Jerry Buss often worried about his older daughter’s happiness, like many fathers do, so when he considered promoting her to run the Great Western Forum, he thought of the toll such a demanding job would take. “I don’t know if that’s a good life for her,” he told a confidant.
What he didn’t realize then, but learned over the next 15 years, was that nothing mattered more to Jeanie Buss than the family business — than her father’s legacy. She was happiest when she was working to safeguard both. Over and over, she chose those over personal milestones.
Now, 20 years after the fatherly fretting, she is the most powerful woman in sports. She is also one of the most powerful people in sports.
She is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, as her late father wished. Four months ago, she fired her brother and also the team’s 17-year general manager on the same day, and installed trusted friend Earvin “Magic” Johnson as president of basketball operations. Then she prevailed in an ugly court battle with her two older brothers that confirmed she will run the Lakers for the rest of her life.
Now, she faces her greatest test: reviving the NBA’s glamour franchise, which has stumbled badly since her father’s death in 2013. The Lakers have missed the playoffs for four years, including two of the worst seasons in franchise history.
She may not have the answers — yet — but she is unmistakably in charge.
In the difficult moments of the last few months, she’s seemed unflappably protective of the team Jerry left in her care.
That doesn’t mean the realities of life don’t smart once in a while. Sometimes she remembers what she’s lost, and even though she would do it all over again, it hurts.
It did one afternoon in April as she sat inside a posh Greek restaurant, her crisp white blazer gleaming opposite a bright Manhattan Beach courtyard. Silently, she looked down at her napkin as she fought back tears, having just been asked who helped her emotionally through a trying few months.
The answer was easy, but she wasn’t ready to give it yet.
It would have been Phil Jackson.
Their 17-year relationship ended last fall, the strain of living on opposite coasts having pulled them apart. As she spoke her voice trembled, and she started to realize she never talks about this for a reason. She’d later wish she hadn’t said anything at all.
She scolded herself.
“There’s no crying in basketball!” she said, laughing in spite of herself. “It’s been hard for him there. Now, it’s like, he would have been the pillar that I could count on.”
Then, just as quickly as she broke, she healed. She pushed aside the remnants of a watermelon and feta cheese salad as bright as her red patterned shirt. Less than five minutes after her eyes filled with tears that never fell, she buried her personal pain. She smiled like she does while playing hostess from her courtside-adjacent seats at Staples Center.
She was back.
In many ways, this is about a modern American woman. One passionate about her career, one who also wants personal happiness and who’s had to confront the tensions that arise where those two intersect.
She won a beauty contest as a teenager and earned a business degree from USC at 24.
She posed for Playboy magazine, just because she wanted to, in 1995. That same year, she became president of the Forum, the Inglewood arena where the Lakers then played, and became the team’s alternate governor, representing the Lakers at NBA meetings when her father couldn’t.
She is shy but assumes an outgoing persona when her job calls for it.
She got married once, for three years, in the 1990s, and doesn’t think she’ll do it again. She likes children and would have liked to have some but felt that would have required multitasking she didn’t feel equipped to do.
“For me, the burning desire has always been about building what my family had,” said Buss, now 55. “Making it better and keeping it healthy and strong. That’s a motivating factor for me in my life. I’m in the right place for me. I haven’t always made the right decisions, but everything has been consistent about the choices that I’ve made. That part is easy.”
Her involvement in the family basketball team began in 1979, when her dad left her in charge of greeting Johnson upon his arrival at their home.
The Lakers had just chosen him with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. It was the first time Jeanie saw Johnson’s brilliant smile in person. But the pleasantries dissipated when Johnson informed her he planned to spend three years with the Lakers, then go play for the Detroit Pistons. She rushed upstairs to tell her father the bad news, and he told her that would never happen.
That day marked the start of a friendship and business relationship between Jeanie and Johnson that has spanned four decades. In some sense, they grew up together. Johnson came over to play pool and watch the premiere of Michael Jackson’s music video “Thriller” in 1983.
“For my dad to be able to do what he loved to — and that was to go out to nice clubs and nice dinner and bring nice girls with him — he and Earvin shared that,” said Johnny Buss, Jerry’s oldest son. “My sister Jeanie was around my father a lot. [Brother] Jimmy was around my father a lot, but Jimmy and Earvin really never hung out that I remember. … That was really the great trio: Jerry Buss, Jeanie Buss and Earvin Johnson.”
While she worked toward her degree at USC, Jeanie served as president of the L.A. Strings, a World Team Tennis franchise owned by her father. It was her first test on her path toward becoming a sports executive.
“Her father believed in throwing his kids into the pool, and if they could swim, they’d survive,” said Claire Rothman, former president and general manager of the Buss-owned Forum, where the Strings played.
Next, Buss threw his daughter into the roller hockey pool. From 1993 to 1998, she ran the L.A. Blades, whose games drew around 3,000 fans on good days. The coaches sometimes balked at what they saw as Jeanie’s meddling. To this day, some of the Blades coaches grow uncomfortable when asked about her. The players loved her generosity.
Her father “gave her the absolute toughest job he could, and she took it on with full force,” said Steve Bogoyevac, who played for the Blades.
Perhaps the most significant step in Jeanie’s rise was taking over the Forum, where she had worked for more than a decade. It happened in 1995, when Rothman left. Despite Jerry’s misgivings, Rothman insisted Jeanie was the right choice to replace her.
“She was the person that always felt this was the family business,” Rothman said. “She had a feeling of responsibility that she had to contribute and keep it safe.
That same year, Jeanie started attending NBA board of governors meetings. In her book “Laker Girl,” she describes how an owner grabbed her buttocks during her first meeting. She didn’t allow the indignity to ruin her relationship with the other owners, whom she would eventually join as a peer.
In Jeanie’s mind, her public and personal lives run on separate tracks. It’s why she loves talking about the Lakers but does not love talking about herself.
“I’m a 55-year-old woman; I’m not, like, one of the Kardashians,” she said. “I’m not that interesting. I think you can tell by the people who surround me the type of person that I am, and the people I rely on in my close circle are trusted, respected, experienced. I think that should tell the story more than a dating life that’s really not glamorous at all.”
Still, her dating life has drawn avid attention, especially her relationship with Jackson. When they announced their split on Twitter during a Lakers game in December, it was bigger news than the team’s two-point loss that night.
They started dating in 1999, during Jackson’s first season as coach of the Lakers, and Jeanie was open about the relationship. Still, some in the organization didn’t like it that the owner’s daughter was romantically involved with the head coach.
They dated through five championships and two retirements. They got engaged in December 2012. The Lakers fired Jackson’s successor, Mike Brown, just five games into the 2012-13 season.
Jim Buss, then the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, and general manager Mitch Kupchak contacted Jackson about returning. While he considered the possibility, they hired Mike D’Antoni instead.
“Jimmy didn’t want him because they felt that he would be another voice that would confuse things,” Jeanie said. “And I understood that. But I also knew as long as Phil was sitting in his house in Playa del Rey, any time the Lakers didn’t do well, fans would start chanting his name again.”
When the New York Knicks showed interest in Jackson, he told her he didn’t want to take the job if it meant losing her. She encouraged him to go. Jackson became president of the Knicks in the spring of 2014.
More than 2,500 miles separated them for 2 ½ years. Still, rumors persisted that he would eventually return to the Lakers, the team he had coached to five NBA championships.
“You know the league has never been very amenable, happy about our relationship,” Jackson said. “There’s this ... feeling that there could be collusion between those two franchises. So that was something that was difficult for us. It’s not that reason [why the relationship ended] — I think distance is the biggest reason.”
In her statement on Twitter regarding the breakup, Jeanie said the Lakers were the love of her life.
Johnson called her after hearing the news.
“Are you OK, sis?” he asked.
“She was just so taken back,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘You know I’m gonna always check on you. Want to know if you’re OK.’ … She was OK. I said, ‘OK. Just hugs and kisses, know if you need somebody to talk to I’m always available. There’s not too many people on this Earth who know you better than I do.’”
By the time of his death in February 2013, Jerry knew Jeanie would always put the Lakers first. He had arranged for her to succeed him as controlling owner. Jim would run basketball operations. Jeanie would oversee the franchise as a whole.
The elder Buss also envisioned a role for Johnson.
Johnson remembers Jerry telling him during his playing days that it was always his dream that Johnson and Jeanie would run the Lakers together. He’d even sold Johnson a small ownership stake.
“I understood the situation with the other boys,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘There’s no way you can put me in place. You can’t do that. You’ve got to let one of them run the basketball side of the Lakers.’”
Although Jerry hoped his oldest son Johnny Buss would take a prominent role in the franchise, Johnny insists he never wanted to run the team. But there is no doubt in his mind, he said, that his father wanted Johnson to help guide the Lakers.
“He looked at it as, here’s the future Jerry West,” Johnny said. “… My dad thought that Earvin might have that ability to become one of the great managers in sports.”
By the start of the 2016-17 season, it was clear that the Lakers needed a change. Jim had promised to step down at the end of the season if the Lakers didn’t make a playoff run. By January, it was obvious there would be no turnaround. Jeanie and Johnson had dinner that month.
On Feb. 21, she fired Kupchak and her brother Jim. She had the public support of her siblings Janie, Joey and Jesse. But it angered Johnny.
“My dad would be spinning in his grave, not just rolling in his grave,” said Johnny, who was a trustee of the family trusts at the time. “There was no reason to do that sort of thing publicly. Why couldn’t you just bring Jimmy in his office and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to reassign you?’”
Jim Buss declined to comment.
On the same day, Jeanie made Johnson the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. If she was to replace a sibling in order to right the team, it would be with someone she regarded as family. (Rob Pelinka, a longtime players’ agent, was later named general manager.)
“That’s hard for me to explain, how I could think he’s a good evaluator for talent, because I’m not an evaluator of talent,” Jeanie said of Johnson. “But I know he knows the type of players that are winners because he’s a winner. That kind of oversimplifies it, but I have confidence that he will put the pieces in place.”
Said Johnson: “You couldn’t trust any individual more than we trust each other. I’m walking in and out of her office all the time every day. We are in constant communication.”
Communication between Jeanie and her older brothers, never all that prolific, had faded since the start of the season.
The shakeup had consequences, though, and they weren’t entirely unexpected.
Jeanie and her five siblings own 66% of the Lakers through trusts that require her to serve as controlling owner. The team’s bylaws say the controlling owner must be a member of the Lakers’ board of directors.
On Feb. 24, three days after the front office purge, Johnny and Jim called a shareholders’ meeting to elect a new board. They nominated four candidates, none of whom was Jeanie.
She reacted swiftly. Her lawyer, Adam Streisand, filed a restraining order to block the meeting. In court papers, Jeanie said her brother Jim was “completely unfit” to oversee basketball operations.
Quickly, powerful people whose respect she had earned through 22 years in the NBA fell in line behind her. The NBA released a statement in support of her ownership. The candidates proposed by the two brothers distanced themselves from the effort to remove her.
“She kept me apprised of everything that was happening,” said Dan Beckerman, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and is a shareholder of the Lakers. Beckerman was one of the proposed new directors. “That was really her situation to deal with and resolve. As she’s done along the way throughout her career, she did it effectively and with poise and with calm.”
To resolve the litigation, the brothers canceled the board election and signed documents ensuring that Jeanie would be the team’s controlling owner for the rest of her life. Both were removed as trustees of the Buss Family Trusts, replaced by their sister Janie and half-brother Joey.
Johnny maintains that his intention was never to usurp his sister’s authority. He says he worried that Johnson would spend too much in pursuit of a championship. He says he and his brother were aiming for a majority on the board to get control of the budget, but insists he did not know about the effort to elect a board without Jeanie.
“I immediately apologized to Jeanie saying, ‘Hey, look. This is not what I wanted. Please don’t include me in this,’” Johnny said. Jeanie did not accept my apology. Decided to publicly string me up and you know, it was sad.”
A source close to the Buss family who was not authorized to speak publicly denied that Johnny had ever apologized and insisted that the conflict only became public because of actions taken by Jim and Johnny.
Nearly 40 years ago, Johnny said, he deeply hurt his father by telling him he wasn’t interested in owning the Lakers. Now, he says he wishes he could have sold his shares, something the family trusts make nearly impossible.
“That would be the wonderful thing that could have happened would be just to get out of this whole mess,” Johnny said. “… It’s not my thing. After my dad passed away it wasn’t part of me anymore. Whether it was part of my brother [Jim] I don’t know. I think he was just a scorned, embarrassed man who wanted to get far away from the Lakers also.”
Through the ordeal, Jackson sent Jeanie supportive text messages and urged her to stand her ground.
“I’m happy Jeanie’s kind of cleared the deck and she can run it on her own now,” he said.
Johnson gave her a sense of security during the legal fight.
“I could be distracted by this other crap that was going on, and our basketball team was going to be safe,” Jeanie said. “Maybe that’s what my dad saw. That [Johnson] would always be protective of the thing that my dad loved, which was the Lakers.
The last six months seem to have answered the question her father once had about how much she could handle.
“He was concerned that I would sacrifice, on a personal level, a relationship and a family, because of my ambition,” she said, looking out onto a pristine Manhattan Beach courtyard. “He worried about me, just as any father would. ‘Are you working too much?’ He would always make sure I was happy.”
He must have known, even then, that for their legacy, she’d happily give everything.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli