Being Jim Buss
LAKERS EXECUTIVE OPENS UP ON YEARS OF CRITICISM AS TEAM TRIES TO REBUILD
Sam Amick, USA TODAY Sports
HONOLULU – After all these years of scrutiny, Jim Buss has finally found his sanctuary.
Not only is he island-bound in Oahu with Los Angeles Lakers loyalists for the first time in eight years, but here on this night when Kobe Bryant’s latest comeback was finally complete, the team's part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations has found his way to the most apropos of restaurants: the Kobe steakhouse in downtown Waikiki. Buss is tucked away in the corner, the trademark baseball cap on his head and a welcoming smile on his face.
There are no malicious types here. No screaming pundits, know-it-all writers or unappreciative Laker greats (more on that later). Just good food (steak, chicken, and sushi galore), a curious reporter (yours truly) and a dear friend whose presence offers a reminder of some of the subplots that brought us to this complicated point: Chaz Osborne.
Of all the Lakers storylines that have made fans and media scratch their heads, the revelation that Jim had employed one of his old horse racing pals as a team scout seemed to cause as much of a ruckus as all the rest. It’s the kind of thing that gets overlooked when a franchise is winning titles, but becomes meat for the wolves when times are tough. The public reaction has to this subplot, and many, many more during these torturous past two seasons, have left Jim with the reputation of a 55-year-old man who is overmatched by his lot in this basketball life.
This is the harsh reality that we discussed in a more casual setting three months before in Las Vegas, when a late-night chat during NBA summer league included Buss wondering why he has become a punching bag for so many and why - as he sees it - he's so grossly misunderstood. He recoiled then at the mention of how people are generally averse to a nepotistic rise, noting that he’d been working diligently for the Lakers in the front office for nearly 15 years before his father, Dr. Jerry Buss, died in Feb. 2013. The conversation commenced here in this serene setting, where the Lakers’ resident mystery man made this much clear: he is waving the white flag on the war over his image.
Buss, an affable sort who was equal parts guarded and gregarious as he discussed both his profile and his part in the Lakers' franchise’s demise, knows that the only way out of this public relations nightmare is to win - and win big. And contrary to popular belief, he’s sure that day is coming sometime soon.
“In today’s society, you see bullying and everything (everywhere),” said Buss, the second oldest of the six Buss children and one of five who work for the team. “You see the effects of it. I think it’s unfair. I think there’s a lot of unfairness, and that’s why you see the unrest that there is. But I get it. I really do. (Lakers general manager) Mitch (Kupchak) and my Dad said winning cures everything. I guess I came to the conclusion that not only do I want to win, but that also cures any past conception of me. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
The sooner the better. The clock is ticking on his tenure.
A man undeterred
PRAISE FROM THOSE HE RESPECTS HELPS BUSS HANDLE CRITICISM
As heirs-to-the-throne go, Jim Buss hardly took the Prince Charles route.
He was 20 years old when his father paid Jack Kent Cooke $67 million for the Lakers, the NHL’s Kings and the Forum in 1979, yet wouldn’t join the team’s basketball front office until 18 seasons and five championships later. In between, when he wasn’t studying math at Southern California, training thoroughbreds, running the family’s professional soccer team or working in management positions at the Forum, he was doing the sorts of odd jobs for the family that still spark a chuckle years later.
“We started the family together at the Forum, where we were selling tickets,” Buss said. “We were basically Mom and Pop all the way down to selling peanuts. I was Mr. Peanut, and we had to do it. It was part of the Forum. I was the Cookie Monster for the Ice Capades. They needed it.”
That was a lifetime ago and what’s apparent about the modern-day version of Jim Buss is that the decades of ridicule have not damaged his confidence. He takes most of the blame for the way he’s perceived, convinced that his own under-the-radar ways and the Average Joe look have led to a void in credit.
“(If) I would have taken credit for all the moves we won championships for, then I would have a resume; I don’t have a resume,” said Buss, who has been on board for five Lakers titles since he first joined and whose bio in the team's media guide is approximately one quarter the size of Kupchak's. “So my resume is just me all of a sudden taking over, which isn’t true. It’s not true at all. The thing that most people don’t understand is that I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I worked with Jerry West. I’ve done this, and I’ve said these things. But it doesn’t have any teeth, doesn’t have any legs. I was very much part of the final decisions on all of the championships that we’ve won in the last 20 years.
“I was extremely involved on both the basketball and the financial side, but there was no point for me to go out and wave my flag. It didn’t make sense to me. Now I understand that I should have, to a certain degree.”
Throughout the course of his 72-minute interview, Buss will call on West’s name on six different occasions. His reverence for West is unmistakable, not only because of the four seasons they spent working together but the support he has received from him ever since.
A few years back, West penned a letter that inspires Buss still. It came during one of the many recent downtimes when Buss was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, though Buss can only remember that it was sometime in the past five years and West prefers to keep the details private. What Buss remembers well is how it made him feel to get that kind of validation from one of the game’s most respected minds.
“You’d have tears if you read it,” Buss said. “He wrote me a letter just on the cruelty of the media of what I was going through. It’s unreal. He sits there and he talks about ‘You have to understand that these are people who have no idea what they’re talking about. They have a motive. They have an agenda. Don’t take it wrong. You’re doing the right thing.’ It just went on and on, unprovoked. It was like, ‘OK, thank you.’”
West truly is an advocate of Buss, in part because he considers him very bright but also because he sees an imbalance of blame that he believes has grown worse through the years. And while he declined to share many specifics of the letter, it’s clear that it was supportive in tone and that, chronologically speaking, it took place before Jerry’s passing.
There was an unexpected twist in it all, too, as West encouraged Jim to follow his passion for number-crunching as a way to analyze players that Jerry had resisted. Even with recent changes to their analytics wing, the Lakers are considered to be behind the times in the age of advanced statistics. Yet Buss, who has an individualized "impact value" system to evaluate players on his iPad that he updates almost every night before going to bed, has been pushing for change for quite some time.
“I told him to follow his instincts,” said West, whose son, Ryan, has worked for the Lakers since 2009 and was recently promoted to director of player personnel. “He would have a lot of analytical people (around), and a lot of people think that I can’t stand analytical people, and that’s not the case at all. The thing that I told him was that you need all kinds of tools.
“He’s really smart … but he’s the easiest target there is. And I will tell you, it’s grossly unfair sometimes. Grossly unfair. It’s almost like they want him to be a reincarnation of his dad, but he can’t.”
He’ll never be a carbon copy of his father, but winning at a high level again would certainly help.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care what kind of owner you are – you can be the best owner in the world – but if your team does not win at a high level, then none of those things will make a significant difference,” West said. “The thing that drives a franchise is winning. This is why there’s so much pressure on the organization over there, and particularly Jim, because he’s going to take the brunt of that, which is not fair.”
For those who have so long questioned how Buss can handle the seemingly-nonstop criticism, the answer lies in stories such as these. He is buoyed by the backing of the greats by whom he has been surrounded, and thus impervious to those who don’t carry the same kind of clout. And yes, that goes for those naysaying members of the press.
His disdain for modern media seems to act as a buffer to whatever truths might be shared. Buss rails against the loudest of TV personalities who challenge him at every turn, and shakes his head in frustration at the click-bait culture online that so often causes him trouble when comments are taken out of context.
He sees much of the negativity that surrounds him as an indictment of today’s society, a culture of bullying that he mentions several times. And the fans, Buss reports, are nothing but nonstop kindness.
“Pictures, letters – all positive; the negative is always a minority,” he says. “They love me. They really love me.”
In the digital space, there is an old-school firewall of sorts that guards him against the social media cynics. Buss doesn’t have an account on Twitter or Facebook, leaving those platforms to the younger generation in his family.
"I don't know anything about (social media), but my kids do," Buss says, his face lighting up at the mere mention of his teenage daughters, Micaela and Milahna. "They have all those things.”
But Buss, who is not married, has a general aversion to digital communication that speaks volumes about his ways.
“There’s no emotion when the words come across (digitally), so you don’t know what they really meant,” he said. “Was it a joke, or sarcastic? So unless you’re just stating facts, to me it’s dangerous … There’s no tone at all."
Better for him to block out all that noise and instead listen to his sages.
“If Jerry West said ‘Jim Buss doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing’ … that would hurt; I don’t know what I would do then,” Buss explains. “If (former Lakers coach and current Miami Heat president) Pat Riley came out and said…‘Jim Buss doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s leading the Lakers down the wrong path.’ I’d be like, ‘(Expletive), I have to look in the mirror.’ If it’s coming from someone who knows, and someone I respect, then I’ve got to look at myself. But that has never happened. All I do is get fantastic feedback from these guys.”
Stars speak out
KOBE SOMEWHAT SUPPORTIVE, MAGIC JOHNSON HAS NOT
His list also includes Bryant.
“If Kobe came out and said, ‘Jim Buss doesn’t know what he’s doing, I’d be hurt as hell,” Buss said. “Hell yeah. He and I have worked together for 20 years, so first off, I’d probably go, ‘Why the hell didn’t you say this five years ago, dude? If I didn’t know what I was doing, why would you let me do this, you know?’”
Yet while Bryant has been mostly supportive of Buss, it’s not as if he never raised an eyebrow or two along the way. The central theme of his criticism, as is also the case with Jeanie, has been his frustration that Phil Jackson was never welcomed back.
Bryant kept quiet the first time around, when Jackson was passed up in favor of Mike D’Antoni in Nov. 2012 after it seemed all but certain that Jackson was getting the job. But in March of last year, just days before the former Lakers coach/Jeanie’s fiancé finalized his deal to become president of the New York Knicks despite his desire to return to the Lakers, Bryant told reporters, “Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don't really get it.”
Nor did Jeanie, who equated the D’Antoni-over-Jackson decision to being “stabbed in the back” and said it “practically destroyed me” in her book titled, “Laker Girl.” Over time, Bryant would highlight the Buss family dynamic that Jim insists has not been an issue.
“I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team,” Bryant said in the March 2014 interview. "What type of culture do you want to have? ... It starts there. You've got to start with Jim. You've got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority.”
Jim doesn’t mention the pointed words that have come from Bryant, but it’s clear that he hasn’t forgotten about the other Laker great who has repeatedly called him out: Magic Johnson. From Johnson's angry tweets about the D’Antoni decision to the television tour eight months ago when he raised serious questions about Buss’ ability as an executive, Johnson has made his feelings known. Buss, who has chosen to avoid discussing the situation with Johnson personally, is clearly bothered by this recurring matter.
“Magic Johnson going nuts on me?” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My Dad made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?”
Johnson – who sold his share of the Lakers in 2010 and two years later led the ownership group that paid $2 billion for the Los Angeles Dodgers – earned approximately $43 million during his playing days and has been wildly successful in the business sector ever since (a 2011 Forbes report estimated his net worth at $525 million). In the grander sense, though, it's well-chronicled that Jerry Buss' impact on Johnson went well beyond basketball.
"Dr. Buss gave me the platform to be Magic," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in Feb. 2013 after Jerry's death. "He gave me the knowledge to be Magic."
When asked about Buss’ comment, Johnson issued a statement to USA TODAY Sports in response.
“It’s all about winning, Jim,” Johnson said.
On that, if little else, they can agree.
“I don’t think criticism is unfair when you have a record like we’ve had,” he said. “Now some people are going to look at it and say, ‘Well we’ve had injuries. We’ve had unfortunate circumstances.’ But I’ll take the blame for it. I have no problem taking that, because I know the inner workings of the NBA have changed (by way of the collective bargaining agreement that was agreed upon after the 2011 lockout). They have leveled the playing field to a point where it takes time … The rules change and you have to adjust.
“We adjusted. You point out our record for the last couple of years, but we were favored to win the championship with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (heading into the 2012-13 season). That was only, what, two years ago?”
Time crawls when you’re not having fun.
Turning the corner
OFFSEASON SIGNINGS HAVE BUSS EXCITED ABOUT THE TEAM'S FUTURE
The corner, specifically speaking, is No. 2 draft pick D’Angelo Russell. And yes, it can be formally noted, Buss is convinced that they have turned it.
That alleged turn of events took place on the night of May 19 in New York, where the Lakers entered the draft lottery with a 17.3% chance of losing their pick as a result of the Nash trade with Phoenix and went home with the No. 2 pick (a 12.6% chance coming in). Losing lottery picks during a rebuilding stage is like running out of wood while building the house, but this crisis was averted. Their recent run of bad luck, finally, had come to an end.
To say he’s bullish on the young core of Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle is akin to deeming Jack Nicholson a casual Lakers fan. And whether Bryant decides to return next summer or retire, he speaks with a genuine sense of optimism that the up-and-comers will be dynamic enough to attract a top-tier talent like, say, Kevin Durant next summer. In due time, he’s sure, the rest of the world will see why he’s so excited.
“If you go five years from now, you’re going to see that we did get breaks, you know what I mean?” Buss said. “We got the second pick in the draft. Because of the injuries (to Nash and Bryant), we got (forward) Julius Randle (out of Kentucky with the fourth pick in 2014) … So I think if you go ahead and then look back, you’re going to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that long before they got a break again.’ I think we already got our breaks, but it hasn’t come to fruition. Does that make sense?”
“I think we’ve done a great job (rebuilding). Yeah, I think we’re in dynamite position. Not good position – dynamite. I think we’ve turned the corner. I don’t know if you discount that terminology, ‘turn the corner.’ But when you’re headed down the wrong road, and you can finally get off that road and turn the corner, that’s huge in my opinion.”
For all the affection that Buss has for Bryant, it’s clear that Russell may become his new personal favorite. He raves about a highlight assist he had in the preseason opener, reliving the moment with Osborne as they continue to dine, and has zero regrets thus far about passing up on big man Jahlil Okafor (who went to the Philadelphia 76ers with the third pick).
“If you watched (Russell) worked out, if you heard what our scouts said about him and what they said about Okafor and other players, it got to the point where we could not pass on him,” Buss said. “He’s that special in a lot of people’s books.”
If Buss is haunted by the failings of these past few years, he doesn’t show it. There were times of serious concern, namely the early part of that ’11-12 season when Nash couldn’t find his way to the floor because of a broken leg and his limp to the finish line ensued from there. It’s a trade that Buss says he would do all over again if he could, and which was widely celebrated at the time – “This is going to be fun,” the unforgettable Sports Illustrated cover featuring Bryant, Nash and Howard read.
It most certainly was not. And even with the Russell development that helped soften the blow, the Nash trade is a move that will eventually cost the Lakers four draft picks (two firsts and two seconds).
The Lakers’ ill-fated free agency pursuits, in particular, have left nary a mark on Buss’ veneer. All those airballs they shot trying to score the likes of Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge in these past three summers, and he speaks with a sense of understanding for why those players headed elsewhere.
Buss is the first to admit that the Lakers’ pitch to players had holes the size of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that simply couldn’t be overcome. You’d never know these were the kind of devastating offseason disappointments that put them in this unprecedented place.
“’Can you come here and help for a couple years and I promise you we’ll turn things around?’” he said in almost mocking fashion about their previous pitches to free agents. “No. (Now it’s) ‘Here are the core players. You’ve seen how they play. You know, given one more year of experience, they’re going to be right there. You’re the missing piece.’ Instead, we were trying to get the piece and then trying to put pieces around him. That just doesn’t work, not today.”
As for tomorrow? Only time will tell if Jim was wearing rose-colored glasses all this time.
Timeline for tomorrow
LAKERS NEED TO SHOW IMPROVEMENT SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
When the inevitable topic of the Jim Buss timeline finally arises, he shrugs and shakes his head. It’s not that he minds reviewing this particular storyline, the one about how he told his six siblings last year during that meeting in the Lakers’ El Segundo, Calif. offices that he would step down in the summer of 2017 if they weren’t contending. But that unwavering confidence in himself, and all this unending optimism about where they’re going, have left him quite sure that he won’t have to walk away.
“I (shared the timeline publicly to the Los Angeles Times in April of 2014) because I basically wanted people to know what timeframe I’m working on,” Buss said. “It became news, but I don’t want to be here if I can’t turn this around. And it’s not turning it around – it’s just your normal progression of teams in the NBA.
“We’re ahead of (the schedule), so I’m fine with it. I think we’ve turned the corner, exactly like we have (planned). Get a free agent next (summer), and then I think we compete.”
Yet it seems there is some matter of debate about the specifics of the timeline. When pressed on the matter of when the deadline date will be, Jim said, “Two more full seasons, a summer of change and then let that season go. Whatever happens in that third season, that’s fine. I have no problem with that. I think we’re that close.”
Yet Jeanie, the Lakers president, told USA TODAY Sports that she was perplexed by that characterization of the timeline.
“He has given me a timeline, and I have no reason to think that they won’t have a competitive team by the deadline,” Jeanie said.
That deadline, she was asked, is the end of the 2016-17 season?
“Yes,” she said. “Not this season, but the end of next season, which will be the summer of 2017.”
All that aside, this much is clear: the only way this front office can survive is to produce results. And yes, that likely means Kupchak too.
When Jim told his siblings what he needed to be successful in that meeting where the timeline was established, his wish list included an extension for Kupchak that came to fruition in April of 2014. Kupchak, who first joined the Lakers front office as an assistant general manager under West in the late 1980s and became general manager a decade later, had a year remaining on his deal at the time and there was no urgency elsewhere to address the situation before the contract was closer to its end.
But Jim saw stability as an important factor in this rebuilding process, and expressed a fear that prospective free agents might get the wrong message if they saw Kupchak as a lame duck executive. The ripple effect, it seems clear, is that Buss and Kupchak have been inexorably tied in the eyes of the team’s governor.
Jim scoffs at the notion that there is tension between him and Jeanie – book excerpts be darned, apparently. There was a resettling of family dynamics that had to happen when their father passed, but they have both said in recent months that the roles – Jim on the basketball side, Jeanie on the business side but also having the final say – have long since been clear in the kind of way that Bryant once begged for. So long as everyone looks forward rather than reliving the painful past, it seems, all will be well on this front.
“She’s doing her job, and that is to oversee all; that’s what she does,” Jim said. “I’ve worked with my sister for 30 years, and my brothers … All this perception of how working with my sister and the trials and tribulations of it, it’s like, ‘Really?’”
He laughs again.
“Been there, done that,” he continued. “You couldn’t really throw a curve ball (at that dynamic). I guess the curve ball could be my Dad passing away, but he prepared us so well that there was no trip-up at all. It was nothing.”
But the nothing-to-see-here defense is as porous as the Lakers’ D these past few years, and it’s natural to wonder if the weight of all this drama is enough to sap Jim of his can-do spirit. The answer, as he sits forward in his chair and looks displeased with this notion that he might not truly care now like he did then, is a resounding no. He may be done trying to change how people perceive him, but the passion that fuels his stubborn story is as strong as it ever was.
“I live for this,” Buss said. “The entire family, even the ones who don’t day to day work for the team, they bleed purple and gold without a doubt. When I talk to my brother John (the Lakers’ executive vice president of corporate development), he’s so passionate about it. He’s in my ear – and he ran and won a championship with the (WNBA’s Los Angeles) Sparks, so he knows what he’s talking about. You can see the passion behind it, which is fantastic. And the entire family has it.”
“We’ve gone through this (rebuilding) before. We went through, what 10 years without winning a championship or anything? Sedale Threatt, and those days – Smush Parker and Chris Mihm. You have to do it, until you make the right move. And I think we might have made the right move with D’Angelo Russell. I think he might be something special. And if he is, then that’s what I’m talking about. Somebody special is going to want to play with someone special, and then the dominoes fall. So yeah, I’m extremely confident…You hear what Vegas says, that we’re not supposed to make it (to the playoffs this season). We’ll prove them wrong. If this team plays as a team, with dedication and a purpose, which I think we’ve instilled in them, that there’s a purpose because you guys are a core, you are moving forward together, (playing) together and having each other’s back, I think we’ll surprise a lot of people. I really do.”
Really good article about Jim Buss. I wish he would do more stuff like this because he really is a smart guy, he did work to get to his position, and he wants nothing more than to win. The more he makes himself available, the more people would come around to him, and not call for his head blaming him for everything.
But that's asking him to be like his father, and clearly they are two different types of people.