A Family Divided: Unrest Growing in Buss Family as Lakers Struggle to Rebuild

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 28, 2016

EL SEGUNDO, CA - AUGUST 10:  Jim Buss and his sister Jeanie Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers attend a news conference where Dwight Howard was introduced as the newest member of the team at the Toyota Sports Center on August 10, 2012 in El Segundo, California. The Lakers acquired Howard from Orlando Magic in a four-team trade. In addition Lakers will receive Chris Duhon and Earl Clark from the Magic.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — It was Jerry Buss' wish.

Call it a dying wish if you want, because he made it to his second son in his final days from a hospital bed. Buss was weak from chemotherapy treatments targeted at a tumor that kept growing back, late in a cancer fight he believed would continue longer than it did.

He could only stay awake for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. There was no comprehension of how poorly his team was doing with Dwight Howard.

But it was the same wish Jerry had carried for the past decade in his trust: His six children would inherit majority ownership in the Los Angeles Lakers from him, and that second son, Jim, would be in charge of the Lakers basketball operations.

Jerry encouraged Jim to assume the job Jim had dearly wanted for some time. Jim would boast to people back when the Lakers were still in the Forum in the late 1990s how he would shortly be in charge of the team, and it wouldn't even take his father's death to have it happen.

His father's appeal for him to do the job is a big part of why Jim is still where he is despite the poor on-court results and a work ethic his own family questions.

For months after his father's death, Jim went into a fog, wandering entirely away from work and his usual predraft responsibilities. He considered his mortality and whether he wanted to step down and have fun and even sell the team.

Ultimately, it was only a wish from Jerry.

As in, a hope that Jim could do it. Not necessarily a belief or trust.

Fathers and sons almost always do a complicated dance together, and sometimes hopes and dreams are easier to wrap arms around than each other.

In the years prior, Jerry Buss would get a light in his eyes and proud chuckle in his voice when he'd get a call from Jim on certain days.

Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and Jerry Buss in 2008.
Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and Jerry Buss in 2008.Noah Graham/Getty Images

"Jim's in the office!" Jerry would report to those around him, a song in his tone.

It was such a rarity for that to be the case, but it gave the father reason to believe.

In fact, he told another person that he didn't envision Jim would do the job for more than five or six years.

That was five years ago.

Jerry Buss both worked and played hard, often eschewing sleep. But he preferred to guide rather than order anyone around. He placed his kids in sink-or-swim moments to add a risky edge to the opportunities he offered them.

It's just that Jerry had a bit of a blind spot when it came to Jim, who suffered stunning deaths to a best friend and a girlfriend and was viewed by his father as a fragile soul. Jim was also the child to whom Jerry was personally closest…and he was the only realistic option at the time among the children to handle the basketball post.

According to team and league sources, despite how the torch-passing was presented to media and fans, Jerry did not have deep confidence in Jim as a basketball visionary or even someone with the grit to stay in charge of Lakers personnel for the long haul.

Indeed, it should be known that the foundation of the struggling Lakers basketball operations was not expected to last.

Jim's siblings certainly know.

The great patriarch died in February 2013. After the three worst seasons in the history of the franchise, those vaunted family brands "Lakers" and "Buss" have both lost considerable shine in recent years. That the decline has come under Jim's watch has only furthered why things are quietly awkward.

Jim's siblings, who so genuinely want to win again, are holding out hope, same as their father did, that their dreamer of a brother can still make some offseason magic.

But they are in their final days of hoping.

They feel obligated to do right by the brands, the minority owners outside the family and definitely the people who make up perhaps the world's biggest fanbase, a group as frustrated as anyone in the family.

They're all Jerry Buss' children in a way.

It was Buss who shared with them his pride and certainty and team and success.

Jerry Buss celebrating the Lakers' 1985 NBA title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (being interviewed by Brent Musburger) and Pat Riley.
Jerry Buss celebrating the Lakers' 1985 NBA title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (being interviewed by Brent Musburger) and Pat Riley.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In a sense, he gave them all life as part of this rich franchise.

However, only Johnny, Jim, Jeanie, Janie, Joey and Jesse were given directions to carry out his wishes.

His wishes. His blessings. His burdens.

People can only carry out the wishes of the past for so long into the future.

The lawyers, there to clarify the details about Jerry's trust, had left the room at the Lakers' offices at 555 N. Nash St., leaving just the six siblings in a family meeting.

Johnny, the emotional eldest son once in line to run the Lakers with Jeanie and Jim until it became clear he inherited far more play than work from his dad.

Jim, who'd left his life training horses when his father asked if he was ready to apprentice in basketball in 1997 and become an active part of management for the Lakers' 2009 and '10 NBA titles.

Jeanie, anointed team president and in charge of the Lakers' business side because of her dedication, experience and Jerry's appreciation she would be the fairest of them all.

Janie, whose interest in the family business increased recently as her children grew up but previously had done good work heading the Lakers Youth Foundation.

Joey, 21 years younger than Janie and now earning plaudits for what he has done in charge of the D-Fenders, the Lakers' successful NBA Development League affiliate.

And Jesse, a growing voice in basketball talent decisions in the Lakers scouting department and in Jerry's final stretch living under the roof of a father who named him after his own mother.

It was 2014, roughly a year since their father's death. The Lakers had far more losses on the ledger than usual, and it was time to ask Jim some pointed questions—particularly on the issue of bringing in one eager, available and esteemed Phil Jackson to assist Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak with basketball operations. If not Jackson, then perhaps someone else could help.

Thanks, but no thanks, Jim told them flatly.

He was insistent he could do the job his father had handed over to him. Jim rejected the idea that Jackson's mere presence would help the brand even after his father previously thrived among a three-headed leadership committee of himself, Jerry West and Kupchak.

Jeanie held the presidential power to install Jackson, her fiance, in any role she desired or make any changes she saw fit. She preferred to withhold that power and build consensus, if possible.

Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson, who moved on to take over the Knicks after the Lakers' hierarchy decided not to add him to the front office in 2014.
Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson, who moved on to take over the Knicks after the Lakers' hierarchy decided not to add him to the front office in 2014.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press

Out of love for Jackson, she also didn't want to push him into a situation where he wouldn't be welcomed to accomplish anything.

So Jeanie asked Jim a simple question, considering he was adamantly opposed to outside assistance:

How can we hold you accountable?

That prompted Jim to pledge a quick turnaround. Within three years, the Lakers would be "in contention for a championship," he promised his siblings.

Some believe Jim was so blatantly confident because he figured LeBron James was coming to the Lakers as a free agent that summer.

Indeed, his father had shot for the stars often and hit. So why wouldn't it happen again?

So Jim told people that Carmelo Anthony was coming the next summer. He told people that Howard was staying the previous year.

He told people as soon as the Lakers' recent season was winding down that Kevin Durant was coming this summer…with Russell Westbrook the next.

But with each failure, it became clearer and clearer that the optimism with which the Lakers approached each summer was rooted in the past.

In some ways, it reminds of a 1994 movie, Little Big League, in which a 12-year-old boy inherits the Minnesota Twins and promises he will resign as manager if he fails to improve the team.

Jim, according to many within the team, is a boy just wanting to play with his toy.

Still, Jim's brothers and sisters appreciated that he was willing to put himself on the line in the future with his three-year promise.

A Kupchak contract extension through 2018 at Jim's behest was eventually granted as part of his promise, even though Kupchak had irked some by pushing for his extension shortly after Jerry's memorial service, when emotions remained raw.

But when Jackson started talking with the New York Knicks about being in charge of their basketball operations, the siblings scrambled not to lose him.

That triggered a contentious email chain. Jim phoned some individually to lobby them to change their votes, according to team and league sources. Only Johnny, who had his own stretch of time not speaking to Jim, stood with Jim in opposition to hiring Jackson in some capacity.

Jeanie had been deeply wounded in November 2012 when Jim and Kupchak, at a time when her father was already in the hospital and mostly in an advisory management role, hired Mike D'Antoni as head coach when Jackson had been given the impression it was his job to take.

The hiring of Mike D'Antoni in 2012 over Phil Jackson cooled the relationship between Jeanie Buss and her brother Jim.
The hiring of Mike D'Antoni in 2012 over Phil Jackson cooled the relationship between Jeanie Buss and her brother Jim.Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Now the door wasn't just open for Jeanie; it was as if the drawbridge had been lowered all the way, inviting her to summon her fiance to ride into the castle as the white knight.

Jeanie still didn't use her power, however. She set aside her personal convictions for redemption and let her beloved leave town for what she saw as a better job for him…and the best shot for her brother.

The ensuing two years haven't exactly been the high life for Jeanie.

Amid the Lakers' losing, she has continued in her role as the face of the franchise—trying to reassure fans and sponsors alike. People question and complain to all the siblings these days, but it's nothing like what it is for Jeanie, the type who is far more willing to take on others' pain than unload her own.

On top of living across the country from Jackson, Jeanie suffered a profound loss of another sort a year ago: Her dog died.

Princess Cujo was a 12-year-old Maltese. Jeanie, 54, has no children, and in her 2010 book Laker Girl, she referred to Princess—it was the devious Jackson who added the edgy middle name "Cujo" to provide the dog a more balanced identity—as "the center of my life outside of basketball and work."

Jeanie Buss @JeanieBuss

Goodbye my sweet dog, Princess Cujo Buss. She was brave & beautiful. Our love will live forever in my heart. 💋🐾❤️ http://t.co/wblDGEhaCP

Jeanie has been at her desk maybe more than ever.

It is her father's desk that she inherited, actually. And even though Jerry's not around anymore for her to earn his respect by being in the office, she just likes to work.

So she isn't hard to find.

But in recent times, Jeanie has also been distressed by the ongoing lack of communication from Kupchak and her brother Jim.

Jeanie has never presumed to have the basketball acumen for decision-making on that side of the company, but she does pride herself on working hard—and having people working hard together for the greater good.

Kupchak and Jim Buss have not always been forthcoming with the moves they have made with other members of the Buss family.
Kupchak and Jim Buss have not always been forthcoming with the moves they have made with other members of the Buss family.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Before their father's death, Jeanie and Jim weren't talking at all. It's no surprise their relationship hasn't flourished.

But it was still frustrating enough to Jeanie that she formally requested last season to have semi-regular meetings with Kupchak and her brother to get updates on the state of basketball operations. Not secret-sauce kind of stuff. Just a sense of what they're thinking.

That got Jeanie some face time with them and even a bit of decent conversation.

Then Byron Scott was not retained as head coach in April.

Jeanie had no idea until after the fact.

Considering Luke Walton's inexperience, his hiring as Lakers head coach now—with Jim's deadline a year away and the team seemingly far from contending—seems peculiar.

More than one person within the organization wonders if Jim has something up his sleeve. Is he hiring a young coach to give himself more leeway to argue next year that some progress is good enough because there's so much room for growth? Is he hiring someone Jackson has likened to being a son to him as insurance to stay on in a future Jackson regime?

There are obvious reasons Walton fits, though. And it might just be as simple as Jim trusting his gut. He likes Walton. Not only was Walton a player on championship Lakers teams, he used to hang out and party with Jim.

Then there's the subtle, perhaps even subconscious, motivation—that Jim admires in Walton someone who has a famous father but blazed his own trail.

Bill Walton, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, could be found lately using his booming voice through a smile, unaffected whether anyone joins him or not, at one particular venue. So proud he was of son Luke as associate head coach of the recently defending NBA champions that Bill chanted, "Waaarrr-iors!" as he walked through the corridors of Oracle Arena before and after Golden State playoff games.

Bill Walton @BillWalton

Proud Warriors of the Golden State, proud dads of what's next. We love the future, go Warriors, Go Luke! https://t.co/bZXl4JIWrS

Luke's warm, easy personality works in an opposites-attract manner with Jim, whose agreeableness can come across as awkward or disingenuous.

Jim avoided informing assistant coach Brian Shaw, Jackson's presumed successor, about the decision to hire Mike Brown as head coach in 2011. And when the opportunity arose to make amends now with Walton's hire of Shaw to be his top assistant, Jim dodged it—leaving Kupchak and Walton to talk to Shaw and keeping the ill will intact.

The clumsy personal touch is a complaint, and a worry, heard about both Jim and Kupchak in their attempts to attract top free agents to the Lakers: How can they really sell when they've never had to do it before and neither has a magnetic pull or smooth charm?

They're actually both rather closed off. Kupchak was described by one longtime co-worker as someone who "compartmentalizes" everything.

His 15-year-old daughter, Alina, died in January 2015 after a lengthy illness. Few Lakers people had any idea in advance.

For what is a family business, Jim Buss and Kupchak aren't the sort to foster a family feeling in the office, which is part of Jeanie's complaint.

If they were great at their jobs, their demeanors would hardly matter. But they've failed to attract the free agents they said would be the key to rejuvenating the team. They've come across as vague and unprepared in some free-agent pitch meetings, especially compared to the strikingly deep, visually captivating presentations from Tim Harris, the Lakers' chief operating officer, about off-court opportunities.

As Jim well knows, though, they have one more chance coming up with July 1 free agency.

Kupchak has suggested the basketball side has more to sell this time with development from its young players, plus the drafting of Brandon Ingram.

The opportunity is clearer now that Kobe Bryant is gone: You can be the next Lakers deity if you want to be, and there's nothing in the world like being the star of the Lakers. And in this case, being the savior, the hero, the everything for this proud team and its faithful fans is the rarest of opportunities.

With Kobe Bryant now in retirement, the Lakers will try selling free agents on the idea that they can be the next face of the franchise.
With Kobe Bryant now in retirement, the Lakers will try selling free agents on the idea that they can be the next face of the franchise.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

One way or another, the Lakers need to sell people on taking their money this time.

Although many clubs have salary-cap space this summer, the Lakers have far more at $60 million—and can sign two max free agents, which Kupchak cites as a critical change from recent years.

In a basic sense, Jim's siblings and everyone else will know within a month.

As the free agents in July choose or pass on the Lakers again, we'll know whether Jim has the talent even to sniff that promise of being a contender next season.

Starting over was never the plan.

Jerry Buss hoped the Lakers would be good enough in these five years that his son and Kupchak wouldn't even have to rebuild.

Jerry understood how Jim and Kupchak considered themselves winners who didn't get the kind of credit that he, Jerry West and Jackson got for the Lakers' success.

Jerry believed he could give Jim a resounding period of personal glory, because they'd made the deal for Howard, viewed as a potential top-three player in the league who would extend the championship window for Bryant.

Jerry certainly never could have imagined the uber-competitive Kobe would be OK finishing his career on anything less than a winner, and the Lakers looked like they would remain winners from Jerry's perspective.

So the plan upon which Jerry's original wish for Jim hinged seemed more plausible than not: Howard and Bryant keep the Lakers in contention and maybe take the Buss family to glory again, except Jim receives true acknowledgement and is celebrated for it with his dad no longer around.

Acquired in hopes of keeping the Lakers a title contender, Dwight Howard saw his one season in L.A. end in a four-game sweep to the Spurs.
Acquired in hopes of keeping the Lakers a title contender, Dwight Howard saw his one season in L.A. end in a four-game sweep to the Spurs.FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

Jim rides the wave, enjoys one last Lakers hurrah and then steps down as Jerry thought would happen anyway—leaving someone else the dirty work of rebuilding and wishing upon developing young stars under a new collective bargaining agreement designed to undercut the Lakers' inherent advantages.

When Jim was young, he liked numbers and the girls thought he was cute.

It's not hard to see why Jerry, a former mathematician and renowned playboy, felt close to him.

In a University of California study by Katherine Conger, 74 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers admitted they had a favorite child.

Jerry told people a long time ago that he wanted to see if Jim could do the basketball job or if he needed to change his mind before he died. Jerry saw enough positives to believe—including Jim buying into Andrew Bynum and selling his numbers-based system for analyzing player value (used to support the Steve Nash trade). Jim prides himself on his analytics that consider defense, not just standard per-minute production.

It was enough for Jerry to overlook how Jim wouldn't attend that many games or relocate the way Jerry hoped he would from Dana Point, a two-hour drive with traffic from the club's El Segundo headquarters. After all, Jerry didn't exactly do Lakers work full-time as team owner either.

Maybe there was favoritism toward Jim. Maybe it just was the trap to which all parents are vulnerable: helping the child who flat-out needs more help, which is both unfair and fair.

Jerry certainly had a soft spot for people who needed help, even assisting in education or business opportunities for his many girlfriends.

Despite not showing a consistent dedication to helping run the team, Jim Buss was hand-picked by his father, Jerry, to take over the team during the 2012-13 season.
Despite not showing a consistent dedication to helping run the team, Jim Buss was hand-picked by his father, Jerry, to take over the team during the 2012-13 season.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

And maybe there is resentment from Jim's siblings as a result.

Nevertheless, they have told people they hope Jim succeeds, because that would mean the Lakers are winning again.

It's at least possible that if the Lakers' young players develop quickly, or if a bold trade for an established star presents itself, and free agency works out decently, the Lakers could go from 17-65 to a Western Conference playoff team next season.

That might be enough improvement for the siblings to give Jim more time and not hold him to the strict definition of being "in contention."

But they aren't going to overlook anything else just out of a father's love.

Jim, now 56, needs positive results to prove to them that he deserves this job he was given.

He hasn't produced them yet—and it's not helping his cause that he has suggested publicly that his deadline is a year later than what he told his siblings. Or that he has assured people the Lakers will make the playoffs before each of the past three worst seasons in franchise history.

Or that he treats the concept of stepping down so cavalierly that he told someone before this season he would step down after it if the team didn't make the playoffs…which he hasn't after they didn't.

Or that he's still into the horse game and continues to look at other entrepreneurial endeavors when one would think he'd be locked in on his task at hand. Does he care more about recruiting investors for a futsal (indoor soccer) team or bringing the Lakers back?

One person close to the family went so far as to suggest lightly involved Janie is more passionate about the Lakers than Jim is.

Jeanie still doesn't want to take Jim's job away, but as she said in 2014, she wants him to be held accountable.

Although it appears the five siblings are ready to move on from him in his job at this time next year, even if he doesn't step down, Jeanie will be left to make the call if there is chaos instead of consensus in what promises to be a must-see sequel to that original family meeting in 2014.

If it's not Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak running the Lakers basketball operations in the near future, who will it be?

Jesse Buss (left), Joey Buss (right)
Jesse Buss (left), Joey Buss (right)Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Jerry envisioned youngest sons Joey, 31, and Jesse, 28, having highly prominent roles at some point. Both are cited by team sources as smart and diligent in their current roles.

They have a different mother than the four elder siblings—and a very different backstory. Joey and Jesse grew up in San Diego, far removed from their father's glamorous life, and they acted almost like two shy kids in awe when they got into it.

They didn't grow up feeling entitled to it. And they're the only two besides Jeanie and Jim working regularly for the family business, with Jesse joining Jim in basketball operations.

Jesse's work with the scouting department has helped make it the Lakers' highlight in these lean years: Besides promising high picks D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and now Ingram, plucking promising Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. with lower picks offered unforeseen value.

But even though the Lakers hired a 36-year-old head coach in Walton, no one could justify turning over real power to two guys so young with such limited experience, especially after Jim hasn't made a strong case for being hired by virtue of last name and a father's wishes.

Of course, there is another possibility the Busses discuss regularly, a guy who is practically family—Phil Jackson.

He can opt out of his Knicks contract in a year, and he's believed to be able to get out of it the year after that, too. Despite Jackson's limited results in New York, he has served an obvious purpose for James Dolan, taking the heat off the owner by accepting it himself.

That is something the Buss family has noticed as a worthwhile formula as they continue to take their hits, besides how useful Jackson might be recruiting free agents even if he doesn't do day-to-day work.

The thing is, Jackson is legitimately committed to getting the Knicks on the upswing.

As attractive as the prospects of molding Walton and helping Jeanie are—and how much more weight he has representing the Lakers teams he won with—the Lakers want Jackson more than he wants them.

Other big names might make sense, at least on a surface level.

Bryant would have tremendous appeal as a high-ranking official, but he is focused on his own business pursuits. Magic Johnson has made clear his disdain for Jim and is extremely interested in having a meaningful role with the Lakers.

Bryant might prove a popular choice to run the Lakers in the future, he appears more interested in other business pursuits after retiring in April.
Bryant might prove a popular choice to run the Lakers in the future, he appears more interested in other business pursuits after retiring in April.Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Jerry West, 78, is unlikely to do more than offer input at his age, but he has remained in the Lakers' picture despite being a Warriors executive board member. West has been a backer of Jim Buss and dear friend to Kupchak—although partly to push them to give his son, who is Lakers director of player personnel, Ryan, as much responsibility and opportunity as possible in his pursuit of becoming a GM.

Jackson, Bryant, Johnson and West…that's a veritable Lakers Mount Rushmore there.

Except living in the past is a big part of the Lakers' present problem.

A proven executive or still-rising general manager who could bring innovative thinking to the organization is the other, fresher option. Swiping one from another team would pay homage to the old Jerry Buss style: paying whatever premium is needed to bring in true talent, and showing that living in L.A. is more desirable than living somewhere else.

The era of sentimentalizing Kobe is over.

So is romanticizing the father-son wish fulfillment of Jerry and Jim.

If Jim stays, it's on merit alone.

If he goes, it's to make room for someone who'll work to make things right.

Jeanie, Joey and Jesse are not out here playing hero ball. They want to honor their father with winning, plain and simple, not for power grabs or credit searches.

The surrender of selling the team isn't on the table. A majority vote of the six siblings is needed to break the trust and enable them to sell their 66 percent ownership together; they cannot sell their individual 11 percent stakes.

Perhaps someday that could happen—making a Jeanie-led investment group more of a leading owner, for example, if others wished to cash out—but there's no indication whatsoever that a majority of the siblings are interested in selling.

Following Jerry was never going to be easy.

He was a chemist who shifted into the aerospace industry before becoming a real-estate-magnate-turned-sports owner inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jerry looked at things differently than others.

He found new angles no one else conceived—and thus found solutions no one else could've reached. In this new NBA world, yes, he would've been thinking ahead to keep the Lakers on top.

Yet is he larger than life? No. Life has gone on without him.

It was always going to be difficult and take time, but some of Jerry Buss' other values are rising to the surface with time.

When asked for advice, he loved telling people to be true to themselves. And that sink-or-swim approach with his children was always done in search of organic results.

In the end, whoever is truly right to lead the father's Lakers will be revealed.

Order up his preferred rum and Coke to salute the old man once in a while, but it's time to find the next thing.

Just like the fans are, the family is ready for it.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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