The Los Angeles Lakers are a strange sports franchise. It’s a $3 billion mom-and-pop operation in a world of conglomerates and new tech money. The Buss family has owned a controlling interest in the franchise since 1979, long enough to see the game rise from regional curiosity to global monolith. While dynasties came and went, patriarch Dr. Jerry Buss ruled the team and led it to great heights, both on the court and off.
He began organizing succession plans a decade ago. His wishes were for his daughter Jeanie — who had worked in the franchise essentially her entire adult life, and is among the most successful business leaders in NBA history — to have ultimate power within the Lakers, and he named her the governor of the team.
But he also wanted his son Jim to remain in control of basketball operations, as he had been for the final years of Buss’ life, in the near term. Jeanie respected those wishes and gave her brother a chance to run the basketball team.
Jim Buss then ran it into the ground.
Along the way, Jim also found ways to insult and embarrass his sister’s now former fiancé Phil Jackson, who also happened to be the most successful coach in franchise history. Jim made the Lakers a laughingstock, something they had never been under the Buss family name.
So, Jeanie found a way to efficiently swoop in and pluck him from power, putting Lakers legend Magic Johnson in his place. Don’t be confused: This is a coup. Jeanie and Magic conspired to get Jim the hell out of here, and did so with incredible efficiency and speed. But it’s a coup you can feel good about.
The truth is that elevating Jim Buss to a position of power within basketball operations was always a bad idea. Jeanie was the brains of the Buss’ second generation of Lakers ownership. It’s impossible to find someone who denies her board room prowess and investment in the family business. She always deserved full control of the entire franchise. Setting up his son to run the front office and pressuring Jeanie (in whatever way) to give him a long leash is frankly an insult to Jeanie’s obvious intelligence.
You can read Jeanie’s decision on Tuesday to fire her brother as a revenge tale borne out of sibling rivalry and that whole Jackson debacle. I prefer to read it as a story of a woman who is taking what she deserves: full control of the family business.
Magic is also receiving some arched eyebrows for the speed with which he slipped back into the Lakers franchise and then promptly landed in a seat of immense power.
Consider this: 26 years ago, Magic Johnson believed he had been given a death sentence when he learned he was HIV positive. We all thought Magic had been given a death sentence. He retired from the NBA and became the face of the AIDS epidemic. We thought it to be a tragic story.
Twenty-six years later, he is one of the most successful post-career athletes ever and now has the keys to the franchise he carried (with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to the pinnacle in his playing days.
Imagine if someone had told you in 1991 that not only would Magic survive HIV, but that he’d be pulling off trades for the Lakers from atop a giant pile of money a quarter of a century later. What an amazing accomplishment for Magic (and science, as HIV mortality rates have been seriously reduced over the past two decades). Magic has never been afforded the opportunity to bide his time and he didn’t here, either.
We’ll see whether all this maneuvering will be good for the Lakers in the long run. But for now, there is justice and inspiration.