Inside Jeanie Buss' Lakers takeover

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This story originally ran on on March 8. It has since been updated with new information toappear in ESPN The Magazine's April 24 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!

THE WALLET IS unremarkable at first sight. It's a man's wallet, the kind of simple, black leather that's made well and lasts forever. Jeanie Buss likes it because it belonged to her father. But it's almost too big to fit in the small purse that the Lakers' controlling owner uses these days. "Well, my life needs to get smaller," she says with a wry laugh, recognizing the double entendre. Jeanie Buss has been doing of lot of downsizing lately.

In December, she confirmed that she'd ended her engagement with former Lakers coach and current Knicks president Phil Jackson.

In February, she overhauled the Lakers front office, firing her older brother Jim Buss as head of basketball operations, along with general manager Mitch Kupchak and longtime public relations director John Black, then hiring Lakers legend Magic Johnson to run point on the rebuild.

In March, she and her lawyer Adam Streisand won a decisive legal victory to prevent a coup attempt by her two older brothers, Jim and Johnny, forcing Jim to resign as a co-trustee and replacing him with younger sister Janie.

After decades of familial drama, it was suddenly all very ... over. Jeanie hadn't just taken control of the iconic sports franchise that her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, had passed down to his six children. She'd made the decisive choice between family and franchise that he'd never been able to.

"The choice is the Lakers," she says crisply. Whatever emotion she'd felt these past few months is long gone from her voice. The emotional sludge underlying this family drama isn't a few months old. It's 50 years old. The last three months were just the final act in a play that's been running their whole lives.

"I'm really proud of my sister for putting her business hat on," Janie Buss says. "I know how hard it was. My dad's dying wish was to leave the Lakers to all of us and that we would all get along. He'd be sickened if he saw what was going on with my older brothers." (Neither Jim nor Johnny, through his lawyer, responded to repeated requests for comment.)

It's fitting, and more than a bit Shakespearean, that the daughter of an infamous playboy would one day rule the most masculine of kingdoms -- a professional sports team infamous for sex, Showtime and star power -- but only after the dispatching of the oldest male heirs.

Choosing one child outright to run the team would've been impossible for her father -- or any father -- to make. So instead, three decades ago he set up a familial bake-off, with each of his children having opportunities to prove his or her mettle with the vast collection of sports franchises he owned: Johnny, 60, ran the WNBA's Sparks and, for a time, an indoor soccer team; Jim, 57, later ran the soccer team, as well as part of his father's horse racing business, and eventually took over basketball operations for the Lakers; Jeanie, 55, was president of the Forum and worked with World Team Tennis before taking over the team; and Janie, 53, ran the Lakers Foundation for decades. Joey, 32, runs the D-League team, the D-Fenders, and Jesse, 29, runs the Lakers' scouting department.

Jeanie essentially won the contest in 2001, when Jerry Buss named her as his successor as Lakers controlling owner and governor in his trust. But his dream was for all six of his children to have roles in their father's kingdom. And so he left his eldest sons with their own fiefdoms (Jim ran basketball operations, Johnny strategic development) -- and just enough power to stage an insurgency like the one that played out in the four years following his death in 2013.

"Clearly my dad would not want it [to end like this] at all," Jeanie says. "He wanted us all to meet together and build this team together. But when it comes to the Lakers, I'm like a mama bear.

"It's not about Jeanie, it's about what's best for the Lakers. That's the baby."

THE WAR BETWEEN Jeanie and her older brothers had been so cold for so long, it feels a little strange to actually be done with it now. There's no threat to anticipate, no guard to keep up.

There are half a dozen boxes of Veuve Clicquot champagne in the hallway outside her office that have been sitting there for who knows how long. But she doesn't feel much like celebrating on this late-March afternoon. There's too much work to be done now to climb out of this hole. Instead, she cracks open a sugar-free Red Bull.

"Did you know I once tweeted at Red Bull, 'Would you ever consider making a sugar-free, caffeine-free Red Bull?'" she says with a smile. "They were like, 'No. [The caffeine] is kind of the whole point.' They go, 'Jeanie, that would be Kool-Aid.'"

She laughs so hard, her head rolls back. It's been awhile since she's laughed like this. She fired Kupchak and Jim Buss more than a month ago, and to the outside world, it at least seemed like the cold war was over. Jeanie, though, knew there was still one last battle to fight, and she'd have to be willing to take her brothers to court to win it.

It would not be pleasant. Firing your brother is hard enough. Suing him is even more uncomfortable.

When you're one of Jerry Buss' children, a lack of privacy -- and a prime role in the daily soap opera in Los Angeles -- comes with the territory. But no matter how ugly things got with the Buss family, certain lines were never crossed. Going to court was one of them. It means that everything -- every ugly family secret, each private detail in Dr. Buss' trust -- becomes public once it's filed with the court. Johnny and Jim's March takeover attempt seemed to hinge on whether Jeanie had the nerve to file a lawsuit to stop them.

She did. Jeanie was determined that if this battle was going to have an ugly ending, the ugliness should be over as quickly and decisively as possible. She instructed Streisand, who had previously been Steve Ballmer's chief legal strategist in his 2014 showdown with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, to be aggressive so there would not be a protracted battle. And so on March 2, they filed a temporary restraining order and sued Jim and Johnny Buss for breaching their responsibilities as trustees.

In 2001, Dr. Buss placed the 66 percent of the Lakers that he owned into four trusts. The consolidated trusts have been amended and updated several times, each time signed by the three trustees -- Johnny, Jim and Jeanie. In each of those versions, it clearly states that Jeanie was chosen to run the Lakers after Jerry died. In addition, the trust states that the trustees had a fiduciary responsibility to take "whatever actions are reasonably available to them to have Jeanie M. Buss appointed as the Controlling Owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Inc."

As for her older brothers, they'd each get some power as trustees and money from a yearly disbursement from the trust, on top of their roles with the Lakers. But for men already in their 50s, it effectively meant they'd already gotten the most money and power that they ever would from their inheritance.

The Buss family's 66 percent stake in the Lakers lives within the trust, not in any one sibling's name, so shares can be sold only if the trust is dissolved. According to the terms of Dr. Buss' trust, that would require the approval of four of the six siblings. Rather than try to gain those four votes, her two older brothers essentially tried to force their agenda through by leveraging their 2-1 advantage as trustees, asking their lawyers to change the way the trust was operating, Streisand says- -- and how it disbursed the money.

Once Jim was out at the Lakers, there was no reason for him to hold back any longer. On Feb. 24, three days after Jeanie fired her brother, she received a letter from Johnny Buss that laid bare a plan that looked to attempt to oust her from power, making it impossible for her to act as controlling owner by removing her from the board of directors.

It was time to go to court.

"I don't think they ever thought Jeanie would do it," Streisand says. "Even after we went to court and they backed down ... Johnny came down here and told [the Lakers'] lawyer that they didn't lose anything in court, that they've hired the smartest lawyers in town and they were five steps ahead of us.

"They were right. ... They were five steps ahead. They just didn't realize in real life they were five steps ahead over the cliff."

JEANIE AND STREISAND had, in fact, been on alert for months. Their guard first went up in late December, when, in an interview Jim gave to the Orange County Register, he said "it would be a big mistake on the Lakers' part to make any switches" in personnel.

A few weeks later, Jim and Johnny came to the Lakers offices with their lawyers to discuss language in the trust they felt was poorly written and should be addressed at the next board of directors meeting.

At face value, this was a perfunctory action. The Lakers bylaws call for an annual meeting on Dec. 15 to elect a five-person board of directors, which has always consisted of a combination of Buss siblings and Lakers partners. But in recent years, the Lakers board has never met in person. The directors simply agreed to electronically submit their votes for controlling owner -- always Jeanie, per Dr. Buss' trust. So the mere act of calling an in-person meeting was unusual and, to Jeanie and her lawyers, perceived as somewhat hostile.

Around this same time, Streisand says, the two older brothers were attempting to change the way the trust operated. They replaced the accounting firm that had managed the trust, PwC, with a different firm, SingerLewak LLP, and brought in a new lawyer to represent the trust. Then, Streisand says, they attempted to take out multimillion-dollar loans against the trust and disburse that money to the six siblings. And since Johnny and Jim had two of the three trusteeships, Jeanie couldn't stop any of those moves without going to court.

"They never communicated with my other siblings why they were firing our accounting firm or why they were changing lawyers representing the trust," Jeanie says.

Instead it was Jeanie who informed her three other siblings that the accounting firm had been switched and of the attempted loans against the trust.

"When Jeanie told me they had asked for loans against the trust, it was unreal," Jesse says. He and Janie both say they interpreted these moves as the brothers looking to cash out or force a sale.

"You're really taking down the entire family with you," Jesse says. "I don't think any of us really need that money outside of them. We all live very comfortably. Why not just be happy with what our dad left you?"

At the same time, Jim was making moves that Jesse interpreted as mortgaging the Lakers' future to save his job. In early January, he heard the Lakers had been discussing trades for veteran players -- like Atlanta's Paul Millsap -- that involved giving up several of the team's young players.

"I emailed Joey and Jeanie: 'This is the time where you need to step in!'" Jesse says. "The next day, she sent an email to everyone saying, 'If any trades being discussed include our young players, please notify me so I can sign off.'"

A WEEK LATER, Jeanie took a dinner meeting with Magic Johnson during a game at Staples Center and asked for his advice. Since her father's death, Jeanie had run the business side of the team, while Jim handled the basketball operations. She'd always intended to give Jim and Mitch Kupchak until the end of the season to prove they could get the Lakers back on track -- that was the time frame Jim had famously asked for during a family meeting in 2014 (though he later amended it). But it had become clear to Jeanie that she needed to step in. She asked Johnson to serve as a special adviser, reporting directly to her, so he could serve as a bridge between the basketball and business sides.

Really, though, he was there to keep an eye on Kupchak and her brother. She needed someone she could trust.

Johnson had always been something of an adopted member of the Buss family -- Dr. Buss even gave him 5 percent of the team upon his retirement. "He would not have done that if he didn't want Earvin to be a part of it," Janie says. "My dad always looked at Earvin as another son. He had the utmost respect. He made the Lakers franchise; he made us famous. We couldn't have done it without him."

Dr. Buss was so close with Johnson that he told him he wanted him to play a role in running the franchise -- alongside Jeanie -- after he died. "He'd tell me his vision was for Jeanie and me to run it," Johnson says. "But he couldn't put me in that position. I told him that. I was upfront with him. I'd say, 'You have four boys -- there's no way that's going to go over well.'"

A few days before his death in February 2013, Jerry Buss summoned Johnson to visit him in the hospital. Johnson had sold his Lakers shares, and he became part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, seemingly moving on from the dream of a role with the Lakers.

"Jeanie had called and told me to come up, that he wanted to see me," Johnson says. "And he said it again. He said, 'I always thought you guys would run it.' We were both sitting there crying about it because he knew I was right. ... Back then, it would have been a lot of resentment. It would have been difficult."

Johnson was right. Even with the team's basketball operations in his hands, Jim Buss understandably had a tremendous amount of resentment toward Johnson -- at the same time Dr. Buss was telling Johnson he wanted him to run the Lakers along with Jeanie Buss, Jim Buss says his father told him, "I believe you can do it."

"If he didn't think I was capable of doing this, I guarantee he wouldn't have put me here," Jim told ESPN in 2013. "He would have arranged something else. My dad trusted me."

In that interview, Jim Buss said he watched nearly every Lakers game with his father while he was in the hospital. They made decisions together those last few years, Jim said, even as his father prepared him to make them on his own one day. "He always said, 'You have to have a shell and be able to repel water because you're going to get pelted,'" Jim said in 2013. "I said, 'Dad, I have no problem with that as long as I believe that you believe in me and we believe in this philosophy.'"

JEANIE BUSS THOUGHT that hiring Johnson would be a wake-up call to everyone in the front office. It had been years since she felt like she'd had a functional working relationship with Jim or Kupchak.

Former coach Byron Scott, who was with the Lakers from 2014 to '16, said he almost never talked to Jeanie during that time, even though he had known her for decades, as both a player for the Lakers in the 1980s and as a coach. He says he always got the vibe from Kupchak and Jim that "it just felt like it'd be a betrayal ... that they would look at that as me not being loyal to them." It was the only time in his coaching career that he had no relationship with a team owner.

Hiring Magic Johnson was supposed to end behavior like that. But every report Jeanie had been getting was that he wasn't being integrated or even informed of what they were planning. A few weeks after Johnson started, she found out the team had worked out free agent Larry Sanders -- a center with a history of mental health issues and substance abuse problems -- and hadn't bothered to invite Johnson to watch, let alone ask for his opinion. And Jim Buss and Kupchak were still shopping the very young players that Jeanie had insisted she know about, without telling her a word.

Shortly before the All-Star break, as Jeanie was packing for the game in New Orleans, she decided it was time to act. She canceled her trip to the game, sending her younger brother Joey to represent the team instead. For the next few days, she worked with a small, trusted group of advisers, lawyers and human resources personnel to execute the bold restructuring of the Lakers front office.

Three days later, she received a letter from Johnny Buss that read like the operational details of a coup attempt.

Four names had been submitted for the Lakers' five-person board of directors: Johnny Buss, Jim Buss, Dan Beckerman (the CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, whose chairman, Phil Anschutz, controls 27 percent of the Lakers and two seats on the board) and a property investor named Romie Chaudhari, a business associate of Jim Buss.

Not included: Jeanie Buss or the team's alternate governor, Joey Buss. Johnny Buss was effectively proposing two new board members -- Jim Buss and Chaudhari -- to replace Jeanie and Joey. (Beckerman and Chaudhari both issued statements denying involvement in the brothers' plans.)

According to the team's corporate bylaws, the controlling owner must be elected from the board of directors. So if Jeanie was not a director, theoretically she couldn't be re-elected as controlling owner -- as her father's trust demands.

Further complicating matters was the inclusion in the notice of a $30,000-a-month incentive to the nonshareholder directors (Chaudhari and Beckerman), $10,000 a month to shareholder board members (Jim and Johnny) and a $25 million one-time disbursement to be split among the siblings.

Was this just another quick cash grab? Or an ill-conceived gesture, like the time last season when Jim tried to offer Kobe Bryant shares in the franchise as a show of appreciation -- similar to what his father had once done for Johnson -- without researching or understanding that the trust doesn't allow that kind of a transfer? Or were the brothers trying to seize power and control of the franchise?

Janie says she thought that Johnny and Jim each had different motivations but that their endgame was the same: to get more money from the trust. For Johnny, Janie believes the appeal was leaving more of the Lakers fortune to his children -- the way the trust is set up now, if any of the six Buss kids dies, that share in the trust gets evenly divided among the surviving siblings. "It's last man standing," Janie says. "If I die tomorrow, my kids benefit a little bit, but they don't get everything I'm entitled to. As we all go down, it's all going to end up in Joey's and Jesse's hands because they're the youngest."

Jim's motivation, Jeanie's lawyer believes, was for a quick payout. Jim had gone on something of a real estate buying spree in the first few years after his father died. From 2013 to '17, there are multiple stories in the Los Angeles Times reporting that he bought multimillion-dollar properties in an exclusive Dana Point community and a $4 million penthouse condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles. But there are no property records of his selling any of those properties. There are, however, records of his taking out secondary seven-figure loans on the Dana Point and downtown LA properties.

After Jeanie Buss filed suit in Los Angeles court on March 2, demanding that the brothers uphold the requirements of her role in the trust, the elder brothers quickly retreated, committing to vote Jeanie as controlling owner for the next year. At the time, their lawyer, Robert Sacks, said Jeanie and her lawyers had overreacted to Johnny's letter and misconstrued its intent -- that Johnny and Jim supported Jeanie as controlling owner and that she rushed to court unnecessarily.

Streisand argued in court documents that the brothers' refusal to commit to support Jeanie as a member of the board of directors beyond this year still left open the possibility of ousting her as controlling owner. He asked them to commit to voting her into both of those roles for the rest of her life, to ensure her position would not be challenged again. When they refused, Streisand pressed the matter in court and privately called Sacks, he says, with a threat to compel an accounting of Jim's finances if he did not resign as a trustee. Under California law, a trustee can be removed if he or she becomes insolvent, and Streisand was willing to try to play that card.

"Jim's actions smelled desperate to me, and that's when I knew we had him by the gills," Streisand says. "He was going to resign or it would be ugly. I was ready to subpoena every financial document and depose everyone who knew anything about Jim Buss and his finances. We really left him no choice."

Jim resigned as a co-trustee and was replaced by Janie, who firmly supported her older sister; the balance of power, and with it the ability to control the management of the trust, had now shifted firmly toward Jeanie. And on April 3, the court formally granted Jeanie's petition to compel the three trustees -- now Jeanie, Janie and Johnny -- to do everything reasonable within their power to ensure she remains the Lakers' controlling owner and a board member for the rest of her life. The war was over with nary a whimper.

"This was not what [Dr. Buss] wanted," Jeanie says. "But he did empower me that if there was ever a threat, that I had the power and authority to do this."

Throughout history, the eldest son has always inherited the kingdom. Jerry Buss never wanted to deprive his two eldest sons of his kingdom. Perhaps that's why he left this final move for Jeanie to make.

"Maybe it was easier for me," Jeanie says. Or maybe Dr. Buss just knew long ago that she had the guts to actually do it.

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