.

Although Jeanie insists her father is still running the show, Jerry remains slowed by blood clots. This has increased Jim's basketball involvement while reducing Jeanie's communication with the basketball folks, and that's not good.

"Yes, I got more connected to the basketball side because of my relationship with Phil, and that may seem like it's changed," she says. "I used to be able to help with the line of communication between business and basketball, but ... we'll find our way."

But will she admit the basketball is not as exciting? "That's not my department," she says. "I want the fans to be happy, and whatever makes the fans happy, that's what I vote for."

Does she have faith in her brother? "I have confidence and faith in the basketball department," she says. "We've gone through this before in 2004; it will all work out, it always does."

But is there a disconnect between one of the Lakers' most visible figures and the Lakers? "There are so many different layers to that question," Jeanie Buss says.

But only one seat. And it's usually empty.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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