Lakers' Owner Jeanie Buss Opens Up About Kobe Bryant, Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss choked back tears when she talked about Kobe Bryant on the "Daddy Issues" podcast with Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson.
“I would give anything to go back and have Jan. 26 never take place,” Buss said.
Buss said she's had dreams about Bryant, who died four months ago in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.
“Those make me feel like he’s okay," Buss said. "Like it’s gonna be okay.”
Buss said that after Magic Johnson retired because of an HIV diagnosis in 1991, she made a deal with God.
“I prayed to the skies above and I said, 'If we ever get a player on our team like Magic Johnson again, I will never ever, ever take that player for granted,'” Buss said. “And then we got Kobe."
Over his 20-season career with the Lakers, Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, five-time champion, two-time Finals MVP and one-time regular season MVP in 2008.
"As heartbroken as I am, one comfort that I have is that Kobe knew how much we loved him," Buss said. "And we told him. And we retired his numbers. He never doubted that we were behind him 100 percent. That gives me some comfort. We never held back the celebrating the greatness that was Kobe.”
Buss said her relationship with Bryant continued after he retired in 2016.
"I leaned on him a lot for advice and support and he was always there for me," she said.
She even consulted Bryant before the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard over the summer. Bryant and Howard played together in 2012-2013, a disastrous season in which the Lakers were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio. Howard then left in free agency for Houston.
"Kobe wanted us to win," Buss said. "He wanted to see the Lakers win. Kobe came to a couple of games and he was happy to see Dwight and greeted him. You don't ever give up on anybody."
Buss added that Howard has been "amazing" this season for the Lakers, who were atop the Western Conference with a record of 49-14 before the season was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I completely understand why Dwight left as a free agent because [former Laker coach] Mike D'Antoni was not a coach that was going to put him in a position to succeed because he really liked shooters instead of big men," Buss said.
Buss also talked a lot about her father, Jerry, who bought the Lakers in 1979 and then groomed her to become a sports executive.
She proudly called him a self-made man who "came from nothing" and described how he saw education as his ticket to a better life, getting an undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming when he was 19 and a PhD from USC when he was 23. When he realized he wasn't going to make enough money as a teacher to live the life he wanted, he focused on making smart real estate investments before achieving his dream of becoming a team owner.
Buss started learning the family business at a young age.
When she was 13 or 14 years old, she'd bring her father sandwiches to his team meetings with the L.A. Strings, a tennis team he owned at the time. She'd sit in the corner and listen to everything instead of going to the beach with her friends. Eventually, her father made her general manager of the team when she was 19.
"Maybe I didn't know everything that I needed to know, but he believed in me," she said. "And that gave me the confidence that I needed to just keep doing it."
Before her father died in 2013, he entrusted her with the power to make the ultimate decisions for the Lakers. Under her father, the Lakers had only missed the playoffs twice in 34 years. But after he died, they struggled.
After the Lakers missed the playoffs three straight seasons, Buss fired her brother Jim Buss, the Lakers executive vice president of player personnel, as well as longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak and communications director John Black. She then named Johnson the president of basketball operations.
Buss said her father knew he had put her in a potentially impossible situation.
"He was very thoughtful and specific about what he wanted to have happen and he put that pressure on me and he apologized for it," she said. "He said, 'This really isn't fair to you, Jeanie, but I feel you're the only one who will do what needs to be done.'"
Buss then helped build the 16-time NBA champions back up to where they are today -- hoping to compete for their first title since 2010.
"I had to do what my dad asked me to do," she said, "which was the hardest thing I ever did."
Buss said she often dreams about her father to this day.
“There have been moments in the last seven years that I’ve had these very visceral dreams where either I’m going through some stress or I feel I’m not confident in a decision or whatever and there’ll be an appearance,” Buss said. “Or sometimes out of nowhere I’ll run into a person or see somebody and they’ll come up, and they'll share a story about my dad that I’ve never heard. Or they’ll send me a picture or something. It’s like a trigger that then the good feelings come back. You remember, okay, this is what it was like when he was around."
Buss also talked about her 17-year relationship with Phil Jackson and how much she learned from him. At first, she said she didn't want her father to hire him as the Lakers head coach in 1999, thinking that the team already had two superstars in Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and that he'd upset a very delicate balance.
But when she met him, she was blown away by his presence.
He did a lot of things that baffled her at first, such as making his teams practice on Thanksgiving mornings. But she eventually learned he wanted his players to see their teammates as family.
She described Jackson as a very spiritual, intellectual and thoughtful man. Once she caught him feeding her dog human food and was irked until he explained his rationale. He needed Buss' pet to know that he had her back, too.
Buss said that she wished her and Jackson had a child together.
"I wished that would've happened, but it didn't happen for me," she said. "The team became like our children."
It's been a tough stretch for Buss, who acknowledged feeling alone at times after her father died and Johnson stepped down as president of basketball operations in April of 2019. Then this year both Bryant and former NBA commissioner David Stern died.
"These were all people who had such influence on me and who I could always count on when I needed help," Buss said. "I lost a lot."
But she said she carries all of their lessons with her.
In fact, she recently channeled her father when she was debating whether it was smart to trade some of the team's talented young core to acquire Anthony Davis in June.
Her father had been intent on teaching her poker before he died, saying the key is being extremely patient, but also knowing when it's time to go all in -- and then moving immediately.
Buss heard her father's voice in the back of her head, telling her now was the time to risk everything. The voice even goaded her a bit.
"That was the moment my dad said, 'I don't know if you're going to be able to pull it off, I don't know if you're going to have the guts for it,'" she said.
Buss went for it.
And now the team is on the precipice of greatness.
She still marvels at how he knew he had to teach her that lesson.
"To get something of really great value, you've got to give up something of really great value," she said.