Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Periodically, The Electric Review presents a Retro Pick: a book that has been released at some point in the past but which still packs a relevant punch. This quarter, as the 2016-2017 NBA season winds its way toward the playoffs, we spotlight Laker Girl by Jeanie Buss.
The Los Angles Lakers are one of the premiere franchises in all of sports, and stand as arguably the centerpiece of the NBA. The team was founded in 1946 and it joined the NBA as the Minneapolis Lakers in 1947, later moving to Los Angeles in 1960. In 1979, Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the franchise, and his hand turned a good team into a great one.
Subsequent to drafting Magic Johnson out of Michigan State, the Lakers assumed dominance over the NBA; in lock-step with the San Francisco 49ers, the two franchises built a tandem of dynasties for which 1980s’ sports will be remembered. Laker Girl is an ambitious book that sets out to tell the story of the Buss family through the voice of Dr. Buss’ daughter, Jeanie.
Jeanie is as unique a woman as exists in American sports: co-owner and current President of the Lakers, Jeanie has ascended to the top of the hottest marquee in the NBA. Many will say it was a “gimme job” acquired because she was the boss’ beautiful daughter, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Jeanie became President of the Lakers, as well as a member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, because she has both the acumen and guts to sit behind her desk and make hard decisions on everything from marketing and promotion to operations (this never more evident than it was last month when she relieved her brother Jim and long-time General Manager Mitch Kupchak of their positions and replaced them with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka).
Early readers of Laker Girl probably saw this decision coming – a compelling passage from the 2103 paperback reprint chronicles the disjointed fashion in which Jim Buss by-passed Jeanie’s then-fiance Phil Jackson for the head coaching job in advance of the 2012-2013 season. And Buss writes:
“The sequence of events – Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job – practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was betrayal. I was devastated. I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn’t sincere abut it?” (at page 298).
In sum, Laker Girl gives us an insider’s glimpse into the delicate psyche of the woman who was able to orchestrate this difficult mid-season change in direction: The book chronicling the Buss’ rise to the top of prime-time NBA while concurrently providing an indispensable reportage of the Lake-Show’s last championship run (the 2009-2010 season culminating in a game seven victory over the Boston Celtics in the Finals).
Co-written with veteran sportswriter Steve Springer (formerly of the Los Angeles Times), Laker Girl covers vast territory (from the team’s middle years at the Fabulous Forum, to Jeanine’s days as general manager of the L.A. Strings (World Team Tennis), to her transcendent courtship with Phil Jackson), allowing us to drown ourselves in this intimate conversation with the modern-day face of the Lakers.
Steve Springer is a veteran sports journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. In addition to his newspaper work which led to a seat in the So-Cal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Springer has written 13 books, 3 of which have landed on best-seller lists. Springer’s readers know his work immediately: It’s that innate ability to capture the moment in clear and piercing prose, painting pictures in the mind. And this is exactly what shines through the walls of Laker Girl as he helps Buss tell the story that made her family’s name synonymous with Los Angeles.
The Electric Review was fortunate to spend some time speaking with Steve Springer about his dedication to reporting on American sports. Just like his columns in the Los Angeles Times, Springer has much to say. And he says it eloquently.
I was born and raised in L.A. In college, I majored in sports broadcasting and aspired to be the next Chick Hearn or Vin Scully. I did play-by-play in college, and after I graduated, I took a job in radio in Calexico, right on the border. I worked in radio a couple of years, then realized I wasn’t going to be the next Chick Hearn. So I enrolled in law school shortly after that. Butin the middle of my course of studies, I landed a job at the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle. I went from the News-Chronicle to a position at the Orange County Register in 1979, then started working for the LA Times in ’83.
Yes, I was always a sports fan, and played sports as kid. But around 9 or 10 it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be a great athlete.
As I said, I was a sports fan growing up. And I really enjoyed reading as well, back when people read books (laughing)…I also enjoyed writing as well. And I soon saw writing as a way to stay involved with sports without playing them. But I really did enjoy writing – as much, or maybe even more, than I enjoyed sports. But sports makes for truly great material. There’s so much drama and life-lessons, lessons that are truly reflective of the world we’re in. Really, I think boxing makes for the best material. It’s literally life and death stuff. Material you don’t get anywhere else.
I was assigned to cover the Lakers during the 1979-1980 season – my rookie year at the Orange County Register. It was also Magic Johnson’s rookie year which ended in a Lakers championship.
There are so many! But that classic Lakers-Boston 84-85 championship series stands out. Also Magic’s rookie season when the Lakers beat the 76ers and he ended up playing all five positions in the title-clinching game of the series. You know I’ve seen so much – all those championships. Kobe’s last game when he scored 60 was also an unbelievably special thing to see.
Yes, I knew him very well. He and I were rookies in the same year. He was truly the best owner I ever knew. I admired his candor. He was an amazing story all by himself, without the Lakers. And he had a lot of integrity. I recall once that he invited me to lunch after I had written a negative piece about him. And he commended me for the story. He understood the role of the media and understood what we do. And he didn’t hold a grudge. He was a special guy and I respected him tremendously.
Yes, I would say she is quite like her dad. When she was 19 he gave her the keys to the L.A. Strings [Team Tennis] and she was the team’s GM. She learned the business at an early age and her father had a lot of confidence in her. She’s really been very accomplished in every job she has ever had. She knows her stuff and takes her role very seriously. That’s why the last few years [in relation to the team’s decline] have been so hard for her to swallow. He father always achieved excellence and she admired that and she wants to continue his legacy. In the NBA, in this business, there are a lot of big egos. But Jeanie’s able to work well with everyone around her without ever forgetting her position and responsibilities. I remember that Jerry Buss always said, “I know what I don’t know. And I don’t know basketball – I am a fan. So I hire people who know basketball.” And that’s Jeanie in a nutshell: So she brought in Magic Johnson to take over.
It was quite interesting. She took the process very seriously. We had a routine where we would meet for dinner before every home game – I’d do an interview and take notes. Once I completed a chapter, Jeanie would do line edits. She took it extremely seriously – she was hands-on with the entire process.
You have to develop an ear for the the subject of the story. And you have to constantly keep reminding yourself of what you are doing and why you are doing it. You’re a different person than the subject; plus, it’s their story. Basically, when you are working a project like this, there should be no ego involved. It’s really a fine line you have to walk – the writing has to be good and sharp and you have to develop an ear for the person you’re working with, writing the way they speak.
Not by themselves. They’re a strong young group, but they are in the toughest conference [Western] in basketball. They have some strong young pieces, but they are going to need to acquire veteran leadership through free agency. And these young guys are going to need to grow. It’s going to be a long road back. The teams in the West above them are really that daunting. If they were in the East, it might be a bit easier for them.
I think he’s the face of the front office now. He’s not going to be the guy who figures out the salary cap or goes to find that unknown diamond-in-the-rough, but because of his stature, he will interest free agents and bring them to L.A. I think he’s going to have a positive impact on the Lakers, and he will work well with Luke Walton. People have a lot of respect for Earvin and his basketball knowledge. He knows where the Lakers want to go, and this will help bring players to L.A.. But it’s going to take some time.