Lakers owner Jeanie Buss reflects with pride on a long, strange, difficult season

There are times when Jeanie Buss peers down below her box through the plexiglass at the spaced-out seats near – but not too near – the AdventHealth Arena court and thinks of where she and the Lakers should be.

She thinks of the season-ticket holders and the security guards and ushers she has known for years from her perch in Staples Center, a space near the home baseline in the first row of the lower bowl where she has held court for years. Some of that has been replicated – the tinny fan noise and “I Love L.A.” blaring over the house after wins. But the swell of a real, live crowd enjoying the Lakers’ first run to the Finals in a decade cannot be replaced.

From the outer tier of the NBA bubble, where she is staying with close friend Linda Rambis and her brother Joey Buss (both influential team executives), the narrow pane of separation from the game feels bittersweet.

“It feels strange not to be at Staples Center,” the Lakers’ team owner said in an interview with Southern California News Group, on the eve of Game 5 of the NBA Finals. “Even though I’m here, it still feels like I’m watching it on TV.”

But “strange” is a theme of 2020, a year that has plunged Buss, her team and the world into uncertainty, challenges and grief. For much of the NBA restart, Buss hasn’t been at the games in person – like many other Lakers fans, she watched from home.

Her viewing party has typically been limited to her and her dog, Delores. Buss is an antsy spectator: She noted that she’s powered through her laundry and house-cleaning during games.

“People have asked me why I’m not on the virtual fan board,” she laughed. “I can’t commit to sitting still for two hours.”

Buss, however, is proud of the Lakers, the team that she has presided over with a firmer hand in the last three-and-a-half years since ousting her brother Jim in an effort to end the franchise’s longest postseason drought. Even though she had high hopes for these Lakers, they’ve surpassed her expectations by going 15-4 in the challenging isolation of the bubble. They’re just one win away from the organization’s 17th NBA championship – which would tie them with the Boston Celtics for the lead among franchises.

It’s a far cry from where the Lakers were a year and a half ago. They weathered stormy months last offseason that saw Magic Johnson resign as president of basketball operations then turn on General Manager Rob Pelinka as a reason for his departure. A labored coaching search drew questions about the organization’s power structure in the wake of Johnson’s exit, and Johnson’s public comments drew the wrong kind of attention on the day the Lakers introduced Frank Vogel, the coach they did end up hiring.

A close friend of Johnson and Pelinka, Buss mostly stayed quiet in the public sphere. Internally, she empowered Pelinka to swing a mega-deal for Anthony Davis, then tackle free agency after missing out on Kawhi Leonard. While publicly the Lakers faced withering criticism for their start to the long offseason, Buss said she “never wavered” in her support for Pelinka in particular.

“There might have been a lot of conversation in the media or mudslinging on the social media platform,” Buss said. “That’s not what we’re about: We’re about the work. Our validation comes from winning.”

Now Buss sees the fruits of that labor – a team powered by two superstars in LeBron James and Davis, surrounded by a supporting cast that has been versatile enough to play both big and small depending on the series.

“We pursued the best talent that we could,” Buss said. “We were trying to convince Kawhi Leonard to join us, but when he decided, Rob quickly pivoted. As he explained to me, we would be versatile and able to adapt. But you really don’t appreciate until you’re in the playoffs how well this roster was put together.”

As much as the last year has been hard on anyone, it has extracted an emotional toll on Buss. In a month-and-a-half-long span, three hugely influential figures in her life died: her mother, JoAnn Buss, former NBA commissioner David Stern and Kobe Bryant. As she spoke about the losses to SCNG, her voice still cracked with emotion – especially when she mentioned “our beloved Kobe” and his daughter Gianna Bryant.

Her comfort, she said, was Lakers basketball. After Bryant’s death, she extracted a small bit of relief from going to games, and the Lakers’ lead in the Western Conference standings helped her feel nostalgia for the great seasons of old. And then on March 11, basketball was taken away, too.

Buss said she agreed with Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to immediately suspend the season. She said she can’t be sure when basketball will come back to Staples Center, except that the Lakers would “never do anything to jeopardize our fans, players or staff” while complying with all local regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hiatus was a time of profound isolation for Buss, but she said she drew (and continues to draw) strength from a number of sources: the inner circle of the Lakers, including Pelinka, Kurt Rambis, Linda Rambis and Joey and Jesse Buss; Phil Jackson, the legendary Lakers coach who continues to offer her guidance after their romantic relationship ended several years ago; Vogel, who Buss said has guided the team with an even hand through a chaotic year.

One of the most powerful voices for her has been James, her franchise player who she has gotten to know more closely since March of 2019, when they finally sat down for a dinner together and James explained his admiration for the Lakers franchise, the work of her father Jerry Buss and her stewardship.

“My relationship with Jeanie I will say is incredible,” James said Thursday. “She’s an unbelievable owner. She’s a powerful woman. I think what she believes in is an extension of her father, and continuing to build this legacy of this great franchise.”

In a season that has seen the Lakers caught in diplomatic uncertainty in China; devastated by the loss of Bryant; left hanging by the pandemic hiatus and deeply involved in social justice movements, Buss said James’ leadership has been like nothing she has ever seen from a basketball player – yes, any of them.

“The strength of LeBron, not only as a basketball player but as a human being has inspired me to be stronger, be more outspoken about things that are wrong in the world today,” she said. “I collected comic books growing up, and I would tie a towel around my neck like a cape, like Supergirl or Wonder Woman. LeBron is as close to a real-life superhero as any person I have ever seen.”

Buss herself has become more outspoken in recent months regarding social injustices that have become more pronounced since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which she said had a profound influence on her. She and team executive Tim Harris hired Dr. Karida Brown to organize speakers and other seminars for Lakers employees into becoming an anti-racist organization, and the team has worked to donate to Black communities in Los Angeles. The Lakers were part of the movement to make Staples Center into a polling place for the upcoming presidential election.

Personally, Buss has knelt during the national anthem from her box in the bubble in solidarity with her players. On Instagram in June, she shared a letter from a man who addressed her by an epithet for women and wrote: “I now say to hell with the overpaid n—– traitors and the NBA. Go to hell and join (redacted) Kobe Bryant.”

Buss said she doesn’t usually share such negative sentiments on social media, but she shared this one with a purpose.

“I wanted my white friends to see what hatred is out there and that it is real, and that it does exist, my black friends are exhausted from carrying this, to have that directed at you, imagine if you had to deal with that every day of your life.”

Buss has gotten other similar letters from fans who say they are giving up on the NBA and the Lakers because of its players’ stances on social justice issues, race and the league’s embrace of such messages.

In one instance, Buss said, she wrote back: She respected the fan’s decision to decide not to come or watch the Lakers, but she told him he could always return. The point, she said, is not to tell everyone what to think, but to get them to listen to people with different perspectives and backgrounds.

“I echo what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has said: We have to educate ourselves, and we have to get to know people who don’t look like us,” she said. “It’s hard and not everyone is going to agree, but I realized what we share is our love of our Laker team. There’s our common ground.”

What Buss hopes is that soon, Los Angeles will have a reason again to celebrate together. The Finals will end as soon as Friday but no later than Tuesday, and the Lakers are hugely favored to beat the Heat with a 3-1 lead. Buss said she’s proud no matter the result.

She’ll be watching Game 5 in the booth, behind glass, hoping the NBA can find a means to bring her down to the floor to celebrate the team’s first championship in a decade. As the Lakers don their Black Mamba uniforms, she’ll be wearing a bracelet inscribed with the numbers 2, 8 and 24 – the jersey numbers of Kobe and Gianna Bryant – and wearing a snake ring gifted by Rambis.

But most of all, she said, she’ll be remembering words that Bryant told her that have helped her endure in a difficult year.

“Don’t let any setback hold you down,” she said. “One day you’ll see everything was worth the fight. Everything was worth working hard to achieve.”

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