LOS ANGELES — Upon her father's death a year ago, Jeanie Buss was given the power.
The question is: When will she use it?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, his own gavel shiny and new in hand, dined with Buss in Los Angeles Monday night and gave her a pointed message, according to NBA sources:
The power is hers to use, and those in the league office want and trust her to be more aggressive with it in leading the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the days after the dinner, Buss appeared for rare, extended interviews with the Lakers’ TV and radio partners. The spots were not specifically at Silver’s behest; Buss decided on her own to do them to clarify matters after fiance Phil Jackson’s official departure from the Lakers’ family to run the New York Knicks, who face the Lakers on Tuesday at Staples Center.
Yet the content and tenor of those interviews was absolutely dictated to some extent by Silver’s advice that the Lakers, in order to remain an elite NBA franchise, need Jeanie Buss to step forward as their clear leader.
Buss’ pronouncements on ESPN 710 radio made her leadership clearer than even the formal titles in the team directory that show Jeanie Buss as team president and governor compared to brother Jim as executive vice president and alternate governor.
“I am the one voice,” Jeanie said. “I’m at the top of the food chain.”
Jeanie specifically declared that she has the clout to change the basketball operations department, which her father, Jerry, planned for Jim to oversee.
“I give them the authority from my position as president and governor to put together our basketball program and personnel,” Jeanie said on Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
She was even more explicit about that authority over Jim in the radio spot, saying, “In his job, he reports to me.”
Jeanie allowed it is complicated given Jim’s status as one of the shareholders—the Buss family trust, comprising six of Jerry’s children, owns 66 percent of the Lakers—and how she is an employee tasked with keeping the shareholders happy. But the undercurrent of the words clarified that if she had desired, if she had been so cutthroat, Jeanie could’ve up and bounced Jim at any point over the past year and replaced him with Jackson.
That would’ve been downright stunning, and as desirable as having Jackson was and is, it also would have very much been an abuse of power. Jim is the one who consulted with Jerry every day as the Lakers built themselves back into a title team with Pau Gasol’s help. Jim, no matter what you might have heard, does not deserve to be fired.
Still, imagine how much easier life would’ve been for Jeanie to go that route.
Her fiance, the obvious fan favorite and someone the Knicks believed in enough to pay a reported $12 million annually to run their basketball operations last week, would’ve been locked in by her side and in her home instead of leaving her in this bicoastal personal limbo.
The fans and Jackson both would’ve been thrilled. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has a splendid relationship with Jackson, and every Lakers legend from Kobe Bryant to Magic Johnson would’ve been nodding about this season being a fundamental success no matter how many games the Lakers lost.
Jeanie could’ve installed Jackson above or below Jim—the majority of her siblings actually endorsed Jackson coming aboard, though Jim and older brother Johnny didn’t—and with that less dramatic turn still could’ve absolutely changed the course of Lakers history.
Doing those things, however, were not Jerry Buss’ wishes.
So Jeanie’s wishes, whatever they might’ve been, never mattered in one sense.
It is just getting interesting now that her wishes might really become her commands, as she begins an honest evaluation of the basketball operations department’s future years.
So far, she has used her power in a way that is true to her character, which her father counted on in trusting her to execute his vision beyond the grave. She is giving Jim, groomed for this for more than a decade, his fair shot despite where public opinion stands, which she sees as doing her job properly.
Jeanie described her management approach on TWC SportsNet this way: “It’s important to me to have teamwork, to build consensus, to have everybody on the same page, and even if there’s disagreement, to get an understanding of why. That’s my style of dealing with things.”
She was never going to be a tyrannical ruler out for revenge on her brother for not hiring Jackson as coach in November 2012. As good as it is to see her step forward and claim her authority in those interviews, running the Lakers will never be about Jeanie’s ego.
And let’s be clear about this much: Jeanie was completely not the one groomed to run the basketball operations, and her TV interview showed that. If she hadn’t engendered so much goodwill with Lakers fans, there would’ve been far more notice of her quivering voice and emotion regarding the need to extend Bryant’s contract at a league-high level—and her simplistic take on rebuilding.
“Too much attention is being paid to salary cap and all that kind of stuff, which is important and the rules we have to operate in, but can’t we just talk about the players and the team and how a basketball team comes together and not focus on slotting and cap space?” she said. “That stuff to me is…I don’t wear a hat and T-shirt with ‘Cap Space’ on it. It just doesn’t seem like a warm, cuddly thing.”
If you want her to be commanding, she can only be who she is. And if she is sweet at heart, that is nothing of which to be ashamed. She has earned plenty of respect in business with her existing style, which is why her father and the NBA commissioner endorse her to lead.
Even though things almost couldn’t have gone worse for the teams Jim fielded, Jackson could be patient no longer. Jackson had plotted out that Seattle expansion possibility and then had this challenge to liberate the Knicks, but they were not his only NBA plans by a long shot.
For context—and for those clinging to visions that Jackson will join Jeanie with the Lakers after his five-year Knicks deal ends—when Jerry West came out of post-Lakers retirement to run the Memphis Grizzlies, he was 64. Jackson is starting from scratch at 68 on a new career; he has been ready to get to work, and who knows how old he’ll be if he ever becomes available to the Lakers.
Jackson’s exit leaves the Lakers alone to deal with themselves in a whole new light.
For all of the public’s disappointment, there is very real private Lakers relief at Jackson’s square-shouldered shadow being gone, including for Jeanie. She has been banking time with her father and her fiance in recent years, but she will increase her focus on the Lakers now.
The onus on Jeanie and Jim only increases further when the day comes that their mother and Jerry’s ex-wife, JoAnn, has to pass down her shares in the team. Those shares will go only to her children, the four eldest (Johnny, Jim, Jeanie and Janie), not the two youngest (Joey and Jesse), according to team sources.
In the NBA’s ideal world, Jackson fixes the Knicks, and Jeanie has more time to run the Lakers right—both big-city clubs steadying themselves in coming years. For the Lakers, that will mean either Jim getting the Lakers to win again or Jeanie bringing in someone else to do that.
If Jeanie’s hands have been largely tied, her moral compass mandating she heed her father’s wishes, the separation of Phil and Jim now makes it a simple situation:
It’s up to Jim to earn his ticket…and his sister’s approval.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.