Now that the roof has fallen in and Dr. Jerry Buss is gone, small steps on the path he left behind are the new normal. To be fair to all involved, it has only been five months since he died and his kids had their turn. Longer than five months is how it seems, longer than a year, as if more happened than the change of personnel and who was at the top making decisions, as if the death of Dr. Buss was not one death but actually two.
Strange how time can do that, distort itself, make yesterday appear in the distance, fading away, slow as a broken winged butterfly. It is hard to be a survivor in any circumstance but particularly in the glaring spotlight of a restless public. The returns are always less than perfect, the returns diminished. Sometimes things have to get worse before it can begin to get better, that is the law of nature when grief is concerned. To the children who were left behind to carry on, Jerry Buss was a sort of modern day prophet, his spoken word was held onto with tight fingers, it was gospel. He was their patriarch, their irreplaceable leader, their connective tissue, their guiding star. Jeanie and Jim Buss go it alone now. Both are fond of saying everything is fine between the two of them but of course we know that is not really true. They are not fine. But they are trying to be tolerant of one another and to stay in their own lanes and thus have retreated to their own separate corners, their own places of autonomy and control. And yet something is missing here. Jeanie says that Jim is shutting her out of basketball decisions by not communicating with her on anything related to basketball; she is in the dark, an insider who is an outsider who is, frankly, no different than the rest of us.
Jim sees it differently. He believes their father wanted it this way and he is just doing what he was taught to do. It was, after all, his father’s style, this tight inner circle of three. Not too long ago Jeanie learned of the Chris Paul trade by way of Twitter. Neither her father nor Jim Buss nor Mitch Kupchak called to tell her what they had just negotiated: Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom leaving, Chris Paul coming. Jeanie left out, almost as if she was not their equal.
But that was not true either. Other than her father, Jeanie has had the longest tenure in her family as an executive. When she was nineteen years old she was general manager of the Los Angeles Strings, a tennis team her father owned. A few years later she was president of the Great Western Forum, a position which eased her into more responsibilities with the Lakers. Since 1995 she has been either an alternate or a voting Governor for the NBA during their annual meetings. She handles the day to day operations, is versed in the nuances of the new collective bargaining agreement, was the lead representative for the Time Warner television deal as well as other marketing avenues so it is expected that with her level of credibility and experience and hard work that at the very least, as an executive, not as a daughter, she should be one of the first ones whose phone rings when a major change is coming to the Lakers, she has earned as much.
“Jeanie being my sister”, Jim said this summer. “I have compassion for her.” Jim is an analytical observer, extremely competent with numbers and intent on fulfilling his father’s wish for him to run the basketball operation. Of course Dr. Buss was not supposed to die this way from cancer. He was supposed to ease Jim into it and watch from the sidelines and if necessary make adjustments. But ask anyone who has lived long enough: time plays tricks on you. People who are here today are gone tomorrow. Things do not last as intended. Life changes in an instant.
Jim sees the NBA through the prism of analytics. Schematically the game has changed in the past five years, from a game in which post play was dominant to a game in which perimeter players assert their will. Player efficiency is just as important as points, rebounds, assists, and three point shooting is a valuable asset. The pace is quicker so the players, the coaches, the front office must adapt to this evolution. What Jim is slow to recognize though is one part of the job will never change. It is what his charismatic and engaging father and warm and personable sister have mastered expertly but something he has turned his back on: being with the public, representing the organization to the world at large, being media friendly. Instead, Jim bunkers down in his own personal cave, adjusting numbers, analyzing algorithms, burying himself in statistical data. The truth of it is someone besides Mitch Kupchak needs to know how Jim’s thoughts are organized, what his visions are for right now and for ten years into the future, how he plans on adapting his style of leadership to his father’s. There is the sense that he doesn’t quite grasp that he is the leader of the Lakers now, that his father is really gone. He must take his rightful place at the front of the stage.
It is October. There was a day in summer; it was the single most important day of the Laker front office life since Kobe Bryant was a free agent. As it was then, facing the front office was another free agent, a different sort of challenge. They had already botched the first phase, putting billboards in targeted sites. It reeked of desperation, as if they were at the end of their rope, as if they did not know what to do and so they came up with this banal idea, what a sixth grader might suggest in hopes that it would stick. It was so laughably inappropriate, so disingenuous and disdainful to the storied Laker history this death by a thousand cuts. Begging. Asking for crumbs.
But as the meeting opened there was a second chance at redemption, a chance to get it right, to exhale. The star players were in attendance to present their vision of the future, the team executives were there to make a pitch but the elephant in the room was the one person who was not there who would have made a difference just by his charismatic presence, the life and soul of the organization, the empty chair; he died five months earlier. Another person who was not there was the most popular and beloved member of the organization as far as the public is concerned, Jeanie of the gracious smile. She was not included on purpose. One can only shake their head and wonder. One can only guess what may have taken place if Jeanie had been asked. She would have accepted the challenge, of course. How many times in her professional career had she done this, gone into a meeting, made the convincing argument, left having accomplished her goal. I imagine when it was her turn to make her presentation to Dwight her calmness and professionalism and warmth and thoughtfulness would have resonated. Jeanie and Dwight are not so different, both have a high emotional arc, both possess a strong sensitivity and a hunger and desire for personal contact and connections. At the very least Jeanie would have made Dwight feel wanted and desired and it would have balanced Kobe Bryant’s intrinsic edge and the rest of the organizations cluelessness on how to approach Dwight.
In July Jeanie said, “the Laker way isn’t the same because Dr. Buss isn’t here.” That much is true. Parents are builders. They collective build within their children honesty and integrity and kindness and ambition and it takes years to complete. Dr. Buss saw something in his daughter and in his son; in most things he was a gambler but not this. He truly believed that they could and would continue to honor his franchise. And yet, to be quite frank about it, they need to look in the mirror, the both of them. In this case less is more. You first, me second. Phil Jackson continually preached about the repression of selfish tendencies to benefit the group. Jim and Jeanie do not adhere to any part of this principle and, frankly, it is peculiar, it is like they are living in a house of sand and fog.
Forget all that you believe. Jim and Jeanie Buss own a sports team because someone loved them and someone died. They are too mournful to realize it is all sideways now, that they are not on each other’s team, not cheering, not rooting, not happy for the other’s success and most importantly, not trusting. There is something to be learned here, a caution that the Africans frequently warn about.
When two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.