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Buss family faces crucial moment with the Lakers

Jim Buss runs basketball and Jeanie Buss runs the business side, but they share in Lakers' fortunes with four other siblings, and the marquee NBA team is at a crossroads.

April 19, 2014|By Mike Bresnahan
  • The Lakers braintrust includes (from left) Jim Buss, Jeanie Buss, Joey Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
The Lakers braintrust includes (from left) Jim Buss, Jeanie Buss, Joey… (LAT, Getty and AP )

The six brothers and sisters, with a gap of 31 years from eldest to youngest, gathered in the winter near the first anniversary of their father's death to discuss some problems about the family business. It's also the city's treasured sports team — the Lakers.

The team was nose-diving in the standings, losing the interest of fans, and grinding toward its worst season since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.

So Jeanie Buss posed an elementary question to her siblings: What was going on with the Lakers?

Her older brother Jim Buss, 54, in charge of the Lakers' basketball operations, spoke up in the boardroom of the team's El Segundo training facility and pledged to resign in a few years if the suddenly dark fortunes of the franchise weren't reversed.

"I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn't work in three to four years, if we're not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed," he told The Times about the meeting. "I don't know if you can fire yourself if you own the team … but what I would say is I'd walk away and you guys figure out who's going to run basketball operations because I obviously couldn't do the job.

"There's no question in my mind we will accomplish success. I'm not worried about putting myself on the line."

It was an emotional meeting, and the siblings — including Johnny, Janie, Joey and Jesse — agreed that Jim deserved more time on the job.

Their father, Jerry Buss, died in February 2013. He left his six children — each with an equal vote — in charge of a family trust, with a 66% ownership stake in the team. But the results of their first season as co-owners weren't close to championship caliber.

"We're watching a very unfortunate thing happen to a beloved team right now," former Lakers coach Phil Jackson told The Times before taking the job last month as president of the New York Knicks. "Everybody is kind of aghast at it and people that are the best customers that any franchise can possibly hope for are dissatisfied, and rightly so."

Many family businesses struggle after a patriarch dies. But four of the six Buss children remain active in the Lakers' operations and the family isn't facing a financial crisis. Their dad left them a franchise valued at more than $1 billion and another great gift — a 25-year, $5-billion broadcast deal with Time Warner Cable. And they seem committed to keeping the Lakers in the family.

"We're not selling the team. It's not what we were raised to do," Jim said. "My dad groomed us for basically 20 years to do what we're doing."

But like many extended families, there are disputes and nuances within the relationships of the Buss clan.

One of the most complicated involves Jackson, who coached the Lakers to five championships, and is the fiance of Jeanie Buss, 52. Her father selected her to be the team governor, the franchise's highest position, and she was placed in charge of the team's business operations.

She was clearly upset when the Lakers did not rehire Jackson as coach in November 2012, after Jim abruptly fired Coach Mike Brown five games into the season.

The team talked with Jackson about the job and Jeanie wanted him to return to the sidelines. Jeanie later wrote in her book, "Laker Girl," that she felt betrayed by the decision to hire Mike D'Antoni, pinning it on her brother Jim, even though their father, from his hospital bed, made the final decision. Jim in turn was upset by Jeanie's book.

However, with Jackson working for the Knicks, some in the Lakers organization believe his departure might help smooth out past family disputes.

Jim insists he and his sister Jeanie get along fine.

"I hate to burst the bubble of what the perception is. We've worked together for many, many, many years," he said. "With the missing piece of my dad, people think we have lost a connection, but that's not true. It's just business as usual."

Still, interviews with NBA officials, agents, players and current and former team employees suggest that the communication between the Lakers' business and basketball operations needs some improvement. Kobe Bryant raised the issue last month, saying the Lakers' future starts with Jim and Jeanie "and how that relationship plays out."

For her part, Jeanie uses the word "empowering" to describe the current situation with Jim, and Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, trying to fix the basketball side of the franchise.

"Jim has assured me that they have a plan in place, that the team will be better next year and we will be back in contention shortly," Jeanie said. "He's very confident in that plan and so I have to believe he knows what he's doing and what he's trying to accomplish. We have to be patient and give him that opportunity."

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