Mustering even a smidgen of sympathy for the Lakers — they of the legends, the dancing girls, the celebrity fans, the 16 NBA title banners — is like feeling sorry for McDonald’s. When a massive success is self-sabotaged in America, people tend to laugh and say the failures are deserved. But in the Lakers’ case, the circumstances leading to their demise and wobbly future at least should be acknowledged as unique.
The owner who built the monster, Dr. Jerry Buss, has created chaos after death. When he passed away 14 months ago, Buss declared in his will that the Lakers be owned and operated by his six children and that two of the children would share equal power atop the hierarchy. His daughter, Jeanie, would run the business side. His son, Jim, would run the basketball side. Jeanie, outgoing and popular with Hollywood types and regular folk alike, is very good at her job and always has been.
Jim is a screwup.
I have known this. You have known this. Magic Johnson has known this. Everyone in Los Angeles, everyone in the NBA, has known this. But not until Phil Jackson took a meeting two weeks ago with the equally bumbling James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, did the Blunder Busses become a civic crisis in southern California. Jackson, who led the Lakers to five championships as pro basketball’s most acclaimed all-time coach, seems the ideal leader to direct this franchise out of its current morass. He has the credibility to lure top free agents, the equilibrium to see the long view and the relationship with Jeanie — they are engaged to be married — to keep the Lakers among the league elite. It will be horrifying for L.A. peeps if Jackson, as expected, is announced this week as the Knicks’ president of basketball operations.
But it’s going to happen. And short of Jim Buss resigning his position, there is nothing anyone can do because of the old man’s will and testament. Every living Laker great — Magic, Kareem, West, Worthy, Shaq, Kobe, all of them — could surround Jim Buss in a circle, subject him to water torture and attempt a coup, and it wouldn’t work. Dr. Buss wanted his son to run the basketball show and chose to put it in writing. By all indications, his son is going to do just that, even as the old Jimmy stories re-circulate about hiring his bartender buddies as scouts and how Jeanie, as she wrote in her recent biography, wishes she could communicate better with her bizarre brother.
With Jackson about to leave his fiancee behind for chunks of the NBA calendar — no way can he run the Knicks from their Playa del Rey oceanside pad, lest he be crucified by New York-centric fans and media — it’s possible a once-glorious basketball team and a 13-year romance both could be jeopardized by his move. In a last-gasp attempt to prevent Jackson’s departure, Bryant went public this week for the first time with Jim Buss-related concerns. When I asked Bryant last year about Jim’s ability to lead, Kobe expressed confidence.
“I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team,” Bryant said. “What type of culture do you want to have? What type of system do you want to have? How do you want to play? 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.”
While dropping those seeds of doubt, Bryant then lauded Jackson and asked how management possibly could diss him twice. Last season, you’ll recall, Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak interviewed Jackson for the coaching vacancy only to reject him for Mike D’Antoni, which is no way to treat an icon, much less Jeanie’s boyfriend. “You know how I feel about Phil. I have so much admiration for him and respect and have a great relationship with him,” Bryant said. “Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don’t really get it.”
It’s simple. Jim Buss doesn’t want his future brother-in-law in his playpen. And if Jim and Kupchak fail to land a significant free agent or two this summer — which is what happened to the Chicago Bulls when Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the NBA’s greatest dynasty was dismantled prematurely by an egomaniacal owner and GM who, ahem, wanted to built their own dynasty — then Bryant’s final two seasons with the Lakers will be miserable. It has been agonizing enough this season to watch with a fractured knee, an injury that officially will keep him sidelined the rest of the regular season. When asked if he could remain patient until the summer of 2015, when the likes of Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge should be available in free agency, he blew his lid.
“No. No. Nope,” he said. “Not one lick.
“Oh, yeah, let’s just play next year and let’s just suck again. No. Absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform, no excuses for it. Right? You’ve got to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, it’s the same expectations I have for them up there.
“How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500. I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for. … I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena. I’m just on edge every time. I feel it probably more than anybody in the organization does. It drives me absolutely crazy.”
No. Don’t do it, Kobe. Not worth it.
Johnson, who is considered a team vice president though he isn’t paid, never has had a problem criticizing Jim Buss. He used Twitter, as usual, to vent about Jackson’s departure. “I love Jim & Jeanie Buss, but we need Phil Jackson to be the face of our great organization, the Los Angeles Lakers,” Jackson wrote, tweet after tweet. “Kobe Bryant is the face of the Lakers’ team. Who is the face of the Lakers’ organization? In signing Phil Jackson, Owner Jim Dolan & (general manager) Steve Mills are saying to the Knicks fans, they’re ready to win now!”
Unless Dr. Buss would agree to a seance, then a rewriting of the will, these are your Lakers. “Now I know what it feels like to be a Clipper fan all those years,” Bryant said.
Poor Kobe? Not a soul would say that.
I could call for Jim Buss to step down, but what’s the use? He and a bartending buddy are planning on scouting Kansas center Joel Embiid in the NCAA tournament, not realizing the 7-footer has a serious back problem.