Laker Changes Get Personal
As a Laker executive, Jeanie Buss has been in the middle of a whirlwind season. But for her, it has also been a personal whirlwind, because she is not merely the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, she is also the daughter of the owner, Jerry Buss, and the girlfriend of the former coach, Phil Jackson. That left her on an emotional tightrope, trying to avoid leaning too far in either direction. With Jackson in retirement, at least for now, Shaquille O’Neal in Miami and Kobe Bryant committed to a Laker future, Buss talked about the stormy season Wednesday in her El Segundo office with Times staff writer Steve Springer.
Question: How tough has all this been on you personally?
Answer: There has been so much change, and I’m a person who does not like change. I never wanted to graduate from high school. If I had had my way, I’d probably be a 42-year-old senior at Palisades High. So I can relate to Laker fans because I feel the same way they do. Even more so because I was personally involved with the coach, I feel their pain....
I remember back in 1983 when the Lakers traded Norm Nixon. I called my dad crying, “We’ve won two championships. I love Norm Nixon. Why? Why?” That trade [which also included Eddie Jordan] was for a player by the name of Swen Nater and a rookie named Byron Scott. Well, we all know how that turned out. Thank goodness they don’t listen to me or we’d still have Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] playing at age 57 because I didn’t want to change from the team of the ‘80s. So I learned from the Nixon trade and from being in this business over 20 years. I understand why things have to be done a certain way.
Q: Did you ever think this time would come when you first started seeing Jackson shortly after his arrival five years ago?
A: Yes, I knew from the first day I started dating Phil that there would be a day when he would separate from the Lakers. Selfishly, I wanted that to be much longer than five years.
My dad had negotiations with Phil about an extended contract, but those negotiations dragged on and on and on. Phil was hesitant for whatever reason: health, the money or something else. I don’t know. You’re trying to think of what your team is going to be like in the future and you have a coach who isn’t stepping up and making it seem like that’s where he really wants to be. My dad needed answers. He needed to know which direction the team was going. It didn’t feel real good for my dad to put himself out there and be left hanging.
I know that from my own situation. I haven’t made it any secret that I have been looking for a commitment from Phil on a personal level in regards to marriage that he has just not been comfortable giving me. So I understand what that feels like.
Q: In terms of the stalled negotiations, were you aware of the problems throughout the process?
A: I knew of my dad’s frustration. It was an awkward situation for me being in the middle. I feel like my dad could not tell me all the things that he wanted to because of my relationship with Phil.
But I don’t really need to be part of the basketball personnel decisions. That’s not really part of my job. I’ll remind everybody, I was someone who said not to hire Phil Jackson in the first place. I felt he would be high maintenance. I felt we already had two superstars in Kobe and Shaq, and that bringing in another superstar would create too much of an imbalance. But, as it turned out, that was what Phil was best at, making sure everybody came together.
Q: Going into this year’s NBA Finals, were you aware that Jackson might be out at season’s end?
A: Phil was constantly saying that. He probably would have been a little stronger with me in terms of emphasizing that he might retire and leave the team, but the subject always brought tears to my eyes. So he kept back a lot of what he was feeling. He was just trying to get through the season.
Q: Did you ever try to talk Phil into signing the contract?
A: I did so for many months. My dad and Phil had a conversation in May of last year in which my dad talked about Phil coming back for two more years. Phil said that, because he had just had a heart procedure, he first wanted to get through the first 90 days, which is considered a risky period, and get a clean bill of health from his doctor.
Last August, my dad and Phil started negotiating. Every day, I would say to Phil, “Can you just sign the contract? Please!” I know I did my best.
Q: Your father went to Bryant’s house on Super Bowl Sunday. And a few weeks later, negotiations on a new contract with Jackson were suspended by your father. Isn’t it fair to assume there was a connection there, that Bryant had input into the decision?
A: I don’t look at it like that. I don’t think those two incidents were connected, but really, only my dad knows for sure. He made it very clear that his priority was Kobe. It was very important to my dad to have a coach who was committed to the process.
Q: Would Jackson have stayed if the Lakers had beaten the Detroit Pistons in the Finals?
A: I don’t know. I really don’t.
Q: When Jackson met with your father after the season was over and was told he was no longer the coach, Jackson was described as shocked. Would you use that term?
A: I would use the word relieved. That’s how it seemed to me. Phil went to that meeting to hear what my dad said and, after meeting for an hour and a half or two hours, they left with a mutual understanding.
Q: Did you see Phil that night?
A: Yes, we were going to the Greek Theatre with his kids. I was really sad. It was the realization that his time with the Lakers was over.
My father offered him a job in the front office, so, of course, my selfishness started again. I tried unsuccessfully to talk him into staying because, without a marriage commitment and knowing my job is here, my life is here, my family is here, I didn’t want him to leave Los Angeles.
Q: What about his chance to break the tie with Red Auerbach for most career championships as a coach. Would that bring him back to the sidelines?
A: He doesn’t care about that.
Q: Can Phil be happy without basketball?
A: Only Phil knows that. He keeps me guessing. He’s a very competitive person. When we play Scrabble, he always beats me, but now he’s got to double my score. I don’t know what will fulfill his competitive nature now. He hasn’t made any decisions if he’ll coach again, if he even wants to coach again. I think he really wants the time off to reflect on things.
Next to his current house in Montana, he’s building a new house which he’s very excited about. That’s a year-long process.
He’s staying open-minded. He knows where I am. He knows what my life’s about, but I don’t know if our lives are going to match up. I know he’s planning some trips out of the country during the season. I can’t go with him, so it’s hard. I feel like we are two kids in high school. One kid is going to Duke University and the other kid is going to UCLA and they promise to see each other every weekend, but as time goes on, life pulls you apart.
When your personal life changes, you sometimes rely on your professional life for stability. So the bad news is, he’s not coming back. The good news is, I’ve been signed as the national spokeswoman for not mixing business and pleasure. But I’m a strong person. I’ll be fine.
Q: Did you father discuss Jackson’s departure with you?
A: I talked to him two days later, on Father’s Day. He wanted to see how I was doing. He knew I was sad. When I first told my father Phil and I were interested in each other, I said, “I know there will be a day when Phil won’t be with the Lakers and I don’t want that to affect how you look at me in terms of my being a professional.” But I’m still his daughter and I’m going through an uncertain future in my relationship and I know he worries about me.
Q: The Lakers are also going through an uncertain future because O’Neal has been traded. Again, there is speculation that, at that Super Bowl meeting, Bryant at least indicated to your father that O’Neal’s departure would make Bryant’s return more likely. Was that a factor in the trade in your opinion?
A: It was a simple negotiation. I find it odd there is anybody who thinks they can tell Jerry Buss what to do. Even his daughter. My dad wanted to sign Shaq for a certain amount of money, Shaq wanted the most money he could get and those numbers didn’t meet. The situation had to be addressed. People can write and say whatever they like, but nobody can make Jerry Buss do anything he doesn’t want to do.
What my father won’t tolerate is a rebuilding phase like in Chicago, where they haven’t made the playoffs in six years. Sports goes in cycles. Sometimes, you have to make a really bold move at the height of the cycle rather than waiting until you get to the bottom of it. In that moment, it can be hard to understand, but step back and look at what this team has been able to accomplish since my father has owned it. The Lakers have made the playoffs in 24 of 25 years. And that one year [1993-94], I still remember how depressed he was. That was something he doesn’t want to feel again.
Q: How do you feel when you hear all the criticism your father has received for letting Jackson and O’Neal go?
A: That’s what’s so great about our fans. They care for every decision that is being made. I do get upset when I hear personal attacks on him, but he doesn’t let it bother him. People will say what they say and, at the end of the day, he knows what he did was the right thing and time will prove it.
It makes me crazy when I hear on a sports-talk show that they want everybody to bring their Shaq jersey down to the station to burn it. Why? Why are people being negative about Shaq? That’s not how we feel about him. They are discounting what happened to this organization in the eight years he was here. He is a huge part of our history and always will be. He’s going to flourish in Miami. That’s a great spot for him.
We have a chance to see Kobe blossom into the best player in the NBA. He’s only 25 and we get to watch him rewrite the record books. It’s win-win and great for the NBA.
Q: How nervous were you on that morning when Bryant, as a free agent, said he was choosing between the Lakers and the Clippers?
A: I was worried, but my dad was very confident. A friend of mine called me and said that this was like the best episode of “The Bachelor.” Who is Kobe going to give the final rose to?