Jeanie Buss talks about life with Lakers
LOS ANGELES -- Jeanie Buss is early and not hiding from anyone. It's a little more than 24 hours until the Los Angeles Lakers' season opener against the Houston Rockets and she's still got a million things to do to get Staples Center ready, but she's carved out an hour to meet at the crowded Starbucks at L.A. Live to talk about her new book, "Laker Girl."
Buss slips into the store quietly, at least five minutes ahead of schedule. If we were across the street at Staples, she'd be mobbed by celebrities and Lakers season-ticket holders. But here, just steps away, she grabs a chair along the counter and sits alone until I walk up.
Buss is one of the most powerful women in the NBA, one of the most public faces of the league's glamour franchise, as her father and the Lakers' owner, Jerry Buss, has increasingly retreated to his suite high above the court.
It's an impressive résumé, one many folks in a similar position might simply enjoy and coast on. And yet, when I e-mailed her to see whether she had time to discuss her book, she wrote back to thank me for the opportunity and made sure to arrive early, not just on time, for the interview.
"I want people to know that I don't take for granted what's been given to me," she said, explaining her approach to business.
"I get a lot of letters from people saying, 'I want to follow in your footsteps,' and I don't know how to tell people how to follow in my footsteps, because I can't give them the opportunities that I had.
"But if I have to work my whole life to always be humble and to appreciate what I have, then that's my message."
She seems to be the rare child of privilege who genuinely feels privileged for all the opportunities and advantages she's been given, and she seems determined, even having long-since proved her worth, to live up to them. If anything, she can be overzealous in that determination.
Work, Buss says, has always been her priority. She has sacrificed for it in the past and will do so again in the future if she has to.
It's an identity more than a burden, though. She grew up watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and was drawn to the image of the independent career woman, not beholden to a husband or traditional gender roles. "My job isn't without trials and tribulations. Sometimes it is a pain in the ass," she says. "But it's a great job to have, and I really enjoy doing it."
She would have stayed in the crowded Starbucks, too. I'm the one who suggested a move to someplace quieter. She likes crowds and interacting with fans. It's why she sits a few rows back from the court at home games and not in the owner's suite.
In the acknowledgements section of "Laker Girl," Buss even thanks her "Twitter family" and says she's looking forward to "many more DMs [direct messages] and convos with you all."
And the more we talk, I start to think writing this book is more about answering all the thousands of "DMs and convos" from Lakers fans over the years and less about raising her own public profile.
Of her relationship with Jackson, she says: "It was a public relationship from the beginning. And now it's like 11 years old, and I felt like I maybe should address some of the issues that people have asked me."
It has always been a fascinating dynamic: The owner's daughter, who just happens to be the team's executive vice president, is dating the team's coach.
"Insert your own 'don't fish off the company pier' jokes here," Buss writes in the introduction to the book, which is due to be released Nov. 1. "But it is no joke."
Not that she ever planned on dating the coach of the team she helps run.
"If you would've asked me if he was the typical guy I would date, I would've said, 'Never,'" she said. "I didn't see it coming. But he just bowled me over. There was just something about him."
The courtship began, according to Jackson, over a vodka gimlet at a dinner after a long day of NBA meetings in Vancouver in 1999. It continued the next day on a flight back to Los Angeles.
"As the first-class passengers were called, I asked if she was going to board the plane, but she said she flew coach, explaining that flying first class wasn't necessary and that the Lakers didn't need the added expense," Jackson writes in the foreword to the book. "Let's just say that was the beginning of something special."
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"I always tell Phil, we're like the party poopers," she says. "If we ever get invited to a player party, between the two of us, we're like the downers. Like, 'Put down that beer!' Or, 'Should you really be eating those nachos?'
"We went to Lamar [Odom] and Khloe [Kardashian's] wedding, but Phil wouldn't dance at that wedding even though he'll dance at his kid's wedding. He's a great dancer; he really is. But he's at Lamar's wedding and he's like, 'I'm the coach; coaches don't dance. I have to be serious.'"
Throughout the book, which splices scenes from last season's championship run along with her life story, Buss offers a fascinating look at her relationship with Jackson, the inner workings and dynamics of the Lakers' franchise, and her own growth from the 19-year-old general manager of the Los Angeles Strings franchise of World Team Tennis to one of the most powerful women in the NBA.
The details range from gossipy -- "There are no issues between Khloe [Kardashian] and Vanessa [Bryant] or any other Lakers wife. Khloe has fit in really well." -- to heartfelt and revealing: "Phil still gets a Christmas card from Shaq."
She discusses how she worried over Jackson's uncertain future with the team and what it could mean to their relationship, her concern when she learned her father had invited coaches like Byron Scott, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Dunleavy to his suite at various points during the season, and her relief when John Black, the team's vice president of communications, placed a news release on her desk indicating that Jackson had decided to return for one more season.
"It made me anxious that he left town without a commitment to coach the Lakers again," she writes in Chapter 18 of Jackson. "He was stalling for some reason. I even privately theorized that he wanted to wait until the beginning of the free-agency period so that he could have a conversation with LeBron James. Since Phil would not be under contract with the Lakers, he would be free to communicate with LeBron's agent.
"But I talked myself out of that idea by realizing Phil just needed to process everything, to get in touch with his feelings, take a break from L.A., and just rest. Once he reached Montana, he sounded so much happier. Being in his home resets his brain."
A few days later, he called to ask if Celtics coach Doc Rivers had decided whether to return for another season or retire. Buss told him that Rivers was coming back. It took a few more days for Jackson to make up his mind, but after he had asked about Rivers' status, Buss started feeling confident Jackson would return as well.
Finally, Black walked to her office, placed a news release on her desk, smiled and said, "Congratulations."
In the release, which was later sent out to the media, Jackson called this season his "last stand."
Buss sounds as if she believes him ... for now.
"I'm pretty comfortable to say that this is his last stand with the Lakers," she says when I ask whether she'll be going through another summer of worry in 2011. "I don't know if that means he's going to coach somewhere else or retire.
"But I think it's imperative to him to let the players know that, because I think he wants them to not blow any opportunities. I think he wants to make sure they don't leave anything on the table, because that's the worst way to ever leave the game is feeling that you didn't live up to what you have."
Still, she has gone to great lengths to make it clear that she will not pressure him to stick around for her or for the sake of their relationship. "Phil is planning to leave the Lakers at the end of next season and that means he will probably have to leave me as well," she writes at the end of the book. "I know I cannot move to his retirement home in Montana, nor do I see him staying in a big city like Los Angeles. "I am a working girl and the Lakers are my employer, which means my life is here. It's been a good life, and I do not regret a minute of it."
So what will happen after this season? No one can say for sure.
Buss says she is willing to try a long-distance relationship if Jackson chooses to coach another team.
"I have a lot of role models," she says. "The first one is my best friend, Linda Rambis, because Kurt's in Minnesota and she's here.
"I learned that from 2004 when he retired. A relationship isn't just about space; it's about emotion and heart and all those good things.
"What's important to me is that he's the coach because my dad wants him there and not because of me or any kind of pressure from me."
The only promise Buss has made to Jackson is to keep him as informed about what's going on in the organization as she can.
"I made that promise to him," she says. "When he came back to the Lakers the second time, I told him that: 'I will watch your back. ... I will give you the information, and then you can decide whether you want to hear it or not and you can decide what you want to do with it.'"
While her relationship with Jackson is one of the most intriguing elements of the book, it isn't the only dynamic she explores. Buss writes glowingly of her mother and father, describes what it was like to grow up at Pickfair mansion in Beverly Hills, and opens up about her previous relationships and marriage to professional volleyball player Steve Timmons.
She also reveals, intentionally or not, the reason she showed up early, not just on time, for our interview.
"Yes, I was given a privileged position at a young age," she writes. "But if I had not been willing to work hard and prepare myself for all the challenges I would face, I would not have held on to my position all these years, regardless of my family ties."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.