The plan was put into motion years ago, in anticipation of Jerry Buss one day completely stepping aside as Lakers owner or his passing. One of his six children, Jim, would be in charge of basketball operations and another, Jeanie, would run the business side and cast the vote for the Board of Governors.
The patriarch set everything up in advance. Not only that, he set it up far enough in advance that both would be experienced in the roles before he was gone, with Jeanie now in her 14th season as executive vice president of business operations and Jim in his eighth as executive vice president of player personnel. There should not be any uncertainty moving forward.
Except that now Buss is gone and there are questions.
Part of the wondering, despite all Jerry Buss had arranged, down to how any very unlikely future sale of the controlling interest would have to work, is easy to explain: It’s the Lakers. Little things become very big deals in that alternate universe. And the passing of the smart, respected owner on Monday at age 80 is not a little thing.
It is also the timing. The Lakers are underachieving at historic levels. There has already been one coaching change, away from Mike Brown, and there are serious doubts the system of successor, Mike D’Antoni will work with this roster. The trade deadline is Thursday, though there is no indication the organization is debating a serious move that would involve taking on enough money that basketball would need to sync with business. Dwight Howard becomes a free agent in a little more than four months. This is not a time of stability on the court, and now one of the few constants, Jerry Buss, is also gone, so concern among fans increases even more.
The rocky history among the siblings, a well-known secret around the organization, is a dynamic that cannot be ignored. Specifically, as many press reports have noted in as delicate of terms as possible in this time of sympathy for the family, Jeanie and Jim have not gotten along.
And now they are the primary partners determining the future of the Lakers.
Monday, after the death had been announced, John Black, the vice president of public relations for the team, and family spokesman Bob Steiner held a news conference. They answered questions on what happened long ago (favorite Jerry Buss memories), what had just happened (some details of his passing) and what will happen next. They projected the image of a seamless transition.
“If it’s a basketball-operations decision, it’ll be Jim,” Black said.
But, a reporter suggested, doesn’t the business side play into that as well?
Black and Steiner paused.
“It was re-emphasized to John and I this morning,” Steiner said, “that basketball people will make the basketball decisions.”
They were pressed again: What happens if the basketball decisions start impacting the overall business, as can obviously happen?
“Jim Buss understands the business element, Jeanie understands basketball,” Steiner said. “They will work together. I don’t know, does that answer the question?… I just want to re-iterate that they are their father’s children. They do understand the business and the sports elements.”
The departments were separate yet connected for years, just as with every team, only with Jerry Buss available to step in as the final word. That does not exist anymore. There are two people who may at some point be called on to make one decision.
There may even be three people – Jeanie is engaged to Phil Jackson. That could become an additional factor in the thinking in business ops and what basketball moves should be funded beyond the budget.
While Jerry Buss had said for years that Jeanie had final say over her departments for many years, he estimated in 2010 that Jim was in charge of all things basketball about 80 percent of the time. That number obviously increased the past couple seasons, as Jerry stopped attending games as his health worsened and increasingly moved away from day-to-day operations, though still presumably willing to share an opinion on major roster decisions such as trading for Howard or the 2009 extension for Pau Gasol.
Buss said nearly three years ago his responses to questions from Jim were usually along the lines of “Do what you think is best.” He wanted his son to be in control. It just may not have always been the case. Jim, after all, insisted in early November that Brown would not take the fall for a bad start, just before Brown took the fall in early-November for a bad start.
Jim Buss didn’t have to make such a strong statement that Brown was safe. He doesn’t do many interviews and so it wouldn’t have been unusual for him to do one then. But to say Brown would be staying, to soon fire Brown, and to bring in D’Antoni to implement the closest thing to Showtime in the current NBA all pointed to Jerry Buss getting involved.
Now, the patriarch is gone. There is Jim Buss with general manager Mitch Kupchak, and Jeanie Buss, and there is a plan.