May 2009

Jerry Buss All in the Family

If the longtime Lakers owner has his way, his beloved team will one day belong to his kids

John
Ireland

Jerry Buss Photo by Ben Baker

Being the most successful owner in sports history isn't what Dr. Jerry Buss planned. His intentions were actually far more modest. "His goal was to always have enough money to own season tickets," Buss' daughter Jeanie says. "He never thought he would own a team."

Well, Gerald Hatten Buss doesn't just own a team, he owns the Los Angeles Lakers—and has since 1979. His boys have won eight NBA titles, a feat unmatched by any owner in the four major sports. During Buss' tenure, the Lakers have reached the NBA Finals 14 times in 29 years. Imagine if a football team made the Super Bowl every other year for 30 years. It's nearly unfathomable.

Buss didn't arrive in L.A. with hoop dreams. He came from Wyoming in the 1950s to attend USC, earning a doctorate in physical chemistry at 24 and making his money as a real-estate developer. In 1979—in a purchase the New York Times called "the largest single financial transaction in the history of professional sports"—Buss bought the Lakers, hockey's L.A. Kings, the Forum and a ranch from the late Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. Now, Forbes says, the Lakers alone are worth at least $584 million.

The prestige of the Lakers goes far beyond titles and money—the team is the signature sports franchise of L.A. Courtside seats, which are rarely available, sell for $2,600 per game. In a city full of A-lists, it would be near impossible to find a more star-studded crowd than at a Lakers home game. It is not unusual to see a studio head sitting next to the mayor, who is across from both Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But now, at 76, Buss feels it's time to step back. And while he would amass a fortune if he sold the team, he won't. "I've been offered extravagant amounts," he says. "The team is not for sale." Instead, he's gradually turning it over to his children. Buss had four kids with ex-wife JoAnn: Johnny (52), Jim (49), Jeanie (47) and Janie (45). Later. he had two with now ex-girlfriend Karen Demel: Joey (24) and Jesse (21).

Some fans are understandably nervous at the prospect of a generational transfer: The pro-sports landscape is full of stories of rich men leaving teams to their kids, only to watch infighting and mismanagement ruin the franchise.

A while back, Buss met with his kids individually and offered to sell the team and divide the proceeds. Nobody would take the money and run. "I asked each if it was me who loved the Lakers or is it us? They felt living in L.A. and not owning the Lakers would be unacceptable."

"It's in our blood," says Jim. "It wasn't even a thought to sell."

His kids claim their dad has left a near-perfect ownership blueprint. "I'm totally comfortable with them taking over," Buss says. He has already turned the business aspect of the team over to Jeanie, who now works out of his office ("I moved in there reluctantly; I still call it his," she says). Jim is set to take over the basketball operations any day now, and in many ways, he already has.

Lakers 2.0
Now it's time to meet the Buss offspring. Under each name is the best piece of business advice ever received from dad...

JEANIE
The succession plan started with Jeanie, now executive vice president of business operations. Her on-the-job training included running two pro franchises—the L.A. Strings tennis team and the L.A. Blades roller hockey team. She was also promoting live events at the Forum. In 2005, Sporting News named her one of the 20 Most Influential Women in Sports. Today she is involved in all aspects of the Lakers and represents the team at most NBA meetings. "My dad groomed me to get to this position," Jeanie says.

"She's driven and willing to accept any challenge," Jerry concurs. She is always there—and if it has to be until midnight, seven days a week, she'll do it."

Not that their relationship hasn't had a few twists. In May of 1995, Jeanie posed for Playboy on top of her dad's desk. (Buss claims it's the only issue he's never looked at.) She laughs now, saying he "was totally supportive and handled it perfectly." Five years later, she began dating her dad's highest-profile employee, Lakers coach Phil Jackson—who is 16 years her senior. They are still together. She decided to tell her dad before he heard it from anybody else, and she had no idea how he would react. "I knew my relationship with Phil had to have full disclosure—we weren't going to sneak around," Jeanie says. "Otherwise I would lose all of my credibility in the company. So I sit down with him, and the first thing he says is, ‘I always thought you should date somebody older.' He was a dad first."

"If she was 18 and going out with a man Phil's age, I might have reacted differently," says Jerry. "At this stage of the game, she's a mature adult and has been for years. I just said, ‘I hope you're happy.' "

JIM
From 1998 to 2004, Jim was assistant to general manager Mitch Kupchak; he is currently Vice President of Player Personnel. Now, Jerry says, "He'll replace me."

As recently as 11 years ago, most insiders would have thought that unlikely. Jim was involved in sports but as a trainer of thoroughbreds. When his dad asked him to learn the on-the-court aspects of the Lakers, Jim began a crash course in basketball management unlike any undertaken before. "I try to learn as much as I possibly can from people who have worked the game very, very hard. I'm surrounded by incredible people, as far as draining knowledge from them: Phil Jackson, Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak, Ronnie Lester, Frank Hamblen, Kurt Rambis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many others. If you take a step back, I've got an incredible teaching ground."

At the head of that teaching ground is his dad. "You have to spend time doing this—that's true of any corporation," says Jerry. "And he has. I would say right now he has a better chance of running this the right way than I have. I talk to Jimmy about the Lakers absolutely, positively more than an average of two times a day."

"We love the Lakers and talk about everything," Jim adds. "I keep him informed of almost every decision Mitch or I have made. And if it's anything large, like the Gasol trade, he's involved with every detail." (The Lakers traded with Memphis for Spanish superstar Pau Gasol in February 2008.)

For anybody wondering what Jim's ascension means for Kupchak, he will continue in his same general-manager role. Kupchak, who has been with the team for 22 years, has already been offered a long-term contract extension. "Mitch and I talk basketball almost as much as I talk to my dad," Jim says. "We have a rapport. I don't like yes-men, and he's not one of those in any way. I like to have confrontations. If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong—and there are a lot of times Mitch has proven me wrong—but that makes me much more knowledgeable in basketball."

"I foresee Mitch being with the Lakers as long as he wants to be," Jerry adds. "He's very good and great to work with. It used to be me and Mitch, then we added Jim, and now it's mostly the two of them. It's an ongoing process, and so far, it's going wonderfully."

Jim knows he's about to take on a job that is the sports equivalent of following Frank Sinatra. "I want to follow in my dad's footsteps. I don't know if I can fill his shoes, but I'm very proud of what he's done over the past 30 years. It's great for the city. It's great for the NBA, and I feel I'm capable of doing something like that."

JOEY
If there is one Buss kid who combines the front-office aspirations of Jeanie with the on-the-court interests of Jim, it's Joey, the third oldest of the boys. At 24, he comes across older than his years and, in spite of his youth, has already worked in almost every aspect of the Lakers organization. These days, Joey is team president for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, an NBA talent-development team. He also attends NBA Board of Governors meetings alongside Jeanie and Jerry.

When he was more involved with the Lakers, he used to sit in on coaches' meetings. "They [were] an incredible opportunity for me," he says. "Imagine being part of a classroom, with Phil Jackson as the teacher. It's a little surreal and something that's invaluable as I continue to learn."

"I think he has the business acumen to follow in Jeanie's footsteps, but also he's into the basketball end of things," Jerry says. "I could see him in either role."

"I'm more of a strategist," Joey clarifies. "I enjoy applying the strategy of how to win to business and basketball. I really love doing both. Basketball requires more travel, the business is more at home—so since I have a new wife, I might steer toward business. But I'm glad I don't have to decide yet."

Last summer, Joey wed the former Nicole Goff, an occupational therapist he met while at Marymount College (though they both went on to USC). When I asked Jerry, a noted fan of the playboy lifestyle, if he thought Joey was marrying too young, he answered quickly: "Socially, he's 24 going on 28, so it's the right move for him. Plus, I was married at 19, so who am I to criticize?"

JANIE
Jim's youngest sister, Janie, works as the Lakers' director of charitable services. Married to David Drexel, she lives in Temecula and is the mother of two: Riley, 16, and 12-year-old Sierra. She handles more than 500 requests a month for charity items and also runs the Lakers Youth Foundation, which, according to the Sports Philanthropy Project, hands out close to $500,000 in grants annually.

"She's probably the most compassionate of all of my children," Jerry says. "Charity is really her calling. As a mother, it's a great fit."

If you think because she lives outside L.A. and is married with kids that she might have been the one sibling who would have strongly considered her dad's offer to consider selling the team, you'd be wrong. "I love what I do, and a lot of my friends can't say that. I can see my kids whenever I want. If my dad sold, the money may run out, and I have a job that I love as long as we own it. My life is perfect how it is. Plus, it's my dad's team."

JESSE
The youngest Buss is only 21 and insists Jerry is his best friend, despite their 55-year age difference. "My dad is able to adapt to anybody, any age," Jesse says. "That's what has always made him so easy to talk to. He wants to listen to anything you're interested in."

For Jesse, that includes everything from salary-cap issues to rap music. He's the only one of the six kids who lives with Jerry, and he's currently studying business at LMU. They go on several scouting trips each year together. My dad has a great eye for athleticism," he says. "He's very good at making comparisons between various players. I try to relay information to him, since, let's face it, I have a lot more free time than he does."

"He's on his computer three hours a night, and most of that is spent on basketball," Jerry says.

While Buss is planning on Jesse being part of running the Lakers, Jesse himself isn't sure that will happen right away. He's had some success managing a San Diego-area band, Randam Luck, that recently signed a record deal. Clearly, he's keeping his options open. "I think as you get older, you start to learn more about yourself, what really makes you happy. I realize what I'm thinking now might not be the way I'm thinking when I'm 25."

JOHNNY
The only Buss sibling who is not planning to be involved in the Lakers' next phase is Johnny, the oldest. After leading his dad's WNBA franchise, the Sparks, to two championships, he's been there and done that. "I was happy for him, because I think people second-guessed his ability to run a sports team," Jerry says. "A lot of people didn't agree with his plans or ideas, so for him to win...that says it all."

As for why Johnny is staying away from the family business, he says, "I trust my brother, and I trust my sisters. I really think they understand the overall goal at heart—to continue to drive a profitable business and do the best you can on the floor." He has instead started a social networking site, musester.com ("A Musester is someone who advances the enjoyment of art, entertainment and creativity to brighten our world"). "I've been an artist all my life, and I'm really excited about what I'm doing. As long as the Lakers are running smoothly, they won't hear from me—I'll be happy."

The Two Inevitabilities
Despite all of his preparation, there is one thing papa Buss admits could derail the ownership plan: the inheritance tax: "It's a severe economic issue for me. It's an ongoing one, and I'm addressing it as best I can. I'm prepaying the taxes, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I live long enough to accomplish the whole thing."

Could it force a sale? "It could," he says. "There are rules and regulations, but we're getting to a point where I'm pretty sure my family can hold on to the team." If that happens, the kids claim it will be a smooth transition. They insist the stories of family infighting that have brought down so many teams will never apply to the Lakers.

"I've seen what happens with other teams in other leagues that are in our situation," Jeanie says. "I know we live in an age when conflict sells newspapers, and people like to hear about siblings fighting. It makes for interesting media. But we've all found our place. We know how much we can help each other, and we all want the same thing."

And what they want is for the Los Angeles Lakers to remain the Buss family business.