Buss siblings' battle over control of Lakers goes public in L.A. courtroom

The behind-the-scenes struggle for control of the Lakers spilled into public view in a sixth-floor room in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Friday, with a thick stack of documents in which Jeanie Buss sought a restraining order against her brothers Jim and Johnny.

In the latest chapter of a tumultuous season, Jeanie Buss appeared to thwart an effort by Jim and Johnny that could oust her as the Lakers’ president and controlling owner.

“This is no doubt the beginning and not the end of the legal game-playing,” said Adam Streisand, the attorney for Jeanie Buss. “They don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

On Feb. 21 Jeanie Buss removed Jim Buss from his role as Lakers vice president of basketball operations and hired Magic Johnson. Three days later, according to court documents, Johnny Buss notified his sister of a March 7 meeting to elect the team’s board of directors. He is listed as overseeing corporate development of the Lakers.

The brothers proposed four directors, according to court records, but didn’t include her. In order to be the controlling owner, she also must be a director.

The family trusts that own 66% of the Lakers can elect three of the board’s five members. The trusts mandate the co-trustees — Johnny, Jim and Jeanie — take all actions to ensure Jeanie Buss remains controlling owner of the Lakers. She has occupied the role since their father, Jerry Buss, died in 2013.

“Both Jim Buss and Johnny Buss had hoped that any issues would be handled within the family,” said Robert Sacks, an attorney for the brothers.

Jeanie Buss declined to comment because of ongoing litigation; Jim Buss did not respond to a telephone message.

“Jeanie Buss is the sole Governor of the Los Angeles Lakers and under league rules, she has control over the team,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “She has not only been a terrific leader for the Lakers organization, guiding the business before and after her father's passing, but an incredibly influential voice among all our team owners.”

In response to multiple emails from attorneys for Jeanie Buss asking if the brothers would vote for her as a director, Sacks replied Wednesday: “When we have their positions on the director question you raised, we will let you know.”

Streisand notified the brothers Thursday he would pursue a temporary restraining order the following day. The court filing — including copies of several emails between attorneys involved — was blunt.

“An injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable injury to the Lakers,” the filing said. “A new Controlling Owner would have the power to make changes that could cause serious and irreversible damage to the Lakers basketball team and to the brand, particularly at this key juncture when Petitioner has taken significant steps to attempt to reverse the harm done by Jim.”

The filing said the brothers are “motivated by retaliation” and the Buss family “would lose control of the Lakers” if Jeanie Buss was removed as controlling owner.

The brothers signed a document Thursday night reelecting her as controlling owner and canceled next week’s meeting to elect new directors. Streisand, however, questioned the document’s validity because all shareholders weren’t present, and said he doesn’t believe it resolved the larger issue.

A person with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition they not be identified put it plainly: “The brothers backed down ASAP when Jeanie fought back.”

Streisand, who represented Steve Ballmer in 2014 during the court fight with Donald Sterling over the $2-billion sale of the Clippers, warned of dire consequences if the brothers gained control of the Lakers, an outcome he doesn’t see as likely.

“Everything she’s trying to do could be undone,” Streisand said.

Sacks disputed the notion the brothers have done anything to thwart Jeanie Buss and said she “inexplicably rushed to court.”

He added: “There are no issues.”

In Room 629 in L.A. County Superior Court on Friday morning, Streisand withdrew the motion for a temporary restraining order. Judge David J. Cowan set a May 15 trial to resolve the matter. Streisand wants an order to guarantee the provisions of the trust will be followed.

The struggle isn’t over yet.

“The trust instrument seems crystal clear,” said Patrick Goodman, a probate law expert who teaches at UCLA and reviewed documents in the case. “Jerry Buss intended Jeanie and Jeanie only to be the controlling owner.’

Times staff writer Tania Ganguli contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

3:55 p.m.: Adds comment from NBA spokesperson Mike Bass.

This article was originally published at 1:20 p.m.

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