As executive vice-president of business operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, Jeanie Buss is one of the highest-ranking and most powerful women in the world of professional sports.
The third child and oldest daughter of tycoon Jerry Buss, the majority owner of the Lakers, she got her start in sports when she was just 19 years old. She was still an undergrad at USC when her father gave her control of a World Team Tennis franchise. In a sign of things to come, the tennis team won two championships under her guidance. From there, she worked on a number of projects for her father, including managing franchises in professional roller hockey, indoor soccer and volleyball.
She was named president of the Forum (which at that time was also owned by her father) in 1995, and later moved into the Lakers organization. She played a significant role in the team's move into the Staples Center and the three world championships that the Lakers, powered by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, claimed from 2000-2003.
Buss, who is also a director of the Los Angeles Sports Council, tends to find the spotlight outside the boardroom, too. She's been romantically involved with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson for years. She's posed for Playboy and at one point, ABC was developing a television show about a female sports executive's whirlwind life the one she lives. Question: Your dad, Jerry Buss, has owned the Lakers since 1979. Is it tough to get credit for doing your job well when you are the boss's daughter?

Answer: I started working for my dad as a senior in high school, so I've been at it awhile and I don't really think about it. I'm still here; I haven't been fired. That's what it's all about, longevity.

Q: Do you and your father ever disagree on operations or team strategies?

A: This is a family business, but I work for my dad. We talk business, but you have to find the middle ground. I am lucky to work with both my family and my boyfriend, but there are complications. When it was family time, my dad insisted that there was no business talk. I would always try to fit stuff into the conversations, but I had to learn he really meant it.

Q: Is it difficult functioning as a woman in a field as male-dominated as the NBA?

A: It doesn't bother me at all. There was a time when I was the only female in a business meeting, but in the last 20 years I have been impressed with the number of women now working in the business, not just sports but the companies we work with, such as television and radio, corporate sponsors, foundations and hospitality.

Q: Your father is 72 now. Do you see him retiring or pulling back from the business?

A: No, I won't let him. He's the visionary; I execute the plan. I always say, "I'll know where to find you."

Q: Did he ever take issue with you dating the team's coach?

A: When he found out I was dating Phil (Jackson, the Lakers coach), he said the greatest thing: "You know, I always envisioned you with someone about 15 years older than you." He completely endorsed it and was happy for me.

It required full disclosure because there is so much at stake. You really can't keep something like that a secret because it would undermine your integrity. Can you imagine if you tried and people had found out? It could be so damaging.

Q: What about when your dad let him go? (Buss chose not renew Jackson's contract in 2004.)

A: That was probably the hardest time for me on a personal level and for Phil, because he thought he could do more for the team. But I had to respect the decision for the team and the bottom line. (Jackson was rehired to a long-term contract in 2005).

Q: Phil gets his share of heat, doesn't he?

A: It's hard for me to see and hear the criticism he gets. People say he just sits there on the bench, and ask, "Is he asleep?" The guy works so, so hard. Though I'm protective of him, I am also the willing to say "Why didn't you call a timeout?" I'm entitled to my opinion and I express it.

Q: Is that a two-way street?

A: He puts in his feedback, and trust me, it is not always positive. He thinks we marketing people are ruining the game with stuff like pyrotechnics and bands. But I also try to shed light on our community involvement and social responsibility. He's very smart, so he understands.

Q: Kobe Bryant is a unique player and individual, who has been in the organization for 11 years his entire pro career. What's your relationship with him like?

A: Kobe never ceases to amaze me, with his combination of natural talent, instinct and work ethic. He is mesmerizing to watch because he does whatever it takes to win. I often remind people that when Kobe scored 81 points he did that because the Lakers were down by 20 and he did what he had to so the team would win the game it wasn't about 81 points. Magic Johnson, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova are some others who possess the same drive. Working with Kobe has been rewarding because he understands what the Lakers brand is all about. Many of those in the basketball department think marketing people like me ruin the game, but Kobe is unique in his understanding of the business. He will be very successful after he retires from the game. Kobe has never given me any reason to doubt him he is a man of his word.

Q: How did you feel when your father chose to keep Kobe, rather than Shaq, after the title years?

A: The decision to trade Shaq had nothing to do with keeping Kobe. My father was trying to extend Shaq's contract and had made him several offers. Shaq had made it clear that if my father did not offer him the maximum amount under the collective bargaining agreement (which would have approached $37 million per season) he should trade him. They really had no choice in trading him because he would not have signed and would have become a free agent and walked away for nothing. Now seeing that Shaq signed for $20 million per season in Miami it makes me think he wanted to leave Los Angeles all along. I miss Shaq every day. He has such a large personality that there is still a void. Someday the Lakers will retire Shaq's jersey and celebrate the three NBA Championships we won with him.

Q: A few years ago, there was a TV series in development that was to be based on your life. What became of that?

A: I realize now that when something is "in development" in Hollywood, it doesn't mean anything. At the time the idea came up in 2003, I was sitting next to Gavin Polone, the producer of "The Gilmore Girls." He said he was looking for a one-hour drama series, but it had to be on a business that is interesting. We started talking and thought about doing something based on a female executive with an NBA team, with my dad, and Phil probably would have been involved in that, too. The only way we would have been able to do it is if the NBA cooperated, and it turned out that they liked the idea. ABC optioned it, and then it just sat in a drawer. This was before "Desperate Housewives," when nobody was doing scripted TV and everyone was doing reality. I still think it's a very viable idea.

Q: The Lakers aren't the only professional sports franchise your family has owned, right?

A: We owned a number of teams roller hockey, indoor soccer, indoor volleyball and World Team Tennis. A lot of it came down to the venue. When you own an arena, you want to book it 365 nights a year. After the 1984 Olympics, volleyball became very popular and that's how we got into owning a league. Eventually we sold off the individual teams, because beach volleyball was huge in the 1990s, so we couldn't get anybody to come indoors to watch anymore.

Q: What do you think your recent sale of the WBNA's Sparks team means for the franchise, and women's pro basketball in L.A.?

A: My brother, Johnny, decided to step down after 10 seasons as president of the Sparks. A group that was interested in buying the team approached us right about that time. We were impressed by Katherine Goodman and Carla Christofferson (the heads of the group) because, not only are they highly respected business leaders, but have also been Sparks season ticket holders. We couldn't have imagined a better scenario, and will continue to work with them and the WNBA to further grow the Sparks season ticket base and community support.

Q: What role did the Lakers' move from the Forum to the Staples Center in 1999 play in the downtown revitalization that is still under way?

A: I think back in 1996, when the commitment was made to move, downtown was a ghost town. There was no reason to ever go there. I was very skeptical. Now I look at downtown and it's just inspiring. A lot of people tried down there and couldn't succeed. Tim (Leiweke), Ed (Roski) and Phil (Anschutz) changed Los Angeles forever, and we were a part of that. To see how the landscape has changed is amazing, with people living there. It's cool, fun and vibrant. When L.A. Live opens, watch out New York.

Q: How did the transition to the Staples Center affect the team? Was it a burden from a business standpoint?

A: Moving the fans was a challenge. People wanted the same seats they had at the Forum, but those seats didn't exist anymore. The team's success obviously helped from the business end. The championship (the first of three straight in 2000) sealed it and really made the move successful. It ended a lot of complaining. When the team is losing, you know, suddenly the hot dogs taste bad.

Q: You posed for Playboy a few years back. What was that like for you, and what did your dad say about the photos?

A: I will never regret posing in Playboy. I posed because it was a personal goal of mine it had nothing to do with my business career. I was 33 years old and knew the implications. Posing is not for everyone but I hope that it will inspire others to pursue their personal goals whatever they may be. You truly have to please yourself in this lifetime, because others will criticize decisions you make, so you only have yourself to answer to. I didn't tell my father about my pictorial until after it was approved. I went through the process any other model would have gone through and waited three months for the answer.

Q: Is the public scrutiny of your relationship with Phil Jackson hard to take?

A: It's not like we're Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but at first it was awkward and there was a lot of scrutiny. You have to assume that when you work with a brand like the Lakers, that is so public, people find it all fascinating. I call Phil 'the Thumb,' because he sticks out and can't hide anywhere.

Q: Any wedding plans?

A: I talked about marriage a lot at one point, because I didn't know if Phil was going to be here in Los Angeles. I didn't know what his commitment to me was after his contract wasn't renewed. Was it just for the job? Was he going to disappear to Montana? Clearly, our relationship stuck, and it's very strong, even stronger because we had that distance between us. Now I don't want that marriage commitment, I don't want to be married right now. I want a championship ring.

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