Jeanie Buss: Values I Learned From My Father

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Jeanie Buss with Magic Johnson, Dr. Jerry Buss, and Phil Jackson at a November 2011 event for the Magic Johnson Foundation held at STAPLES Center
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Lakers/NBA

My father, Dr. Jerry Buss, holds the honor of being the most successful owner in the history of professional sports. Not only evidenced by his 10 NBA Championships but also from his sports marketing successes such as creating a regional sports network, establishing the first-ever NBA dance squad, “The Laker Girls,” and, of course, designing the VIP row featuring the “Jack Nicholson” seats.  This is an opportunity to share the top three lessons I most value from my father while growing up in the world of professional sports.

1. Trust Your Instincts

My father purchased the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Kings, and the arena they played in, the Forum, in May of 1979.  I was only 17 years old.  His first order of business as the new Lakers’ owner was to select the #1 pick in the draft.  Some suggested to him that he choose a solid four-year college standout from UCLA, David Greenwood, but my father had his eye on a sophomore who had petitioned to turn pro two years early and had dazzled in the NCAA tournament, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the first underclassman ever to be drafted with the #1 pick.

The first time I met Magic was shortly after the draft.  He flew to Los Angeles to meet my father.  I was there to answer the doorbell.  I opened the door and here was a kid only two years older than me with a smile that could rival the sun and light up an entire city.

I showed him to the living room, and we chatted for a few moments.  He told me matter-of-factly that he appreciated being drafted by the Lakers but that he was only going to stay for three years because he wanted to go home to Michigan and play for his hometown team – the Detroit Pistons.

I did my best to hide my reaction and excused myself to go upstairs and inform my father that his guest had arrived.  When I was out of Magic’s sight, I raced up the stairs with panic to tell my dad what our number-one draft pick had just said to me.

My dad didn’t bat an eye.  He told me, “Jeanie, don’t worry.  He may say that today, but the first time he puts on a Lakers’ uniform and steps out on the Forum floor, he is never going to leave.”

He was right.  Magic has never left Los Angeles, and I don’t think you could find a better ambassador for the city.  He is the face of the LA Dodgers’ franchise and continues to be a force in the community.  Everything he has ever set out to do he has done.

My dad had a feeling about Magic and he trusted himself to take a gamble that paid off big and forever changed the course of Lakers’ history.

2. Persistence Pays Off (even if everyone laughs at your plan)

When you own an arena like the Forum, the goal is to keep it busy.  Between the hockey team and the basketball team, you have about 100 or so nights per year booked.  However, that means you have 250 dark nights that need to be filled.

That is when I was named to my first job – general manager of the Los Angeles Strings of World Team Tennis at the age of 19.  The season consisted of seven home and seven away matches, and our star player was some little up and comer – Martina Navratilova.

The season was a success, and my dad decided we needed to expand what he liked to call our “orphan” sports department.  That meant I had to promote everything from gymnastics to indoor soccer to roller hockey.  By then I had a partner in crime, my best buddy still to this day, Linda Zafrani Rambis.

We were fortunate to hit a couple of home runs such as hosting the “match that never was” in 1986.  For background, in 1984, Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics. In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Summer games held in Moscow and in return, the Russians did the same in 1984 and skipped the LA Games.

The USA men’s volleyball team captured the gold in 1984, their best finish in history, but it was an incomplete victory since the Russian team that was favored to win was not there.

It was our good fortune to host the 1986 USA vs. Russia match to finally let the guys prove their gold medal was deserved.  We sold out the Forum with over 16,000 fans and USA beat the Russian team in a thrilling five-game match to prove they in fact were the best team in the world.

But the highlight for me of that decade was the event that no one thought we could pull off—ever.  People laughed when we told them our plan:
a head-to-head matchup between the biggest rivals in men’s tennis: John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.  This was unusual because in tournament tennis you cannot create the best matches. You simply must play what the draw dictates.

To ask the bitter rivals to CHOOSE to play each other head-to-head when they would prefer to avoid each other at all costs still sounds crazy, but we would not accept no for an answer. And so the stalking began.

We would show up at their matches to support them and connect with their families, always letting each think that they were our number one pick. To this day, McEnroe thinks he is my favorite and Connors would insist that he knows he is my favorite.

After a year, the pestering finally paid off and on April 21, 1984, the Carta Blanca Challenge featuring John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors squared off at the Forum.  We sold out the building and set the all-time gross gate receipt record for the Forum, breaking the mark previously  set in 1973 for the Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton fight.

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Jeanie Buss and her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

3. There Is Room for Heart in This Business

When we moved the Lakers from the Forum to STAPLES Center in 1999, I was named to run the business operations of the team.  The new job meant I could focus how I spent my time away from work.

The Lakers were loaded with talent, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were the best one-two punch in the game.  My father, frustrated with their three consecutive losses in the playoffs, decided to hire a new coach. He told me he was considering the six-time championship winning former Chicago Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson.

I told him that I thought it was a mistake.  I didn’t know much about Phil Jackson except that he had a philosophy about basketball and Zen that bordered on the fringes and that in my estimation, with all of his success, he would probably be very demanding.  My reasoning was that Shaq and Kobe were already huge personalities, and Phil Jackson would throw it out of balance.

Thank goodness my dad didn’t listen to me.

I met Phil Jackson for the first time prior to an NBA meeting in Vancouver.  I was prepared to offer my support and wish him well.  However, I wasn’t prepared for his presence that in some ways bowled me over.  It was his voice that captivated me.

We began dating soon after, but I made it clear to Phil that if we were to date it had to come with full disclosure, as I was not interested in keeping secrets.  Secrets to me compromise an organization and leave you vulnerable to those who threaten to expose you.

My dad said the sweetest thing when I told him.  He said that he always felt that an older man would have appreciation for me and that he was happy for me.

My relationship with Phil opened me to yet another side of the business – managing players on the court.  He has a way of breaking down barriers and making a team become a family.  For example, Phil always scheduled a practice on Thanksgiving Day.  I told him I thought he was being a tyrant making them work on a day that was a major holiday and that the players’ families might resent him for taking away their son, their husband, or their father.  He explained that it was important for the players to realize that during the season the team was their family.  They had to have their time together, too.  He also pointed out to me that some of the players are here alone and may not have family to share the day with. It is these subtle messages that Phil uses to bond a team and taught me a bigger picture.

The Lakers responded quickly to their new leadership and won three championships in a row.

I enjoyed watching him coach superstars, teaching them to embrace a team system. But what I appreciated most was watching him take a player who had little previous success before coming to the Lakers and watching him bring out that player’s best.

Oftentimes in a trade there are one or two players who are “throw ins” to make the numbers work.  Phil never discounted a single human being as being a throw in.  He assessed their strengths and weaknesses and found a way for each player to contribute.  It was those stories that I hold nearest to my heart and made me love this business in a way I had never done before.  Every person, every soul, has a value to him which should never be wasted.

He coached the Lakers for 11 seasons, leading the team to seven Finals and five NBA Championships.

With the passing of my father, I know working for the Lakers will never be the same.  My family faces challenges ahead but experience has proven that each challenge can end with reward if handled honestly.  I look forward to the journey my father prepared me for.

Remembering Dr. Jerry Buss
He built Laker Nation, one fan at a time, one player at a time, one championship at a time, by honoring each individual

Some thoughts from those who knew him best…

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Rick Fox
Played 930 games in 13 seasons; 6 with the Boston Celtics, 7 with the Lakers (1997–2004). Wore #44 in Boston and #17 in LA.

I turned down $20 million to come be a part of what I felt was an organization from the top being bred with a championship mindset and a championship character. Dr. Buss had put people in place that I, and my former coach Dean Smith, respected in Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak. The first thing that struck me was his willingness to allow them to do their job. It took one afternoon when I was being recruited. I remember expecting a bigger pitch. It literally was one sentence. He said, “Guys tell me you’re of value and can make us a better team and if that’s what they say, then I’m 100% behind them.”

Now, how many owners have the ability and power to stick their hand in and make a decision on their own? A lot. But as successful as he was and as intelligent as he was about the game of basketball, he let the people he empowered do their job. That gave me a sense of comfort that I would always be supported in doing my job on the floor. As I spoke to other players, I got nothing but 100% positive referral. His character preceded him.

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James Worthy (Big Game James)
Member of the NBA Hall of Fame. Played his entire career (926 games; 12 seasons from 1982–1994) in Los Angeles. His #42 is one of nine numbers the Lakers have retired.

When I came out of college from North Carolina, I really hadn’t had much exposure to big city life and had never met an NBA owner personally. [I had] this idea of a really tough business person – suit and tie, very corporate, running a big organization. And when I came out in 1982 for a visit after I had been drafted by the Lakers, I thought I was going to go into his office and be sitting across from this big, grand table. They took me to meet him at a company picnic. I don’t remember what park it was at, but he had all his employees there. Not just ball players or front office people, [but] gardeners and people who worked at the Forum. I knew what he looked like, but I could not pick him out of the crowd. Finally, I saw him and he had jeans on. Classic jeans, kind of shredded at the bottom and this cool open shirt. I was like, is this the owner? He is so laid back.

He didn’t mind paying you what you were worth but at the same time he knew what you were worth. He knew his business. Once I got to know him, I realized he was just like me. He didn’t really grow up with a silver spoon and worked hard and he remembered where he came from.

He wasn’t one of those owners that kept you in the dark. He always kept you in the loop and he cared about everyone, right down to the parking attendant. Once you saw that, you could really relate to his willingness to engage with people and see what was possible in their lives.

I remember one time there were some trade rumors about me. I think it was 1986 or so, I was in North Carolina, and I read a newspaper article. I was a little bit upset that no one from the Laker organization gave me a heads up about it. So I kind of vented to this one reporter. I remember saying in the article, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I think I should get a call, I don’t know who management is these days.’ So I get back to LA and Dr. Buss calls me in. He says, “You know, James, I have a right to trade you.” He was really calm. He loved to smoke his cigarette. He always kept it way down below his shoe where you couldn’t see it and when you started to talk he would drag on it a little bit. And then he said, “I understand you’re upset, so I don’t mind you venting. But when you mention the word ‘management,’ that’s me.”

I learned from him that you can communicate with people and be very honest and straightforward. He was just a straight-ball kind of guy and I learned a lot from that experience.

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Kurt Rambis
Played 16 seasons in the NBA with four teams, including two stints with the Lakers (1981-88 and 1993-95). Currently an assistant coach with the Lakers, he served as interim head coach for the team in 1999 before Phil Jackson was hired.

Throughout my career with the Lakers, Dr. Buss created two positions for me. One in the front office, but prior to that, one in coaching, where I was assigned the special assistant coach’s role soon after retiring. I did broadcast work and also continued to work for the team doing those jobs he created for me. That’s the type of man he was. He was always eager to encourage people to broaden their perspective of what the sport and the business could apply to.

He was a great listener. He wouldn’t talk over anybody. He would listen and digest what you had to say and then offer suggestions or opinions on things. He wouldn’t tell you what to do, but he would make suggestions that he felt were in your best interest.

He didn’t micromanage. People have to make mistakes in order to learn and develop. He would allow things to happen because he saw a bigger picture. He saw something that would be much better down the road [by] allowing people to gain knowledge and gain experience that would help them in later decisions.

The Laker brand is known worldwide, and it’s synonymous with winning. He established that. He understood that not only do you have to win, but he wanted to win in an exciting, entertaining fashion.He wanted people to be on the edge of their seat. He established a winning culture, and it grew. It’s certainly going to be carried on by his children. They know it is expected of the Los Angeles Lakers to win. Everybody understands that it’s impossible to stay on top forever. There are peaks and valleys to the ride that goes on, but they understand the expectation level that their dad established for this organization.