Culture of Hoops

The State of the Los Angeles Lakers

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

It’s safe to say that the majority of Los Angeles Lakers fans are in a state of panic. It may be a subdued type of panic, where they just don’t even watch games anymore because they just can’t bear to see Chris Kaman sitting on the bench again for no reason. Or it may be a more active panic, where fans find themselves yelling at the TV every time Kendall Marshall jacks up a three. Maybe you don’t know the difference between a flop and a slam dunk, but you probably have one person in your life complaining about the Lakers.

All of this to say, the Lakers are making Angelenos miserable. And in a town full of egos, where everyone thinks they’re the next big star, people are starting to form some strong opinions about the Lakers front office.

When Dr. Jerry Buss passed away, he left behind impossibly big shoes to fill, but his kids—mainly Jeanie and Jimmy—are trying. But are their efforts enough?

Just prior to Dr. Buss’ passing, the Lakers fired coach Mike Brown, and in a very odd move, chose to hire ringless Mike D’Antoni over 11-time champion Phil Jackson to coach their team. Right off the bat, this was a terrible hire, thanks to the Lakers’ aging personnel. But it happened, and it was seen as Jim’s first blunder, though he maintains that his dad signed off on the hire.

To rewind quickly, back in 1998, Franz Lidz penned an article for Sports Illustrated about the Buss children, and how, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Lakers empire would be divided among the kids. Within that article, Jerry West said something very foreboding: “Power is one of the things that scares you because of the way it’s used. If it’s used correctly, no one will even sense it.”

Everyone sensed the power change from Jerry to Jim, and it’s hard to think that wouldn’t have happened if Jeanie had been the one put in charge of the Lakers instead. That’s been something people have been thinking for decades, and was reported in that 1998 article:

“It’s crazy,” says one of Jerry’s longtime business associates. “Johnny dithers and broods. Jimmy is easily distracted and has no instinct for the jugular. Jeanie is the most capable one, yet she’s overlooked by her loving dad. Does Jerry honestly think this arrangement will work? I’m willing to bet—no, I guarantee—that within three years he sells the entire operation to Rupert Murdoch.”

David Stern said, “Jeanie has a complete knowledge of the interplay of sports marketing, building management, and TV. If she took over the Lakers from her father, I don’t think anything would be lost in the transition.”

Even the quartet’s other member, Janie, had some harsh critiques for her brothers and high praise for her sister, saying:

“My brothers would love to run my father’s operation, but I don’t think they could. John is too angry and fragile. He’s got the first-born syndrome: If people don’t play the game his way, he takes the ball away, sits by himself and cries. I feel so sorry for him, but I can’t feel real sorry for him.

Jimmy doesn’t have the backbone to negotiate or the confidence to succeed. He defers to his friends, and once you start delegating power, you lose control. Both my brothers are fearful of getting what they want and fearful of failure. If you’re not ready to accept failure, you can never face it.

Only Jeanie has the brains and the desire. She’s a great negotiator and a great numbers cruncher, and she knows how to say no. At some level, Johnny and Jimmy must understand that.”

Lidz adds that Jeanie was passed over by her father to take over the Sparks in favor of her brother Johnny, so this wouldn’t be the first time her dad kept a son in the most powerful position of an organization.

With all of that said, Jim has yet to make lengthy public statements in the face of the worst season since the team moved to Los Angeles, but Jeanie said some things on Thursday.

The Lakers president sat down to talk on ESPN710 and was very blunt when she declared:

“I’m the boss. I am responsible ultimately for anything with the team and decisions that are made. In my position, I empower people that are in positions to do their jobs. [Executive vice president of player personnel] Jim Buss and [general manager] Mitch Kupchak are responsible for all basketball decisions. They are empowered to do that. My job is to make sure, as a boss, that I provide them the tools to do the job successfully. But it’s up to them to make the day-to-day decisions on how they operate their area of the business … Ultimately I am the one voice. I am that person. I’m at the top of the food chain.”

That’s Jeanie throwing herself on the sword unnecessarily because, while she has the final say about who is in what position, she’s not going to fire her own brother, someone her father very much wanted to fill that role.

Then things get a little more tricky because Phil Jackson and Jeanie are engaged. She addressed why the organization let the legendary coach slip through their fingers again, saying:

“When it comes to major decisions in any area of the organization, I like to get the blessings of the shareholders—of which my siblings are the majority—and build a consensus even if it isn’t something that all of them agree on. I like to build a consensus and work as a team.

I think people need to understand: It isn’t just Phil. They don’t need anybody else. Everything is covered. There is no additional need for anybody to come in. Jimmy and Mitch have a like mind in how they see the game and what they want to accomplish with this team and they have it under control. They don’t need another voice, whether that’s Phil or whoever. It isn’t about Phil; they don’t need another voice, they’ve got it covered. I understand that and I respect that and I’m happy for them.”

That sort of provides closure on that topic, but it raises the question, who didn’t want Jackson to come back out of the six siblings? It’s very likely that it wasn’t Jeanie.

What’s also interesting about this is that in Jeanie’s autobiography Laker Girl, she says that she was just as surprised as Jackson was when he got the midnight call from Kupchak telling him they’d filled the position he was prepared to accept the next morning. She wrote:

“The sequence of events—Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job—practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was a betrayal. I was devastated.”

Yup, chances are good that she was pulling for them to create a position for that loveable Zen Master.

It also seems like a pretty major decision that was made without any of the siblings’ counsel, which makes you wonder what else was done under the cloak of night that Jeanie has to smile about in the media.

And as for being the boss, just last year Jeanie told The Hollywood Reporter:

“My brother ultimately makes the [basketball] decisions. I defer and will continue to defer because that’s what my dad believed would be successful. I would be more comfortable if I understood what the decision process was, and I’m not always involved in it. To be held accountable by the league and not have a seat at the table when decisions are made is hard.”

So, it’s still not clear who is in charge of Laker Land, and things are looking a little rocky.

The fans who say that the Lakers have a legacy of winning, you’re absolutely right, but it’s hard to win when the people managing the team are at odds. It’s the old saying, ‘a fish rots from the head down.’ This is one fish that needs to figure things out.

Kobe Bryant spoke to this recently when he called an impromptu press conference after a game, saying, “You have to start with Jim. Start with Jim and Jeanie. How that relationship plays out. It starts there in having a clear direction and clear authority. Then it goes down to the coaching staff. What’s Mike going to do? What do they want to do with Mike?”

What they do with Mike is the multi-million dollar question. They cannot have another year like this one. The people of Los Angeles just won’t let that happen. People are already calling radio stations, suggesting that the other Buss children and other minority owners stage a coup and overthrow Jimmy.

I’m not kidding. Someone really suggested that, and you know what, the next caller agreed that it was a good idea, too.

Nobody likes to see Angelenos get upset. We make fools out of ourselves. So, get it together Buss family, for all of our sakes. Especially those four-year-olds who have been waiting their whole lives to see a Lakers championship.

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