In Jeanie Buss’ updated memoir “Laker Girl,” written with former Times sportswriter Steve Springer and published by Triumph Books, she writes about the firing of Lakers Coach Mike Brown last November.
In this excerpt Buss, head of the team’s business operations, describes the whirlwind weekend after Brown’s firing when her fiance, former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, talked to the front office about returning as coach. Ultimately, her brother Jim Buss, head of player personnel; General Manager Mitch Kupchak, and her late father and Lakers owner, Jerry Buss, decided to hire Mike D’Antoni instead of Jackson.
I first heard the rumors on radio. Then, my brother called to tell me it was official. Mike Brown was out.
“I support you in whatever decision you make,” I told Jim. “I understand.”
That’s all I said to him.
Phil called me from the gym after he saw the news on ESPN. “That’s not right,” he said. “It’s not enough time for a coach. I don’t care who it is. You don’t fire a coach five games in.” . . .
[That Friday afternoon] My brother walked into my private office a little while later and got right to the point.
“I feel really bad that I made this mistake in hiring Mike Brown,” he said. “I’ve cost the family money. But I had to let him go and we are going to have to continue to pay that contract. What I want to know from you is, do you think Phil and I could work together?”
My brother really caught me off guard with that question.
“I have no idea if Phil is even interested in coming back,” I said. “If you want to discuss it, Jim, it has to be between you and him. I can’t be in the middle. The only way it’s going to work is if I’m not involved.” . . .
My brother’s response was to repeat his initial question: “Do you think Phil and I can work together?”
“Jim, just look at your past success,” I replied. “Andrew Bynum is a perfect example. You brought Phil a piece of raw talent and Phil helped develop him into what he became. He was one of the top two centers in the league. Of course you and Phil can work together.”
That was my only input. I wasn’t pushing for him to get the job. I really wasn’t.
“Can you give me Phil’s number?” Jim asked.
“Here’s the cell number,” I said. “Here’s the home number. Do whatever makes you comfortable.”
We went on to talk about basketball for the first time ever in that meeting. In the past, that subject was limited to Jim and my dad. They didn’t really need me.
“I want to work closer with you,” Jim said. “Our communication needs to be better.” . . .
The next morning, my brother called Phil and asked, “Can we talk?”
“Yes,” replied Phil, “but I don’t want to come to the office because I think it’s better to keep this quiet.”
He invited Jim to his house, a place my brother had never visited before.
They agreed to meet at 11:00 AM that Saturday. Half an hour later, Jim called back to ask, “Do you mind if Mitch comes with me?”
“Of course not,” replied Phil, who had a good working relationship with Mitch.
Still, Mitch’s presence changed the dynamics of the meeting because Phil would be there alone, without his agent. The get-together was supposed to be a conversation, not a negotiation.
I vacated the property, taking my dog for a ride so my brother, Mitch, and Phil could have their time together.
At 12:30, Phil called to say Jim and Mitch had just left.
“How’d it go?” I asked upon arriving home.
“We had a great meeting,” said Phil. “We went over each player and the issues I see with the team.”
Phil told my brother and Mitch that he would want to have input on personnel decisions if and when there were roster changes. The last time he came back to the Lakers, he had input at the beginning, but during the last season or two he was there, Phil was kept out of the decision-making process.
There was no discussion of money at the meeting or any of the supposed demands by Phil that were later erroneously reported in the media.
Looking back, I wonder where the media was getting its information. Someone was talking.
As Jim and Mitch were preparing to leave, Phil got in the last word, telling them, “I’m going to consider this but I have to check with some people,” meaning he had to get cleared by his doctors and talk to his family.
This could be a life-changing decision. He wasn’t going to just say, “Okay, where’s the contract?” He was retired and they had just dropped a bombshell on him. He needed a little time to think it over. So they agreed to talk again on Monday morning.
Jim and Mitch made it very clear they were still going to talk to other people. During that weekend, they spoke to both Mike D’Antoni and Mike Dunleavy.
Phil understood that. He wasn’t pleading for the job, and they weren’t negotiating yet. . . .
[The possibility of Jackson’s return excited Lakers fans, who chanted “We want Phil” during the Lakers-Kings game that weekend at Staples Center.]
I asked him that Sunday, “Who is the better coach for this team, you or D’Antoni?”
Phil said, “Well, by far, D’Antoni is a better coach for Steve Nash, but I’m a far better coach for Dwight Howard.”
My brother didn’t text me that Sunday to ask me what Phil was thinking. My brother was respecting our boundaries as well. I felt we were on the same wavelength. . . .
That Sunday night, just before he started preparing dinner, Phil put on his Lakers Hawaiian shirt, the one he had often worn during the season. It was clear to me he was getting mentally ready to return to his old job.
Nothing was for sure, but things were moving in that direction.
After we went to bed, the house phone rang at 11:30. I heard Phil pick it up and say, “Okay, alright. Okay.”
When he hung up, I asked him what that was about, and he said, “Mitch called to tell me they’ve hired D’Antoni. He said that they feel given the personnel they have that D’Antoni is a better fit. He said they know they are going to take a bit of a PR hit, but he thinks it will blow over in a month.”
“He said it will blow over in a month?” I repeated in disbelief.
I was still trying to wake up.
I was stunned. I said to Phil, “They came to you. You were not looking for the job. I cannot believe this.”
I knew Phil wasn’t going to argue with them.
“That was really odd,” he said in the quiet of our bedroom as he replayed the conversation in his mind.
My first thought was, What was the rush? Why did they have to make a decision tonight?
I didn’t have much time to reflect because my cell phone started going crazy.
By the next day, stories began coming out in the media that Phil wanted part ownership of the team, had demanded a ridiculous salary, and had insisted on not traveling with the team on some of our road trips.
None of that was true. . . .
Two days after Phil got that phone call, I was at the gym when I started crying so hysterically that they sent me home.
My sister, Janie, knew the whole situation was tearing me apart, but I don’t think anybody else in my family understood how much it had hurt me. It physically hurt me.
The sequence of events — Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job — practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was a betrayal. I was devastated.
I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn’t sincere about it? . . .
Phil wasn’t looking for the job, and then he wasted 36 hours of his life preparing for it when they were never in a million years going to hire him anyway.
How do you do that to your sister? How do you do that to Phil Jackson?
I hope the flirtation with Phil wasn’t just a PR stunt. I still can’t get my head around the whole story.
“The decision came down to Dad, Mitch, and I all agreeing,” Jim claims, “that D’Antoni was a better fit for this group of personnel.”
The story going around is that my dad pushed for D’Antoni because he wanted to go back to playing Showtime basketball. But there was only one Showtime, never to be replicated. My dad knew that.
I know my father would back my brother in whatever decision Jim wanted to make. That was exactly how my dad was with the decisions I had to make in regard to business matters.
My dad made it clear to the entire family that he put me in charge of the team’s business operations and my brother was in charge of the basketball decisions. He wanted that structure in place to carry us forward when he was no longer running the show.
What is not clear to me is why, if they had their doubts about Phil being physically able to coach, they hired a guy who was still recovering after having his knee replaced? D’Antoni wasn’t physically prepared to hit the ground running with the season already underway.
Despite my brother’s desire to open up the channels of communication between us, we still rarely if ever discuss basketball. That should be okay because my dad was confident the franchise could be run that way. But I want my brother to realize that I’m not the enemy.