Jeanie, Kobe, LeBron, and History

Before Jeanie Marie Buss became the first woman owner to win an NBA championship, she made an executive decision regarding her franchise player. The year was 2013, seven months after Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles. He had yet to play in an NBA game after his rehab stint. But Jeanie offered Bryant a two-year extension of $48 million anyway. She had no earthly idea if the injured Bryant had the ability to earn the contract she was offering him. After all, Bryant was 35 years old. He was attempting the unthinkable for someone his age. When Isiah Thomas tore his Achilles he retired. Thomas was two years younger than Bryant was in 2013.  That Jeanie Buss was willing to drown the Lakers salary cap based on loyalty because as she put it, her father would have done the same thing, didn’t address the elephant in the room. The Lakers needed to get younger and better quickly. Bryant’s contract was a weight they would have to drag for two more years until he eventually retired.

As a businesswoman, Jeanie is astute.  She engineered a partnership deal with Spectrum Sportsnet that gave the Lakers their own network. It had dual objectives. It satiated the Laker fanbase who compulsively cling to every Laker morsel as if it’s their last meal. And, the Spectrum deal would monetize the Buss kids, giving them $100 million each and every year, regardless of who was on the roster. Although the basketball operation wasn’t her expertise Jeanie understood perception. It didn’t matter if Kobe had earned the extension post-Achilles. She was generous towards him in the darkest moments of his dwindling career. Other superstars would take note. Jeanie takes care of her players.

Five years after the Kobe extension Jeanie welcomed LeBron James. James has said publicly the relationship he has with Jeanie is the best he has had with any owner. From LeBron’s perspective, being able to trust the owner he plays for is a luxury. It’s been hit or miss his entire career. Dan Gilbert was frosty and Mickey Arison was polite. Jeanie is kind and warm.

When LeBron’s end of days are near Jeanie will take care of him just like she took care of Bryant. It’s how the Lakers distinguish themselves from all other organizations. Red Auerbach used to say he held on to Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale too long. That incentivized Danny Ainge to trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for draft picks.

Dr. Jerry Buss used to say it’s better to trade a player too early than too late. More than likely, he would have remained loyal to Bryant but perhaps he may have reduced the amount of the golden parachute. It’s a myth that  Dr. Buss didn’t like to trade star players. The story goes that he wanted to trade Lamar Odom but Magic Johnson talked him out of it. Dr. Buss operated off of hunches and instincts.

Jeanie operates out of loyalty and fairness. Eighteen months ago when the Lakers were searching for a head coach after firing Luke Walton, stories emerged about Jeanie’s management style, that she ran all her decisions by Linda Rambis, that she was what was broken in the Lakers organization, that the Lakers were a mess: Magic was out, Pelinka was in, and Jeanie was making a rocky boat even rockier.

When the Lakers interviewed Monty Williams for their open coaching position he was put off by the traveling party. Usually, it’s just the GM and/or President of Basketball Operations in the room. But Jeanie was present as was Kurt Rambis. And Rob Pelinka. It felt crowded and Williams was uncomfortable. He was warned that perhaps the Lakers weren’t his best choice. They lacked stability.

That was before Anthony Davis was a Laker, and it was before LeBron James and Jeanie met for dinner one night in March. Like her father, and perhaps learned from her father, Jeanie is an owner who makes personal attachments and isn’t bothered by all the gossipy talk the Lakers are known for.

The meeting between Buss and James forged a partnership of trust. Each believed in the other. When Frank Vogel was hired, there was LeBron at the press conference. When Anthony Davis was acquired, there was LeBron James. He was making good on his promise to restore the Lakers to prominence. And Jeanie was keeping her promise: I will not betray you.

The blog articles denigrating how Jeanie Buss leads all feel silly now and a little sexist. She was criticized for who she confides in. She was criticized for her professional support system. Men aren’t put through that kind of tsk tsk. But women constantly have to prove their worth.

The Buss kids own 66% of the Lakers via a trust. The trust spells out all of the particulars and procedures, who runs what, who bosses who, who is the director, who is the controlling owner. In the trust, it specifically spells out that, “Jeanie M. Buss appointed as the new Controlling Owner of The Los Angeles Lakers”, unless she is no longer living or unless she wasn’t appointed controlling owner after her father’s death, which she was.

Jeanie became the sole owner of the Los Angeles Lakers after her brother Jim failed at a coup to replace her. That was in 2017. Three years later, she has an NBA title that matches the Boston Celtics as the most ever.