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Sparks’ Buss steps down; team might be sold

Times Staff Writer

Sparks President Johnny Buss, who has run the WNBA franchise through eight seasons, said Monday that he is stepping down. He also said there is a possibility that the team would be put up for sale.

Although Buss did not name an immediate successor, he disclosed that General Manager Penny Toler had already started taking more responsibility for running the day-to-day operation. Toler, a former Sparks player who was hired as general manager in 1999, could not be immediately reached for comment.

“I have not officially offered a letter of resignation, but it is something I will have to do,” said Buss, whose father, Jerry, also owns the Lakers. “We will make an official announcement soon. It’s a big thing for me.”

He declined to say what he would be doing but said he would stay on as a team consultant for the time being.

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“But Penny knows what decisions to make,” Buss added.

The Sparks, who were knocked out of the playoffs last season in the Western Conference finals, have flourished under Johnny Buss, who turned 50 this month. They won championships in 2001 and 2002 and have made the playoffs every season since.

“I can’t say we will or will not sell the franchise, especially with recent happenings with Houston,” he said, referring to the WNBA’s Comets. “I’ve been talking with my dad, and we don’t want to damage what we’ve got.”

Two weeks ago it was reported that Comets owner Leslie Alexander wanted to sell the team and concentrate solely on the NBA Houston Rockets, which he also owns.

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Said Buss: “If we’re going to [sell], we need to do it now. I would hate to get involved with player acquisitions and things like that, and disrupt the operation. Hopefully a decision will be made by the end of the year. If something does not happen then, I doubt anything would happen until after next season.”

Buss said some of his siblings were approached about the job, including his sister Janie.

“She wanted to take them over and I was OK with it,” he said of Janie, who has two children. “But because of her family commitments, she finally had to decline.”

At the moment, no other family member wants to assume control of the Sparks, Buss said.

He declined to put a dollar figure on the franchise, although a league source estimated the Sparks’ value “around $15 million.” That figure is based, the source said, on the $10-million league entry fee for the Connecticut Sun in 2003, and the new Chicago Sky last season.

WNBA President Donna Orender on Monday said Buss has been “an inspiring leader throughout the years as the president of the Los Angeles Sparks.”

“I would expect that Johnny Buss’ heart and passion would remain with the Sparks and WNBA no matter where he goes,” she said. Orender added that she did not immediately see the Sparks relocating or Los Angeles not having a WNBA team.

“Los Angeles is a fantastic WNBA market, and we only see upside,” she said.

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This is not the first time the Buss family has considered ending its relationship with the Sparks. In 1999, Jerry Buss wasn’t convinced that the team could be a successful draw in L.A. and almost did not extend his agreement with the NBA to continue his ownership. Instead, Johnny Buss, a longtime WNBA fan, took the reins. Since the 2000 season, L.A. has won five regular-season Western Conference titles and three Western Conference playoff championships.

Buss sees Toler as a natural choice to take over his role.

“And we’re OK with that,” he said, referring to the Buss family. “Right now, everything is good.”

mike.terry@latimes.com


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