It’s been a long two years for Jeanie Buss, a sad two years. Her beloved father slowly passed away. Her beloved fiancée went away. And now here she is a little more emotionally battered, a little more determined. The Lakers are her family and they are, as she put it, “her life”. But to the everyday Lakers fan Jeanie Buss is more than President of the Lakers. She is more than the fiancée of Phil Jackson. She is more than the business executive of the Lakers organization. She is the face of the family and she is their heart. She leads an organization her father entrusted her with that seems to be falling apart. But even if that were true- it is not entirely- Jeanie has always been the calm in the storm. She has always been the one person the Lakers fans can point to and say- she is a part of the Buss family but she is part of us too. We know Jeanie. We love Jeanie. Jeanie has always understood where she fits in with this large Lakers public that covers countries and provinces and villages and cities with its tapestry of success and glamour and prestige and heroism. She is the one true thing and all that is left of the organization we used to know. It happens sometimes when things are in ruins. In the rubble there is a rock. Or there is a shard of glass. Something to remind us of what happened before. Jeanie was the past. And she is the present. And as she so perfectly said Tuesday night, “Ultimately the buck stops with me.”
What has been so stunning these past few years is how empty the Lakers leadership has been. Simply, there has not been any. Moves have been made as happens all the time in sports but nothing was ever behind it, no one person was accountable. No one reached out to the public and said – trust me. Or believe in me. Or be patient with me. Or, even, blame me. Magic Johnson asked: who is the face of the Lakers organization. We know who it once was. Dr. Buss used to have a Lakers State of the Union every season. In it he laid out his expectations and hopes for the year but he also explained his plans for the future. In one State of the Union he said Shaq wanted too much money. In another State of the Union he spelled out how proud he was of the team coming together. There has not been a State of the Union for two years. No one from the Buss family has stepped into those large footprints and filled the void of the father who took it all so personally, every single thing that happened to his team. Jerry Buss’ star players were like his sons. His teams were what he adored. Since he became ill darkness reigned over the organization. Everyone lost their voice. Everyone lost their direction. The road was straight but no one was on it, not one single car. What happened to the Buss family, people asked? It was easily answered. Jerry Buss died. That is what happened.
It is popular these days to speculate on what is going to happen to the Lakers in both the short term and the long term. Jeanie in her interview this evening with Bill Macdonald on Time Warner SportsNet clarified both the present and the future. As team President she is unhappy the Lakers had the season they had. But she is confident that the basketball decisions made in the summer will create an environment similar to what the Lakers brand stands for. “I have confidence in Jimmy and Mitch to put together the kind of team that Lakers fans are used to.” In the long term she stressed repeatedly that this is a family business and this is her family thus this is “her life.” However she also said, “the family is going to own the team as long as the family is together.”
Of course that is the fear repeated by Kobe Bryant. That somehow the family is not together and perhaps they never will be. The death of a father, the death of any parent often reveals damage unseen. A patriarch’s love can be blinding until he is gone and then everyone sees everyone else’s scars. Jeanie did the best she could in relaying that she and her brother are part of the same unified team and she did not blame Kobe for what he said. In fact she understood his competitive nature is such that he needs to vent. He hates this season just like she hates this season. But it went unsaid…what if? What if this season is not an anomaly? What if “Jimmy” cannot work magic like his father and the regular ups and downs of owning a NBA team that has been the standard of every other NBA franchise finally comes calling on the Lakers for the first time in their history? What if their luck has run out? What if they guess wrong, make the wrong moves, if the law of averages finally catches up with them?
It would be fair. Look at all that has happened. The Gail Goodrich trade turned into a coin flip and Magic Johnson. James Worthy was taken over Player of the Year Terry Cummings. Norm Nixon was traded for Byron Scott. Paul Westhead was fired, Pat Riley was hired. Vlade was traded for Kobe. Shaq was stolen out of Orlando. Same with Pau and Memphis. Isn’t it the Lakers turn for long term suffering?
Jeanie does not think so. She expects the Lakers to continue as they always have. In fact, she became emotional in the interview when she spoke of Kobe. It brought back painful memories of how Magic Johnson was denied the opportunity to retire on his own terms, to have the organization send him off as they had done Kareem Abdul Jabaar. One day he was here. The next day Magic had HIV. The next day he was gone. When he came back a few years later everything had changed, the team was different, the world was different and so much crueler. Magic had to exit the stage without a farewell or curtain call. All that means is that Kobe will get what he has earned. He put so much into his career and into the organization, he sacrificed for them and they can do this for him, the organization can. More than likely Kobe will be the last player to be with an organization 20 years, just because no one is drafted at 17 anymore. Jeanie, if nothing else, represents what her father believed in the most. That is loyalty. That is family. Kobe is family. He is a Lakers for life.
But here is the thing. Jeanie cannot be her father. She cannot. Jerry Buss had an instinct and a gift of turning players into his adopted children, of turning teams into winners, of hiring excellence and letting excellence do their job, of supporting everyone. But even as she cannot be her father she can be Jeanie. She can be the President in a way her father could not be. The fans need Jeanie in their lives just as Jeanie needs Phil in her life. It was obvious that she misses Phil. It was apparent upon her face when she talked about his happiness and how he needed to be engaged in basketball again. As ridiculous as it seems to the outside world, there was no place for Phil, great basketball mind or not, within the Lakers brain trust. And in the end it does not matter where Phil is, as far as geography is concerned. It matters where Jeanie is. It matters that she still cares about us. We had forgotten that. It has been a long time since she has been to a game or been on television or the radio. She has been a ghost and it all made sense because she loved her father and he was gone and her heart was broken. Jerry was gone but Jeanie was gone too. So grief stricken was she the job was not the same. The team was not the same. But even if a part of that was true, Jeanie reminded us on Tuesday night it was only temporary, her leaving us. And she is back now. And she is ready to do all she can to reassure the fans worldwide. The Lakers are still the Lakers. She is their President. This is a bump in the road. But the Lakers will return again. Just wait.