LOS ANGELES — It was announced in September that Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson were going to be executive producers of a one-hour drama being developed for Showtime by writer-director Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump, Bull Durham, Blue Chips). The show is about a family that owns a pro basketball team.
You know what they say about truth and fiction.
The key to reality or scripted drama being compelling is the same: the characters.
And in the long-running drama that is the real-life Los Angeles Lakers pro basketball team, the characters are rich and flawed and strong and don't stay down for long, especially if they haven't been successful of late.
In the latest bold twist after Buss and Jackson's surprise engagement and the death of Buss' father and team owner Jerry Buss, Jackson is about to leave Los Angeles because the one and only ideal job for him with the Lakers as head of basketball operations continues to be held by Jeanie's brother, Jim.
So Jeanie, elevated in title upon her father's death, is president of the Lakers—while Jackson goes across the country to assume the title of president of the New York Knicks, the league's other marquee team.
As with any dramatic plot twist, fans are left excited but uncomfortable about not knowing how this is going to work out.
In the case of the Lakers, it's especially uncomfortable when Jackson is the one known entity with a proven and almost magical ability to bring people together for a common cause. The Lakers are losing games and sorely lacking leadership since Jerry Buss' death, as was predictable. Any organization—business, politics, sports—would struggle with instability after losing a gold-standard visionary, and it's all the worse when Jeanie (with business) and Jim (with basketball) remain fundamentally at odds as the ones their father left in charge.
Make no mistake, they have regular meetings gathering all six Buss children for the family trust in charge of the Lakers, but Jeanie and Jim aren't much closer than when they weren't speaking before their father's death. Even though they're trying to work through it, the end game remains more likely to be one in and one out.
Everyone has their own characters to love and hate—or in the case of Kobe Bryant, both loved and hated—but on this set it is clear Jeanie and Phil get to enjoy the most comfortable feeling of being the protagonists, the folks the viewers feel are inherently good and deserve to succeed. Others are not nearly as fortunate—obviously Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni (character: Tom Selleck's greatest acting challenge to portray a spineless, losing pseudo-genius) and especially Jim Buss (character: derived from awkward cap-wearing brother Chris from Family Guy).
Let's be fair to Jim, though: Jerry Buss was actually pretty clueless when he first started out running the Lakers, and he made plenty of mistakes. Jim has a blinding spotlight on a narrow catwalk, with his investment in great player Dwight Howard completely logical except for missing the angle Jerry figured out fast: invest in great players with character.
The father was still around for the Howard trade and the D'Antoni hiring, but he wanted the son to make the calls by then. And there's the rub when it comes to Jim, though Lakers fans just want him to give up and leave the organization. That might well be the way it goes down someday, but here's the current truth: Jim loved his father dearly and loves the Lakers dearly, and he was the one entrusted with continuing his father's winning legacy.
Do you think it'd be believable for anyone in that character's shoes just to walk away a year after his father's death?
Jackson taking his long shadow to New York takes some pressure off Jim, who even in the most inner of Lakers inner circles has been second-guessed for not being willing to bring Jackson and his obvious team-building acumen aboard. Even if Jim refused to have Jackson replace him outright as the creative force alongside Mitch Kupchak, Jim could've bumped himself up to serve as a lesser version of what he described his father to be: "the final hammer" in decisions. Things worked well in the past as a three-man group when Kupchak and Jerry West put their brains together with Jerry Buss, no?
Perhaps someday Jackson can come back, with additional experience as an executive, to join Jeanie and run the Lakers, but for now it's not happening. That realization triggered some emotional complaints Wednesday: in person by Bryant, and on Twitter by Lakers legend Magic Johnson (character: a ridiculous cross between The Wire's powerful and street-wise Stringer Bell and loudmouth politician Clay Davis).
Kobe Bryant is the face of the Lakers' team. Who is the face of the Lakers' organization?— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 12, 2014
I love Jim & Jeanie Buss, but we need Phil Jackson to be the face of our great organization, the Los Angeles Lakers.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 12, 2014
Bryant's news conference after being officially announced as out for the season with his knee injury charted the course for where the storyline is headed next.
Bryant isn't a good fit for D'Antoni's free-wheeling offense and doesn't believe in the coach's light management skills, even outright questioning "what they want to do with Mike" in openly discussing Jeanie and Jim Buss' direction.
Bryant also isn't on board with the Lakers' inclination to put off major free-agent spending from this summer till next, at which time he'll likely have only one season left before retirement. Said Bryant sarcastically: "Let's just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not."
And because this truth is stranger than fiction, we come to the part of the show where perhaps a real-life New York spin-off might be where all the feel-good stuff goes.
Jackson's calling has been taking superstar players and making their eyes open in becoming more than that, with closed-minded Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks an obvious candidate for higher education in winning. Anthony wasn't exactly gushing about Jackson in telling reporters in New York on Wednesday that Jackson has never once spoken to him in all their years in the NBA and he didn't expect Jackson to have "any effect" on his upcoming free-agent decision.
As the Knicks coach, D'Antoni already failed—dramatically—to reach Anthony in showing him the light. Jackson being able to would be a major accomplishment, as would turning the dysfunctional, capped-out Knicks into winners.
It should not go unnoticed that the Knicks are owned by James Dolan, whose position in life came solely on a platter handed him by his visionary father Charles. James—yes, you can call him Jim also—has been maligned for his shoddy management of the Knicks over the past 15 years, and his willingness to turn to Jackson as the savior now is a humbling act for a son who will never be what his father was.
For Jackson, entering this uphill battle on a stage with an even bigger skyline behind it, what he decides to do or can do with Anthony is the first step. Yet it is entirely within Anthony's power, if he so chooses, to take slightly less money and come play for the Lakers with his friend Bryant, whose wife is also tight with Anthony's wife. If that were to be possible, Bryant would have to make sure D'Antoni's inability to—and preference not to—manage big egos is written out of the script…if not for his sake, then for Anthony's.
Despite having the flimsy platform of having played just six games this season after signing the league's richest contract extension that hampers the club's ability to attract talent, Bryant made clear Wednesday he will not sit quietly in the background.
Bryant's greatness, albeit with all five of his NBA championships coming with Jackson as his Lakers coach, is fully established. Still, Bryant expects and demands more.
And as it so often has with the Lakers, the pressure and drama is again being brought by Bryant, who described himself even in his broken state as wanting to win more than anyone else in purple and gold.
"I feel it, probably more than anybody in the organization does," he said. "I feel it more. It drives me absolutely crazy."
The Lakers' best long-term scenario is to develop their lofty No. 1 pick beautifully while waiting till next summer to spend judiciously on a more trustworthy free agent from the deep class such as Kevin Love to team with Bryant—then add another top free agent such as Kevin Durant a year later while hoping Bryant still has enough left to postpone retirement at that time and win a title.
Their best short-term plan is to spend immediately this summer, with Anthony, if they can get him, the likely best talent—and perhaps getting an immediate athletic upgrade from that rookie and other free agents while possibly retaining Pau Gasol at a hometown discount as long as D'Antoni is gone.
Bryant wants the Lakers to connect those two dots and believe there is one best scenario possible for both now and then, because his fundamental belief is, hey, you gotta try.
Of all the characters we've listed, only one believes indubitably that he is the star of the show. And even though Bryant once was so sure he could win without Jackson that he said he was OK with either Jackson or D'Antoni as coach, the star has spoken again and does need to be heard.
Yet as much as this show has always been about its stars, it has had plenty of them over the years. Here's what the show is supposed to be about: a whole lot of people all in spirited pursuit of victory together.
Is it still?
More than the injuries, more than Howard leaving them in the dust, the Lakers lack leadership they actually trust and unity they actually want. Jackson's exit stage right can be either a wake-up call or added reason for everyone to look out for himself.
If this show devolves into mostly infighting and hair-pulling, it'll still offer plenty of fun and flash. It will still be relevant. It will always be watchable.
It just won't be great.
Kevin Ding covers the Lakers for Bleacher Report.