The most powerful woman in sports
Jerry Buss often worried about his older daughter’s happiness, like many fathers do, so when he considered promoting her to run the Great Western Forum, he thought of the toll such a demanding job would take. “I don’t know if that’s a good life for her,” he told a confidant.
What he didn’t realize then, but learned over the next 15 years, was that nothing mattered more to Jeanie Buss than the family business — than her father’s legacy. She was happiest when she was working to safeguard both. Over and over, she chose those over personal milestones.
Now, 20 years after the fatherly fretting, she is the most powerful woman in sports. She is also one of the most powerful people in sports.
She is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, as her late father wished. Four months ago, she fired her brother and also the team’s 17-year general manager on the same day, and installed trusted friend Earvin “Magic” Johnson as president of basketball operations. Then she prevailed in an ugly court battle with her two older brothers that confirmed she will run the Lakers for the rest of her life.
Now, she faces her greatest test: reviving the NBA’s glamour franchise, which has stumbled badly since her father’s death in 2013. The Lakers have missed the playoffs for four years, including two of the worst seasons in franchise history.
She may not have the answers — yet — but she is unmistakably in charge.
In the difficult moments of the last few months, she’s seemed unflappably protective of the team Jerry left in her care.
That doesn’t mean the realities of life don’t smart once in a while. Sometimes she remembers what she’s lost, and even though she would do it all over again, it hurts.
It did one afternoon in April as she sat inside a posh Greek restaurant, her crisp white blazer gleaming opposite a bright Manhattan Beach courtyard. Silently, she looked down at her napkin as she fought back tears, having just been asked who helped her emotionally through a trying few months.
The answer was easy, but she wasn’t ready to give it yet.
It would have been Phil Jackson.
Their 17-year relationship ended last fall, the strain of living on opposite coasts having pulled them apart. As she spoke her voice trembled, and she started to realize she never talks about this for a reason. She’d later wish she hadn’t said anything at all.
She scolded herself.
“There’s no crying in basketball!” she said, laughing in spite of herself. “It’s been hard for him there. Now, it’s like, he would have been the pillar that I could count on.”
Then, just as quickly as she broke, she healed. She pushed aside the remnants of a watermelon and feta cheese salad as bright as her red patterned shirt. Less than five minutes after her eyes filled with tears that never fell, she buried her personal pain. She smiled like she does while playing hostess from her courtside-adjacent seats at Staples Center.
She was back.
In many ways, this is about a modern American woman. One passionate about her career, one who also wants personal happiness and who’s had to confront the tensions that arise where those two intersect.
She won a beauty contest as a teenager and earned a business degree from USC at 24.
She posed for Playboy magazine, just because she wanted to, in 1995. That same year, she became president of the Forum, the Inglewood arena where the Lakers then played, and became the team’s alternate governor, representing the Lakers at NBA meetings when her father couldn’t.