Sixteen months ago, Adam Streisand carried the future of the Lakers into Room 629 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
The veteran attorney is no stranger to high-profile cases. But as the behind-the-scenes struggle between Jeanie Buss and her brothers to control the franchise spilled into public that March morning over a temporary restraining order she filed, Streisand knew the hearing could alter the course for one of the most storied franchises in sports.
“We were dangerously close to a nightmare scenario,” he said Tuesday.
Streisand and Buss prevailed in a monthlong legal fight that cemented her as controlling owner of the Lakers, kept Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations and, eventually, cleared the path for free agent LeBron James to agree to a four-year, $154-million contract Sunday.
The turmoil seems like a hazy memory in the aftermath of the franchise-changing announcement from James’ sports agency that the 14-time All-Star would join the Lakers. But the slew of court filings helped shape the team into the place James chose to continue his career.
“When I told her ‘Look, I’m going to propose to you a really risky and daring plan, we are going to fire the missiles in a preemptive strike and go into court and shut down these people and get rid of them,’ I thought she was going to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” Streisand said. “She said ‘Go.’ From that moment on, I realized she’s tough.”
Tensions between the siblings had built since late 2016 as the Lakers floundered on the court. Jeanie Buss dismissed Jim Buss as vice president of basketball operations in February 2017 and hired Johnson. Three days later, Johnny Buss called an annual meeting of the Lakers board of directors. The 10-point agenda included approving an unusual $25-million payout to shareholders, $10,000 per month compensation for directors with a stake in the team and, most importantly, proposed four directors for the five-person board.
The brothers were candidates. Jeanie Buss wasn’t.
When a series of emails and phone calls didn’t resolve the matter, Streisand filed a motion in L.A. County Superior Court for a temporary restraining order. He argued the four trusts through which the Buss family owns 66% of the Lakers mandate Jeanie Buss remain as controlling owner. According to the team’s bylaws, she must be a director to fill that role.
The depth of the ill feelings between the siblings became apparent in a four-page declaration from Jeanie Buss filed along with the motion.
“I must also point out that Jim has already proven to be completely unfit even in an executive vice president of basketball operations role and I recently had to replace him,” she wrote. “Despite the fact that I gave my brother Jim ample time to prove himself in this role ... I could not allow the damage being done to the franchise over the past few years to continue.”
If the brothers chose new controlling owners, she suggested, Johnson could be fired and that would create “irreversible damage to the Lakers team and brand.”
The motion for the restraining order was blunt, accusing the brothers of being “motivated by retaliation” and suggesting the family would lose control of the Lakers if Jeanie Buss was removed.
In response, attorneys for the brothers wrote in a court filing that “entering into an order that would enjoin the majority owners of the Lakers from taking unspecified actions in response to an unjustified fear could very well represent harm to the Lakers itself.”
The night before the March hearing, the brothers signed a document reelecting Jeanie Buss as controlling owner and postponing the meeting. In court the next day, Streisand, who represented Steve Ballmer during his purchase of the Clippers in 2014, withdrew the motion for the restraining order.
Three weeks later, the dispute fizzled out. The brothers signed an agreement to waive the meeting and elect Jeanie Buss and four others to the board of directors. They also agreed to make certain she served as controlling owner and a director for the rest of her life.
In an interview with The Times last year, Johnny Buss called the entire episode a misunderstanding and wanted to move forward.
“After all of this, not only have I resigned from [the Lakers], I’ve resigned from being a member of the Buss family,” he said at the time.
Streisand learned James agreed to sign with the Lakers during vacation. This is the result he wanted.
“The turmoil, the dysfunction, the dissension, and the low morale that existed as a result was just palpable,” Streisand said of the ownership conflict. “The moment … Magic came aboard and [general manager] Rob [Pelinka] and everybody was working together as a team again with one goal in mind — to win it all — you could feel it everywhere.”