By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
When the Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last Sunday night, they not only captured their 17th title to tie them with the Boston Celtics for the most in league history, they also made Jeanie Buss the first female owner to win an NBA crown.
Addressing Laker Nation after the team’s series-clinching win, she said: “We have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and [his daughter] Gianna. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.”
As the President and controlling owner of the league’s most storied franchise, Jeanie and her siblings took over ownership of the team after the passing of their father, Dr. Jerry Buss, in 2013.
Bryant, who had a home in Pacific Palisades in the early years of his NBA career, retired in 2016 as one of the most beloved and respected figures in Los Angeles sports history. When he died in a helicopter crash in January at the age of 41, Lakers players were determined to win the championship for him. Bryant may be the team’s all-time most valuable player, but if asked to name t’s most valuable person, fans will most likely name Jeanie, perhaps the organization’s most recognizable (and prettiest) face for decades. Before her dad’s death, the 59-year-old Palisades High graduate and former Miss Palisades served as the team’s Executive Vice President of Business Operations and no one bleeds purple and gold more than the lady who has long been the voice of the franchise, having worked on both the promotions and operations sides of the business. Growing up on Ranch Lane in Rustic Canyon, her first claim to fame was being named Miss Palisades in 1979 at the age of 17. When she appeared as the guest speaker at Riviera Country Club some 30 years later, that memory was still clearly etched in her mind.
“It was a great experience,” Buss said at a Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce general membership breakfast in 2009. “It improved my speaking skills, my posture, my demeanor… everything. Actor Adam West (who played the Caped Crusader in the 1960s ‘Batman’ TV show) was one of the judges, and I remember being so shocked and surprised when I won. That was something totally different than homecoming queen or class president because those are more about popularity.”
The third of six children in the Buss family, Jeanie recounted holding a graduation party at her house on the same night Dr. Buss bought the Lakers (along with the Kings hockey franchise and The Forum in Inglewood, the arena in which both teams played).
“It got pretty loud and the police came,” she recalled. “I grew up knowing I’d be involved in the family business, which at the time was real estate development, but this was a whole new venture.”
After graduating from Pali High in 1979, Jeanie went on to earn her business degree from USC. As he Lakers’ executive VP, Buss was responsible for overseeing the team’s relationships with its broadcast partners, FOX Sports Net West, KCAL-TV and KLAC Radio. Working closely with then general manager Mitch Kupchak and assistant general managers Ronnie Lester and Jim Buss (her brother), she also oversaw marketing and sponsorships.
Buss was only 19 when she became general manager of the Los Angeles Strings, who won two World Team Tennis league titles. She also created the Forum Tennis Challenge Series, which became a mainstay on the calendar for years. She was responsible for bringing in many all-time greats like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
In 1993, Buss brought professional roller hockey to L.A. as the owner of the Los Angeles Blades. Her leadership of and dedication to the franchise earned her “Executive of the Year” honors by Roller Hockey International.
Prior to becoming Executive VP of the Lakers, Buss served as president of the Forum before the Lakers and Kings relocated downtown to Staples Center in 1999. Throughout her tenure with the Forum, Buss’ involvement with the Lakers continually increased. She represents the Lakers on the NBA Board of Governors and while residing in Playa del Rey she dated Phil Jackson when he was the team’s head coach from 1989-98.
Asked after Sunday’s game (the series was played in Orlando because of COVID-19) about continuing her father’s legacy, Jeanie had this to say: “He wanted a team that would make Los Angeles proud. People in my position put together the resources and then they do all the work and they put in an extraordinary effort given the fact that we are in a bubble. They’ve been here 90 days or so and I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve accomplished. I know my dad would be very proud to know we got No. 17.”
Buss, who maintained a close friendship with Bryant even after his retirement, noted the 2020 Lakers fully embraced the “Mamba Mentality” which characterized the 18-time All-Star’s unmatched work ethic and tenacity.
“Kobe always liked to win every game, every opportunity, so I think that is what inspired this team and will continue to inpire Laker Nation for all time. Kobe set a bar that we will work hard to maintain and make him proud and we’ll celebrate him all the time.”
Prior to this year’s crown, the Lakers had missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons—the longest postseason drought in franchise history. Prior to that they had missed the playoffs only five times in 65 years. The Lakers finished 37-45 and in fourth place in the Pacific Division in 2018-19, their first since acquiring one of the NBA’s premiere players, LeBron James. All-Star center Anthony Davis joined the roster this season and the Lakers compiled the best regular season record in the Western Conference on the way to earning the No. 1 playoff seed.
“First of all I have to thank Magic Johnson because none of this would’ve been possible without him stepping up and taking the reins of this franchise so that we could stabilize things and do the work that was needed to lay this foundation. He was the reason why LeBron james had faith in this organization to come here. Rob Pelinka running our basketball operations, Kurt Rambis, Joey Buss, Jesse Buss, Jim Harris the head of our business operations and team president as well as Linda Rambis, who I worked with for over 30 years. That’s our inner circle and this is a testament to their hard work. For all of our employees back in Los Angeles, I know all the tireless work you put in as well. I wish you were here. I wish we were celebrating at Staples Center but someday soon we will celebrate.”
Johnson, the Hall of Famer who led the “Showtime Era” Lakers to five NBA titles in the 1980s, resigned suddenly as Lakers President of Basketball Operations in April 2019 without telling Jeanie, whom he repeatedly referred to as “my sister.”
Jeanie’s story is told in Los Angeles Times wrtiter Steve Springer’s 2010 book “Laker Girl.” In 1995 she posed naked in Playboy Magazine and two years later she appeared nude in Sports llustrated. She was married to two-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist Steve Timmons for three years in the early 1990s but later confessed she frequently put business ahead of her marriage.
The Lakers won 10 NBA titles under Dr. Buss—five in the 1980s behind Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy and five more in the 2000s behind Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
When she walked onto the court to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Sunday night, Jeanie was smiling from ear to ear. The NBA was formed in 1949 and she is the first woman to raise the trophy as the principal owner, having taken over control in 2017 after a legal dispute with her brothers.
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