J. Buss: Dad could have kept Howard

Updated: August 8, 2013, 9:02 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

It's hard to say now if the Los Angeles Lakers could have done anything differently to retain free-agent center Dwight Howard that would have changed his mind about going to Houston.

The "Stay D12" billboards around town didn't work. Neither did anything anyone said in the Lakers' pitch meeting to Howard in early July. Howard's mind seemed mostly made up by then.

But Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss thinks one person had a chance -- her father, the late Dr. Jerry Buss.

They would've probably had a better relationship if my dad hadn't been sick. When it came time to try to convince Dwight to stay, we lost the best closer in the business in Dr. Buss. Putting up the billboard maybe wasn't the right thing. But we maybe have to learn to do things differently because Dr. Buss isn't here anymore. People said [of the billboards], 'Oh, that's not the Laker way.' Well, the Laker way isn't the same, because Dr. Buss isn't here.

-- Jeanie Buss

"They would've probably had a better relationship if my dad hadn't been sick," Jeanie Buss said in a wide-ranging interview with hosts Mark Willard and Mychal Thompson on ESPNLA 710 Thursday. "When it came time to try to convince Dwight to stay, we lost the best closer in the business in Dr. Buss.

"Putting up the billboard maybe wasn't the right thing. But we maybe have to learn to do things differently because Dr. Buss isn't here anymore. People said [of the billboards], 'Oh, that's not the Laker way.' Well, the Laker way isn't the same, because Dr. Buss isn't here."

Buss said that she developed her own relationship with Howard during his lone season with the team and was very disappointed he chose to leave the organization.

She told a story of meeting him last August, soon after he was traded from Orlando, where he was genuinely surprised the 16 championship trophies that are in her office were in fact real. Buss laughed and said, "Of course they're real."

Howard explained that during the 2009 NBA Finals, then-Magic coach Stan Van Gundy caught him staring up at the trophies during a practice and told him, "'Those aren't real. Those are just props. Don't pay attention to those, they're not real.'" And so that's why he thought Buss' weren't real.

Buss, who'd developed and maintained a close relationship with Howard during the season he was here, said she's still disappointed he chose to leave.

"I've had a few people say, 'You guys are better off without him.' But do you know who those people are? People from other NBA teams, because they don't want us to have that kind of talent," Buss said. "I myself believed that you always want to hold on to talent. I was disappointed that Dwight chose to leave. Certainly he was well within his rights, with free agency. I just don't agree with his decision."

Buss said she felt all season that Howard didn't get enough credit for coming back so quickly from offseason back surgery.

"I was really shocked that right from the start of training camp, he was going full speed or 100 percent," she said. "I really admired that, because he did that in good faith ... he didn't have a contract."

And she wanted people to know that she felt Howard "came here with every intention of having the Laker experience, which is to win a championship."

Asked why she didn't attend the Lakers' final pitch meeting to Howard, Buss said, "Dwight knew how I felt. I made it clear to Dwight that I wanted to help him become the player he was meant to be, a championship player."

Instead, her brother Jim Buss, the Lakers executive vice president of player personnel, represented ownership at the meeting.

"I think it was redundant," Jeanie Buss said, explaining her decision not to attend. "My brother was there to represent ownership, so I don't really think there was any reason for me to be there."

As for her relationship with her brother, Buss said: "I have a great relationship with all my brothers. I've got three other ones. There's four boys and two girls. It's a family business.

"The way my dad set things up was for me to oversee the business side and for my brother to oversee the basketball side. I know my dad felt that was a good system, and that's the system we're trying to make work."

Buss said the difficult part of the system is that, "I'm held accountable for the things that happen with the organization with the NBA. I'm the governor of the team. If something goes on with the team, I'm the one who gets the call from the NBA. So I think the communication I have with my brother is important, because I need to understand what is going on with those [basketball] decisions."

Asked whether there's a chance she ends up running the team by herself someday, Buss said, "I enjoy hearing from the fans, but they have to understand I have a job already. I can't take on anymore. This was something my dad set up, and I think it's important we move forward with what he put into place. And like I said, I have a great relationship with all my brothers."

Buss' younger brothers, Joey and Jesse Buss, also hold jobs within the Lakers organization.

Buss is also engaged to former coach Phil Jackson, who was a candidate for the Lakers job after they fired Mike Brown five games into last season. Because of the way the Lakers' season went last year, his shadow loomed large over the team and the coach they chose instead, Mike D'Antoni.

Buss said that she doesn't hold the situation against D'Antoni.

"A lot of people think that I must have hard feelings because Mike D'Antoni's the coach and not Phil," Buss said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. Mike D'Antoni isn't the reason that Phil's not the coach. I don't have any issue with him."

Buss said that Jackson is involved in the Lakers organization insomuch as he is her most trusted adviser.

"Who am I going to turn to that I know doesn't have an agenda?" Buss said of Jackson. "He wants the Lakers to do well, he wants Kobe [Bryant] to be successful, he wants Pau Gasol to be successful. Phil's got a lot invested into this team because he knows it's what's going to make me happy."

As for Jackson's future, Buss said that he still has "that need where he's got to coach something."

"I don't know how things are going to turn out," Buss said. "I just don't think he's done contributing yet. I think he's got a lot to give."

She also referenced Jackson when speaking about Bryant, who is attempting to come back from a season-ending Achilles injury.

Buss stressed that she didn't want Bryant to rush back, because she's seen the toll an NBA career and serious injuries have had on Jackson, who has had knee and hip replacement surgeries, in recent years.

"I want Kobe to take the time that he needs to get healthy," Buss said. "I don't want to see him come back any sooner than when he's ready, and I know he'll know when that is. There's no reason for him to do anything that compromises his health."

Buss has largely remained out of the public eye since her father passed away in February. She explained Thursday that, "I had a tough year, losing my dad. And I really needed to have some quiet time, and not be engaged the way I normally would be with the Lakers. But I'm happy to be back now."

She said she's still going through emails and letters that people sent to her and her family after his passing.

"It was overwhelming for me and my family to see the extent of the love for him. I think he'd be humbled by it," Buss said. "It's nice to be able to go back and reflect and see how much my dad meant to people."

Buss said a ceremony was being planned to honor her father at the Jan. 28 home game against Indiana. Dr. Buss' birthday was Jan. 27.

She'd also like the team to resume holding training camps in Hawaii, as it did for many years under her father's ownership.

As for the future of the franchise, both in the short and long term, Buss admitted the adjustment period is still difficult, but said, "I'm very optimistic about the team. It's really more confidence. I have confidence in our front office and what we can put together."

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