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Jeanie Buss: Tanking is unforgivable

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Jeanie Buss On Lakers' Business, Kobe Contract (7:09)

Lakers president Jeanie Buss discusses Kobe Bryant's contract, her role as a member of the NBA's Board of Governors and fiancé Phil Jackson's role as president of the Knicks. (7:09)

ALL AROUND JEANIE BUSS' office are reminders of the 35-year run of the Buss family. The 10 championship trophies sit in the window overlooking the practice court. A painting of the 2000 championship team hangs on the far wall. Paula Abdul's "Laker Girl" outfit is framed behind her desk. A bronze likeness of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, stares back at her from across the room.

It is an enormous legacy to live up to. The Lakers didn't just win 10 championships in the three decades Jerry Buss owned the team -- they won the hearts of a city. "I can't tell you how many letters I get from grandmothers who say, 'It's the only thing I can talk to my 15-year-old grandson about," Jeanie says. "The Lakers are more than just a basketball team to this city. They're part of this community."

Before his death in February 2013, Buss groomed his six children to take over for him. Jeanie, who graduated with a degree in business from USC, was tapped as team president. Her older brother Jim, who apprenticed in the Lakers' front office for nearly two decades, was entrusted to run basketball operations. The other four siblings hold their own jobs within the organization, but the lion's share of responsibility has fallen on Jeanie, 53, and Jim, 55. And as we learned when we sat down with them in her office for an unprecedented joint interview, it ain't easy inheriting a family heirloom.

Ramona Shelburne: How often do you two talk?
Jeanie:
As necessary. I don't think it has to be every day.
Jim: Jeanie's got multiple departments to cover: TV, the sponsors, just to name two. I have one department to cover. We can talk five times a day for three straight days. And then maybe a week or two will go by before we need to talk. If there's something that's big in basketball operations, then I contact Jeanie. A trade, a situation off the court, those kinds of things.

How do you make decisions among the six kids?
Jeanie:
From my point of view, it's building consensus with all the siblings. Ultimately, I'm responsible for making the decision. But when it's a big decision or time to move in a certain direction, I like to inform everybody.

When Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2 billion, the natural question was: "If the Clippers are worth $2 billion, what are the Lakers worth?" Has the family given any thought to selling the team?
Jeanie:
It's not for sale. Even before my dad passed away, people tried to buy the Lakers. Sony tried in the 1980s. People have always wanted to buy the Lakers. They're not for sale.

Jim, you've taken a lot of criticism for some of the decisions the Lakers have made over the years. How have you learned to deal with that?
Jim:
We knew we were going to have to deal with the economics of the new collective bargaining agreement. By correcting our situation, it was going to be painful. Unfortunately, on top of correcting we had some severe injuries that knocked top players out for a year at a time. So I accept the responsibility for the criticism. I don't think it's correct, but I accept it. I understand the pain of Lakers fans. I feel the pain of losing too. But I have to focus on how we get out of this. And when I look at the flexibility and the position that we're in, we can't be in a better position to move forward.

The contract -- two years, $48.5 million -- you gave Kobe Bryant in 2013 has been referred to as a going-away present, similar to the contract your father gave Magic Johnson at the end of his career. Was there a message being sent with that contract?
Jim:
I think it does send a message. We've been sending that message for 30 years. We take care of our players. For me, I believed in Kobe's ability to play at a high level. He deserves it.
Jeanie: I think there are a handful of guys in the league who are worth as much as he is. He's worth every penny.

There's been a lot of talk that this season is going so badly that you should trade Kobe. Set him free, so to speak. Is there any chance that happens?
Jim:
No. I love Kobe Bryant. I think L.A. loves Kobe Bryant. I don't envision him going anywhere. I don't see it.
Jeanie: I don't want to see Kobe Bryant leave. But we understand the realities of the sports world. Take Shaq, for example. He was traded and played for several other teams. But once he retired, he asked us to retire his jersey. He wanted to be remembered as a Laker. So while I get attached, I know what the realities are in this business. It's never going to change what we've accomplished together. But I don't look forward to the day that Kobe Bryant's not in purple and gold.

Your 2015 first-round pick is owed to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade unless it's in the top five. There is already talk that you should tank to try to keep that pick. How do you respond to that?
Jim:
It will never happen here, period. The question is insulting. Our fans understand there's a process. They believe in the process -- the coach, Kobe, the draft pick [Julius Randle] and the flexibility we have going forward.
Jeanie: The teams that use tanking as a strategy are doing damage. If you're in tanking mode, that means you've got young players who you're teaching bad habits to. I think that's unforgivable. If you're tanking and you have young players or you keep a short roster, you're playing guys out of their position or too many minutes, you're risking injury. It's irresponsible and I don't think it belongs in any league.

Jim, in 2012 you made some decisions that were praised initially -- trading for Steve Nash and acquiring Dwight Howard -- but they didn't work out and you were criticized. Is that what you mean as far as owning up to your decisions?
Jim:
Do I deserve all the glory if it works? No. Do I deserve all the blame if it doesn't work? No. But I'm accountable for it.
Jeanie: With the Steve Nash situation, I think we did everything in good faith. We sacrificed to get him by giving up draft picks. We made sure he was one of the top-15-paid players at his position, and we hired a coach that specifically suited his style of play. So from our point of view, we did everything right. You go in with good intentions, and it didn't work out.

Jeanie, you have been on record as saying that the Lakers let Dwight Howard down. What did you mean by that?
Jeanie:
It came down to hiring a coach. [The Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni in November 2012.] When you have a big man and a guard, you have to decide whom you're going to build your team around. The choice was to build it around Steve Nash and what suited Steve Nash instead of what suited Dwight Howard.

It sounds as if Jeanie has a difference of opinion on who should have been hired as coach.
Jim:
I've been on record as saying [hiring D'Antoni] was my dad's decision. I know that makes Jeanie uncomfortable, but I'd sit down with him for hours going over Laker decisions. In my opinion, he was sharp.
Jeanie: [Interrupts] Dad was in the hospital. I would always run things by Dad too. But he was in the hospital, not feeling well, and that is why he counted on us to make the decisions. So I agree that he would have input, but he needed my suggestion or Jimmy's suggestion or [GM Mitch Kupchak's] suggestion because he was confined and did not have access to all the information that we did.

Jeanie wrote that it felt like she was being stabbed in the back by the way the situation with Phil Jackson was handled. Jim, how did that make you feel?
Jeanie:
[Pressing her hands on the table] Can we not talk about feelings? I'm biased because I think Phil is wonderful. That's why I'm marrying him. You probably think your husband is great too. It's OK for me to be biased. It's OK for me to be disappointed. If it was a source of conflict between me and my brother, it's gone now.
Jim: It hurts me every day how this all went. I've apologized to Jeanie.

Jeanie, ultimately you're in a position to hold Jim and Mitch accountable for what happens on the court, right?
Jeanie:
Yes. Just like it is with everyone who is employed by the Lakers.

So isn't what's happening on the court on you as well?
Jeanie:
My reputation is at stake as well, yes.
Jim: Jeanie is responsible for every part of the organization. Basketball is just one of those areas. If sponsorship is off, it's Jeanie's responsibility. It might not be her making those decisions on sponsorship, but she oversees it and says, "OK, we need to correct it. And let's look and see why this is happening." That's how she treats basketball operations. For my part, if there's something that's not going the right way, an explanation is necessary.

Where are the Lakers in five years?
Jim:
On top.
Jeanie: [Gestures toward Jim] I'm looking to him to make it happen, so I'd like to hear about that.

Jim, how do you make that happen?
Jim:
Flexibility. The cap room we have. Unfortunately, last year we were in a position to get a high draft pick. I didn't really want to be in that position, but we got Julius Randle. And we have the flexibility to sign max free agents in the next few years.

What vision are you selling? What's the pitch?
Jim:
The pitch is we can go for two max players. And we have room to solidify the team with others. We can't sell who we're going to get because we don't know yet, and it's illegal to do that. We pursued LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony last summer. They were unique. LeBron makes a lot of money off the court. He's his own brand. Carmelo and his family love New York. And the way the collective bargaining agreement is, it encourages players to stay with their teams. I thought we did an incredible job pitching him. Jeanie did an incredible job, Mitch Kupchak, [Lakers VP of business operations and chief marketing officer] Tim Harris. But every free agent is unique and different. I don't think they're all going to be in the same position or make the same decisions as those two players did. So I'm excited about free agency coming up in the next two or three years.

Jeanie, do you believe in Jim's vision?
Jeanie:
My dad saw Jimmy's ability to see the game that way. I know what I don't know. I don't see basketball in that way, so I leave that to the experts. I think Laker fans know you can't win every year. But I think they like to see investment in the future of the young players. I know the next Magic Johnson is out there, the next Kobe Bryant is out there. We just don't know who he is yet. But when he comes here, we're ready for him. We have the best fans in the NBA, we have the best arena, we have the best city. The Lakers are more than just a basketball team to this city. We haven't shared this market with an NFL team for 18 years. The Lakers have been part of the process of revitalizing downtown LA. That's what my dad's passion was. He loved to win, but he loved this city. He wanted this city to be proud of its team. That's why one of the things he wanted was a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He wasn't born in this city, but this city embraced him.

What kind of hit do you take if you miss the playoffs again this year?
Jeanie:
That's not how we anticipate this season to go. We've never, in over 30 years of ownership, missed making the playoffs two consecutive years, so I can't really tell you what the hit will be. Our fans understand that it's a process. We renewed over 90 percent on season tickets. Our ratings went down last year when Kobe went out. Clearly. When he came back for those six games, they went right back up.

In moving forward, how important is it for fans to feel like you two are on the same page?
Jim:
I think it's really important. And I think that Jeanie and I, besides the one sore spot that we have, are on the same page.
Jeanie: I'm devoted to giving them [Kupchak and Jim] all the resources they need to accomplish their goals. Whatever they need us to do, I think we live up to that. I think Jim would tell me if he needed something.
Jim: Right, I have. And she delivers.

Were the restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement put in to help the small-market franchises compete against the Lakers, Knicks and Bulls of the world?
Jeanie:
They can create all the rules they want, but you can't take away our experience, our knowledge, our fan base. You can't revenue-share away Laker Nation.
Jim: Jeanie has been here for all of these championships [pointing to the 10 championship trophies]. I've been here through all of these. So we understand what it takes to get to the top. That's why my dad believed in me to carry on his legacy in basketball operations.

Jim, you said something last year that stuck with me. You said, "My dad believed that I could do it, so I believed I could do it." Is that what you go back to in moments of self-doubt?
Jim:
I think we all experience self-doubt. All it takes is remembering his face and what he said to me and it erases it.

What did he say?
Jim:
Just that. "I believe you can do it."

Jim, you were quoted in the L.A. Times last year as saying that if you can't turn the Lakers around in three years, you'd step down. Why did you say that?
Jim:
That's been the plan all the way through. If I don't get to that point, then I've derailed it somewhere. I'll stick to that, and I have no problem sticking to that because everything is on track for us to be back on top.

Jeanie, what did you think when you read that?
Jeanie:
There's no reason to worry because he feels confident that he'll be successful. So really, there's no reason to announce a timeline. But I think that, just like any business, if you're not meeting your expectations in an organization, you should expect a change.

You're often referred to as the Buss kids, or seen as the kids who inherited the Lakers. How does that sit with you?
Jim:
We shouldn't be referred to as kids anymore. I think Jeanie has made it clear, in the 30 years she's been in this business, that she's Jeanie Buss. We're not kids running around. We're tackling large responsibilities.
Jeanie: He's right. The Buss family is more appropriate. But I'll always be the child of Jerry Buss.

What's something your dad said that sticks with you?
Jeanie:
He inspires me every day. Somebody posted to YouTube an interview he did as the new owner of the Lakers. He knew what Magic would mean not only to the Lakers but to the entire league. He said, "I drafted this kid who will fill every arena in the NBA." That was before Magic had ever played his first game. He had a vision. That's what was great about my dad. He had a vision and got everyone moving in the same direction.

Are you still mourning your father?
Jeanie:
I don't think you ever get over it.
Jim: Yeah, there was shock. We weren't expecting him to go to the hospital and pass away. It was to get better and come home. So to me there was some denial afterward that he was really gone. You definitely lose a piece of yourself.
Jeanie: I'll always miss that part of my life. Any person who has lost a parent knows it's never the same.