Laker Girl by Jeanie Buss, Triumph Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2013, 310 pages.
Book Review by Dennis Moore
The Los Angeles Lakers are at a crossroad in history and basketball lore and legacy. These last few years have not been kind to them, and author and Lakers’ VP in charge of basketball affairs Jeanie Buss puts it all in perspective in her book Laker Girl. She writes a candid tell-all account of the Lakers’ rise to basketball and sports’ glory, and their descent into implosion on a scale that is astounding, especially considering the legendary history and beginnings of this franchise.
The life story of Jeanie Buss could only have been written in Hollywood. Born into a family empire – her father bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 – Buss grew up in arenas and board rooms. By the time she was 19, she was already a high-ranking executive with World Team Tennis. Today, Buss is the Lakers’ President and Governor, a member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, and one of the most influential women in professional sports. But her business accomplishments are only part of her incredible journey.
Laker Girl (Triumph Books, November 2013) by Jeanie Buss – with veteran sports writer Steve Springer and a foreword by Phil Jackson – is the story of the Buss family and of one woman’s rise to the top in a man’s world. In this updated edition, Buss discusses the passing of her father, Jerry Buss, her recent engagement and looks back on the Lakers’ eventful past three seasons, which have included the controversial Mike D’Antoni coaching hire, Dwight Howard’s brief but notable time with the team, a new TV deal and more. It is also a behind-the-scenes journal of the 2009 – 10 Lakers season and its 16th world championship.
In true Hollywood fashion, Buss found love where she least expected: with Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ head coach and one of the most successful coaches in NBA history. There is now a deep irony to that fact, with Jackson now the President of the New York Knicks. Along the way, she’s rubbed elbows with everyone from Michael Jordan, John McEnroe and Shaquille O’Neal to Ryan Seacrest, Khloe Kardashian, Hugh Hefner and Jack Nicholson. And she’s done it all in her unique, inimitable style. Incidentally, Phil Jackson is actually the cousin of East County’s Bob Taylor, owner of the world famous Taylor Guitars in El Cajon.
From star-studded celebrity weddings, to meetings at the White House, to the STAPLES Center court after Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Laker Girl takes readers behind the velvet ropes for an unprecedented glimpse into the glamorous world of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers are on the precipice of an ignominious fall from heights of professional basketball lore and legend, this winner of 16 NBA championships, and Buss gives startling and candid insight borne of sibling rivalry as to how it came about.
It is very difficult to be objective and detached in this review of the author’s book, for admittedly, I am one of the Lakers’ biggest fans, having sat in the old Chicago Stadium in my hometown of Chicago many years ago cheering for the Lakers in that first game of the first of 6 NBA championships won by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Yes, I was a minority in that sea of red at that game pulling for my beloved Lakers, but it was something about this team borne of the legendary heroics and history of a George Mikan and Elgin Baylor that resonated with me.
In Laker Girl Buss gives candid assessments of Kobe Bryant and the ill-fated decisions surrounding the loss of Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, as well as the future of the Lakers.
Although Buss did not say it, and would not say it in her book, her emotional and tearful episode described and indicated in Laker Girl clearly points to the downfall of this majestic and legendary franchise as the refusal to keep, and later hire her fiancé Phil Jackson as the coach of this team. The foreword to the author’s book written by Jackson is telling in a subtle way. How can you rationalize not keeping or hiring someone that has won 5 NBA championships for the city of Los Angeles? Her brother made the decision!
A lot of what the author has written in Laker Girl may be viewed as revisionist history, particularly in regard to her brother who made the decision to fire Laker coach Mike Brown, but it clearly puts into perspective the demise of this once regal team, as she states: “The progress that I thought my brother and I had made in our relationship evaporated.” This was after Jim Buss had decided not to hire Phil Jackson, after all the lobbying he had done to get him, and hired Mike D’Antoni instead. The author states: “My heart was broken. My dad was very sick. I felt vulnerable. I wanted to hold on to something to feel safe. That was Phil. If people want to fault me because I believe in my man, then I guess they are free to do so. I even sent a tweet to Michelle Obama on November 19 @MichelleObama: Dear Michelle, Have you ever been made to feel that believing in & supporting your man is a bad thing? Need advice.; Jeanie. I never heard from her, but I know how she would answer.” She further stated in regard to her brother Jim: “How do you do that to your sister? How do you do that to Phil Jackson?”
Clearly, the author was wearing her emotions on her sleeve, as she recounts the events surrounding the implosion of this once proud team, the Los Angeles Lakers, as she further stated in this insightful and well-written book: “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 a betrayal. I was devastated. I felt like I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn’t sincere about it?” The revisionist history that I alluded to earlier, was the Lakers having their worst record in history this past year, with the coach that was thought to be “better for the job.” Perhaps with the recent hiring of former Laker player Byron Scott as the new head coach the team can reclaim their glory years and stature among the elite in NBA basketball.
The irony of all this, and the author does not say it in her book, is that the coach that the Lakers passed on went on to become the President of the New York Knicks basketball team, and it was possibly that move that prevented the Lakers from obtaining the much sought after Carmelo Anthony and to start their rebuilding process. Anthony wanted to play for Phil Jackson in New York, and also with that decision another mainstay of the Lakers who had helped them win NBA championships, Pau Gasol, decided to take his talents to Chicago to play for the Bulls.
This is truly an entertaining and enlightening book written by the author, that sheds light on the inner workings of the NBA and corporate America, as well as sibling rivalry that can destroy a family legacy. Buss does give homage to her father throughout this book, and seems to have deep remorse and regret for how she and her brother handled the empire that Jerry Buss had built after his passing during the course of this past turbulent season for the Lakers. The author is admired and respected by many for her class in navigating the waters of deceit and treachery, which can be summed up by this passage in her book: “Earvin called recently to say, ‘When I decided to sell my piece of the Lakers, your dad told me, I understand. I support you in your decision. I’m just disappointed that I’m not going to see you and Jeanie work together in running this team.’ I just want you to know, Jeanie, I love you. Whatever you might need, I’ll always be there.” The author further stated in summation regarding this call from Earvin “Magic” Johnson: “That was such a special call because my dad really felt like Earvin was his son. It was as if someone had reached out to me at a time when I was lost. But it’s still so hard. I feel like I can’t find my direction without my dad. My compass is broken. He was my inspiration and the source of my motivation for so much of my life. It’s difficult to figure out what anything means anymore. My dad’s vision for the Lakers was so powerful.”
Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer for the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. Mr. Moore is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.