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Jeanie Buss: Inside the House of Lakers

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Val Zavala: Hello. I'm Val Zavala. Welcome to "Town Hall Los Angeles." Today a conversation with one of the most powerful women in professional sports, LA Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. She's making her mark not on the court but in the front office, running one of the most valuable franchises in the NBA. It also happens to be the family business. Her father was the legendary Dr. Jerry Buss. He built the Lakers into a winning machine and created a beloved basketball team. After his death in 2013, he left the team to his 6 children, but the Lakers went into a prolonged slump. That prompted a bruising battle over who should run the business. Jeanie won that fight, and she brought on Magic Johnson. But can he deliver? Will the Lakers start winning again? And what's it like for a woman working in the male-dominated NBA? We'll find out as I talk with Jeanie Buss in this edition of "Town Hall Los Angeles." Jeanie Buss, thank you so much for being here.

 

Jeanie Buss: Thanks for having me.

 

Zavala: Let's jump right into it. We all know what coaches do, but what do owners do? A typical day, what's it like?

 

Buss: I wish I had a typical day. I think then my job would be a lot easier. But, you know, you never know what you're going to be dealing with at any particular time. If, say, for example, we had a game the night before, there might have been a bad call that the coach is upset about, so you have to deal with,  you know, the repercussions from, you know, the comments that were made in the heat of frustration of losing. You may have, you know, one of your former players, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, be receiving the Presidential Freedom of Honor award. You know, things like that. It's never dull in Laker town. There's always something going on. And I just--every day I walk in the office prepared to take on whatever's laid in front of me.

 

Zavala: In addition to all the business decisions, promotions, contracts, all that kind of thing, and, of course, relations with the NBA.

 

Buss: Yes. We basically have the Lakers in two categories—the business side of the operation and the basketball side of the operation. And I oversee the business side of the operations in terms of all the things that I like to say that generate revenue, which would be your broadcast rights, your advertising, your ticket sales, your merchandising. And the basketball side is the side that gets to spend that revenue and create what will be, you know, the Lakers that we see on the court.

 

Zavala: Now, do you actually-- on the basketball side, do you think there will ever be a woman coach?

 

Buss: You know, there's an assistant coach right now in San Antonio, Becky Hammon, who is very well-respected. She did not get her job because she's a woman, she got her job because she's good at what she does. So in my opinion, there really won't be anything to hold a woman back from someday being a coach in the NBA.

 

Zavala: You are in one of the most competitive male-dominated areas there is in our society. What is it like? Did you have to prove yourself? Of course, you've been managing teams since you were 19, but what's that like?

 

Buss: Well, you know, it's such a competitive business that people are always looking for an edge. They're always looking for some way to get an advantage over you. And I've talked about

this before, where if they think that you think being a woman is, you know, a shortcoming, then they'll use that to their advantage. But I can tell you that gender has--it doesn't hold you back in business. You have to be good at what you do, you have to be thoughtful, you have to do the work, and gender will not hold you back.

 

Zavala: But have you been in meetings where you've looked around the table and it's been all men and just you?

 

Buss: Absolutely. You know--

 

Zavala: Could be intimidating.

 

Buss: It is intimidating at times, but, you know, over the years you get used to it. And certainly there's never a line in the ladies' restroom when we're at our Board of Governors meetings. But there's one particular story where I was in a conference room, and it was a pretty heated meeting, and I was the only female in the room sitting at the table. And the person who was speaking, you know, used some 4-letter words, some foul language and stopped and turned to me and said, "Excuse me," as if because I'm a woman, I have to be treated differently. Therefore, he's trying to draw attention to the fact I don't fit into the room because it has to stop everything so he can apologize. And I said, "Excuse me, you know, I think you should apologize to everyone in the room for the language that you're using." So, you know, I have had those instances. But I think if they thought that, you know, graduating from USC or growing up in Southern California was a detriment or a shortcoming, they would use that against me as well. But being a woman, we belong in this business, and there is nothing weak about being a woman.

 

Zavala: You learned a lot from your dad about exactly what you're talking about--how to be competitive, how to hold your own. Talk about your dad a little bit. What drove him and what did you learn from him?

 

Buss: You know, he loved Los Angeles so much. This was his home. He was not born here. He came here and realized that this was really where he was meant to be. He attended the University of Southern California, and his dream was to be a professor and to have enough money to pay to have season tickets to the Dodgers and the Lakers.

 

Zavala: He was a chemist.

 

Buss: He was a chemist, and he got his Ph.D in physical chemistry. And when the opportunity came up for him to be involved in sports, he made his money in real estate development. As he was teaching at USC, he would take some of his money and, you know, with some of his friends and pool that money so that he could get involved in real estate, and with his mathematical mind, he just continued to grow that empire in real estate in the sixties and the seventies, and he made quite a lot of money, and he had the opportunity to get involved in sports. And when that opportunity came up, he took it because he loved sports.He attended the University of Southern California because of the football team. He'll say—he used to say that all the time. And, you know, he just loved this town.

 

Zavala: What did you learn from him? What advice did he give you?

 

Buss: You know, a lot of people know him as a great poker player.

 

Zavala: He was a serious, serious poker player.

 

Buss: I think even at one point he was Rookie of the Year on the World Poker Tour in--I think in

'93. But he really took it seriously. He was very competitive. And he tried to teach me poker, and I really am not much of a gambler. And I think it's more because I have--I don't have a poker face. I kind of wear my emotions on my sleeve. And, you know, a lot of playing poker is, you know, not letting people know what hand you're playing. But we'd spend hours playing and talking about the game. And, really, what his secret, or what he was trying to teach me was that in poker, you have to be patient for the cards, that if you rush a hand when it's not ready, then you'll probably fail. And so what you have to do is you have to be patient and you have to wait for the right cards, but once you get the right cards, then you have to know how to go from zero to a hundred and go all in and play the hand. So I really see that what I needed to learn from poker from him was about stamina, about patience, and about being able to be decisive when the moment hit.

 

Zavala: So that was actually very applicable to basketball.

 

Buss: Yes, very much so.

 

Zavala: You wouldn't have thought poker to basketball.

 

Buss: Exactly.

 

Zavala: What was it like growing up? I remember you had a wonderful story in your book about meeting Magic Johnson for the first time. You were how old?

 

Buss: I was 17, and Magic was 19. Back then we usually didn't draft players that young, but he got a special approval to join the draft. He was drafted, the Lakers had the number-one pick. It was 1979. It was the first year that my father owned the Lakers. He drafted Magic Johnson. Magic flew out to Los Angeles to meet with him. And he came to our house, and my dad

was upstairs, and when the doorbell rang, he asked me to answer the door. I opened the

door and there's Magic Johnson with that great smile and our general manager Bill Sharman.

And they came in and we sat down and made conversation. And Magic said to me, "You know, I'm so happy to be drafted by the Lakers. This is really great. But I'll probably only be here for about 3 years because I really want to go back home and play for the Pistons, because I'm from Michigan and that would be really important to me."

 

Zavala: He told you that?

 

Buss: He said it. So I immediately ran upstairs to tell my dad what Magic had said. And my dad, you know, listened to what I had to say and he said, "You know, Jeanie, the first time he puts on a Laker uniform and steps out on the floor at the Forum, he's never gonna want to leave." And he was absolutely right. And Magic's never left. And, you know, he made Los Angeles his home.

 

Zavala: And now he's back, but we'll get into that a little bit later. Went into a very, very tough time after your father died in 2013. He left the team to all you, 6 children, making clear that he wanted you to run the business side of things, but then the Lakers got into this slump and things got tough. You had to make some tough hiring and firing decisions.

 

Buss: Yeah, you know, the way my father set it up was he wanted my brother to oversee the basketball and me to run the business side, but ultimately, he wanted the team to be run the way he had set it up. The Lakers are a franchise that people know what you stand for, they know what you're looking to do. And for, you know, 3 or 4 years, it just seemed like the team was lost in terms of what we were trying to build. And so a decision had to be made that was tough for me, which was to remove my brother from overseeing the basketball. We didn't see eye to eye on how things were going, and it was time to make a change. You know, that's why we got to the point that we did.

 

Zavala: And you made a tough decision. It was not easy, I'm sure, to fire your brother.

 

Buss: And I think the first—for one of the first comments I made was that I apologized to Laker fans that perhaps I waited too long to make that change. I really wanted things to work out the way Dr. Buss, my father, had set them up, but, you know, I couldn't see how things were...getting better. It just seemed to be getting worse.

 

Zavala: So rebuilding, you're at that stage. Your first step was to hire Magic Johnson. What is his role and what do you hope he'll be able to accomplish?

 

Buss: Magic's title is President of Basketball Operations, so he's overseeing the entire basketball operations. The general manager, the coach, they all report to him. So he has the vision. When you put together a basketball team, you have to identify who you're going to be as a team, what style or system of basketball that you're going to play. And once you establish who you are that way, all the other decisions are easy to make because it's all about going back to fulfilling that vision of the kind of basketball and the style that you want to play.

 

And so, you know, Magic is very clear on the kind of basketball he wants to play in terms of being fast-paced and up-tempo and athletic and really being a team that's in shape and has stamina and can out-hustle, out-run the other teams on the court. That's the bar he's set, and now he's going about putting all the right pieces into place.

 

Zavala: So how do you do that? Because it takes time and a lot of it is luck. I mean, whatever ping pong ball comes down, right? So how does that--how do you actually make that happen?

 

Buss: You know, it is a lot about making those decisions. And then, of course, you have to have luck at some level. I think Magic, with a nickname like Magic, he knows how to bring the luck as well as the hard work. He's somebody that since he and I have been working together, he's at the office every day. He's very sincere about, you know, what he wants to do, what he wants to accomplish. And for me as an executive, putting him in place, it was important for me to have somebody who had the same intentions, the same purity of wanting the Lakers to be great. And there is no doubt when you talk to Magic Johnson what his priority is, what his passion is. It is no doubt about making the Lakers great.

 

Zavala: So is the strategy to go ahead and nurture young talent, or do you also need to attract that older, more seasoned star?

 

Buss: As the sport has evolved, there's a collective bargaining agreement that the NBA has with the players, and under that agreement is how we're able to have the draft and how we sign players. There's a salary cap. So there's rules that apply that you have to build your team through those set of rules.

 

And certainly, as it has evolved, we've realized how important it is to keep your young players, to keep your draft picks, to have a development system in place, which we do with a development team called the South Bay Lakers that will be playing in El Segundo this coming year, that we'll have an opportunity to keep young players around. One of the players that came on at the end of this season last year, David Nwaba, came from that development system. So it's about investing not only in the team but also the staff, all the coaches, the trainers,

the wellness coordinators, all the pieces that you need not only to get a player in shape, but to keep them in shape and also to help them recover if they do suffer an injury, how to get them rehabbed as quickly as possible.

 

Zavala: You mentioned the training center. Tell people what that is because I had never heard about this. It's gonna be in El Segundo, it is in El Segundo.

 

Buss: It's in El Segundo. It's gonna triple the amount of size that we have now.

 

Zavala: And what's gonna be there?

 

Buss: We have--

 

Zavala: What is there, actually?

 

Buss: We have 3 different pools that players will be able to -- if they're injured and have to rehab underwater, which means it lessens the resistance so that it's easier on their joints. We have the rooms that are the same equivalent as jumping into an ice bucket, but it's actually like a room--

 

Zavala: Wow.

 

Buss: like a cryogenic room. A steam, sauna. We have a full kitchen, you know, commercial kitchen, because we bring in people to cook fresh, nutritious food for the players. In addition to, we have the best space you could ever imagine to play video games 'cause we want the players to feel like this is their home, like it's a living room, that they can interact with each other, that they can come and have something good to eat in the morning, get their workout, get their practice in, grab something so that they can eat it on the way home so that they're not stopping by fast food because they're hungry after a day at work. You know, it's--we even have a place for them to take a nap, a nap room, a quiet room so that if anything, you know, they just need some time to just gather their thoughts, they'll be able to go and escape. And I like to call it more than just a training center, it's a headquarters. And we've partnered with UCLA Health to not only be our partner in terms of the medical help but also to use their resources for all the different areas of wellness that are important in athletics today. So we've increased the amount of assistance and help and guidance and resources that we've ever had.

 

Zavala: This is really about keeping your players in top shape and extending their career, 'cause careers aren't always real long, and Kobe's an exception, 20 years. So this is really about from the very beginning making sure all elements of their life, you can serve them the best as they're on the court.

 

Buss: Right. And, you know, to me, that's what our job is, is that when a player comes to the Lakers organization, our job is to give him the platform, to give him all the tools that he needs to be the best that he can be, and perhaps even exceed his own expectations of what he can contribute to the team, as well as prolong that career because selfishly from a business point of view, if you can keep a Kobe Bryant for 20 years, that pays dividends in terms of having to develop a player, that if you can keep them healthy and at their peak performance, that's a good business option, as well as great for the fans.

 

Zavala: Will the public be able to be part of this new facility?

 

Buss: We do have public space that will be open. UCLA will actually have a clinic there, so they will be interacting with outside customers, but in terms of can anybody just ring a doorbell and come in? No. It will be invited guests. But it is something that we want to interact more with the community than we have in the past.

 

Zavala: What's your relationship to the fans? You know, 'cause always, I'm sure, everyone comes up when they recognize you and they have some advice to give you and you probably have to listen politely and then go, "Ugh, they have no idea..." But your father had a special relationship with his fans, you have a special--but it's probably evolved.

 

Buss: You know, my dad was the number-one Laker fan, so I think that a lot of his success came from the fact that he thought like a fan. And so the fans are our best resource. Yes, they can

be opinionated and maybe sometimes in a negative way, but, you know, if you don'tlisten to your fans, then really what are you about? I like to be open, I like to hear what the fans have to say. I want them to feel connected not only to the team, but to each other because the Laker fan base is one of our best allies and, you know, a good intimidation tool when other teams have to come in and play at Staples Center.

 

Zavala: What's the future of the team and what's your future?

 

Buss: The future of the team is now we have an identity of the type of basketball that we want to play--the coach, Luke Walton, wants to see--which is connective, teamwork kind of basketball. He could explain it better than I can. But, you know, just watching our front office, which would be Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, our general manager, put together the pieces that fit into what Coach Walton wants to do. And all three of them are on the same page, they speak the same language. And I want to see what  those possibilities are. You know, when I made the change in February a couple of days before the trade deadline, and a lot of people, you know, raised a lot of eyebrows, like that seems like odd timing. But once I knew the decision had to be made, it was important to make it right away, because really there is no off-season in the NBA because if it's not the trade deadline, then it's the draft, and then it's free agency, then it's summer league, then it's training camp. There's always something going on. And so to make that change, it was important to do it as soon as possible. So I'm excited about watching the vision that Magic has for this team finally come together and take place. For me personally, I'm just excited to be part of, you know, the Laker franchise, what this team means to the community. There hasn't been a lot of pride the last few years because we haven't won a lot of games. I'd like to see us win games and, you know, energize the fan base again. But I have to say, our fan base is really smart when it comes to basketball. They know that you can't win every year. They're patient with the rebuilding. They like watching players develop. What they like to see is that there's a continuity in thought, that every step, you know, complements the one before it and that you are going on a path that's coherent. And I think that--that they have that now. And I can tell because our renewal rate of our season seat was over 95% this year, so our fans are sticking with us. They believe in what we're putting together. And I couldn't be more grateful for a fan base like that.

 

Zavala: I can't help but ask a personal question. You were born into this amazing family and this incredible opportunity, which you just seem to be born for because you've taken amazing advantage of it and you're clearly talented in this area, but what do you think you would be--you know, you're still yourself--what would you think you'd be doing if you were just, say born to a more typical, middle-class, whatever, Sherman Oaks, Anaheim family? Buss: You know, I always wanted to be in the family business, and when I was growing up, the family business was real estate. So I always thought I would be in real estate development. And so it wasn't until I was 17, 18 years old that my dad, when he bought the Lakers and went full force into sports and entertainment, then my goals changed just because there's something to me about working for a family business that, you know, you just work that much harder because it's all about your family and being together. So that's what I would do, but thankfully I'm lucky. And I know anybody else who was in my position would feel the same way. This is just a great gift. I'm blessed to have this opportunity to work and go to Lakers Headquarters every day.

 

Zavala: Jeanie Buss, thank you so much. You're a total delight, and I think I might be a Lakers fan. And thank you for joining us. For more information on today's episode and the series, go online to kcet.org/townhall. I'm Val Zavala. Thanks for watching.

 

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Jeanie Buss, owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers, is one of the most powerful women in sports. Jeanie talks about why she took over the family business and what the team plans to do to once again succeed on the court. ​

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