6:24 AM ET
Ramona ShelburneESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
THE NINE MONTHS it took to schedule a dinner between Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and the franchise’s newest superstar, LeBron James, really wasn’t that long by Los Angeles standards. James lives in Beverly Hills; Buss lives in Playa Vista. Busy people, L.A. traffic, intense jobs — nine months is actually pretty good.
When their schedules finally aligned, on an off night in early March 2019, it wasn’t exactly an ideal time for either. James and the Lakers had just lost five in a row, the fifth being a particularly galling 120-107 loss to the Kyrie Irving-led Boston Celtics at Staples Center. The groin injury that had bothered James since Christmas Day wasn’t getting any better. And the team was about to head out on a five-game East Coast road trip.
But James wasn’t canceling this dinner. He’d been wanting to spend time with the woman who ran the Lakers since he’d chosen to sign with the franchise the previous summer, and he had something important to tell her.
“We understand that things happen. We’re not pointing the finger at anybody, and we’re going to stay down with you,” James’ agent Rich Paul, who attended the dinner along with James and Lakers executive Linda Rambis, recalled to ESPN. “We’re committed to you and we’ll come out of this on top. We’ll come out of this different than what the world sees. Let the people who talk, talk. We just gotta do the work.”
The message was clear: There might be drama engulfing the Lakers, but James wouldn’t be adding to it. They were in this together.
James told Buss he’d long been an admirer of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, and how he ran the NBA’s glamour franchise. He was displaying an understanding and appreciation for Lakers history that both surprised and touched Buss, according to a close associate of hers.
“It was very genuine,” Paul said.
And it was completely different than the relationships James forged with the two previous owners he’d played for. Powerful as he is, James had historically preferred to let Paul or others from his business team deal directly with ownership. He was cordial with Miami owner Micky Arison and chilly or professional with Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, but there was never a huge personal investment in his relationships with owners. That served two purposes, both of which added to James’ power: no one went directly to James, and personal affection would never affect his decision-making.
Paul doesn’t even believe James had ever formally dined with Arison or Gilbert. All of which made his dinner with Buss at Wally’s Beverly Hills especially significant.
Buss knew James’ history, but she’d also prided herself on developing strong relationships with all the players who played for her franchise, just as her father had. Meeting with a star player for dinner was natural for her leadership style.
It was an awkward time for Buss as well. Landing James as a free agent was supposed to turn the Lakers back into a contender. But he’d been hurt for large portions of the season, the roster was flawed as then-president of basketball operations Magic Johnson had prioritized playmaking over shooting, trade negotiations for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis had gone awry, and there was lingering tension among Johnson, then-coach Luke Walton and general manager Rob Pelinka.
But she wasn’t canceling on James either. If the Lakers were going to regain their standing in the NBA, not only making it back to the playoffs but also contending for titles year in and year out as they had for three decades under her father’s ownership, Jeanie Buss and James were going to have to figure it out.
Both of their legacies were at stake.
WHEN JAMES AND BUSS got to talking that night at Wally’s, it became clear the drama swirling around the Lakers and James needed to stop.
They needed stability, not more sensational stories. Easier said than done, of course. But as the Lakers enter the Western Conference finals this week for the first time since 2010, it’s hard to find a team with less drama or controversy emanating from within.
Their two superstars, James and Davis, are close friends whose egos show no signs of clashing. Their coach, Frank Vogel, hasn’t once had to look over his shoulder at assistant coach Jason Kidd. Risks taken on volatile personalities like Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and JR Smith have paid off, or at least, haven’t hurt them. Even the oft-maligned front office has run smoothly, as general manager Rob Pelinka is now largely accepted, and special assistant Kurt Rambis has become important connective tissue.
To understand how a franchise that made all the wrong kinds of headlines last season has turned into this, you have to go back to the connection and pledge James and Buss made to each other last March.
Bad things might happen — and so many did — but they were in this together.
On May 2, Buss and Rambis were back at Wally’s, this time with Johnson, who had hastily stepped down as president of basketball operations before the Lakers’ final home game and had insinuated there was “backstabbing” going on within the organization.
The three had been friends for more than 40 years, and so the question was put directly to Johnson: Who was backstabbing? If there was anything he needed to say, or that Buss should know, please say it now in this private dining room.
Johnson assured Buss all was well, and each posted photos of their night on social media. But a few weeks later, during a devastating appearance on ESPN’s First Take, Johnson aired his grievances with Pelinka and business operations president Tim Harris.
The interview aired the same day Vogel was scheduled to be introduced at a news conference. Buss watched from her office, high above the court at the team’s training center. In the corner of the gym stood James, wearing a neon orange, pink, blue and green hat turned backward. He did not take questions, but his presence spoke volumes. He was doing exactly what he’d promised Buss.
“That press conference was very important,” a confidante of Buss’ said. “Everyone took one look at how Frank Vogel handled it and [LeBron] being there, and it really showed a new tone was going to be set.
“Stay calm. Stay centered. Stay focused. Those were the watchwords throughout the organization.”
Friends and league associates implored Buss to look outside the organization for a new basketball mind to replace Johnson. Recruit an accomplished executive like Golden State’s Bob Myers, Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, Houston’s Daryl Morey or Portland’s Neil Olshey. The criticism of Pelinka was withering. But none of it was coming from James.
A few weeks later, after Pelinka successfully traded for Davis, James showed up in support much the same way he had for Vogel: standing off to the side but taking no questions.
When the team reconvened for training camp, he explained himself this way.
“I’m very motivated,” James said. “But I’m right now not in the talking-about-it mode. I’ve been very quiet this summer for a reason. My mother always told me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ So that’s where I’m at.”
A FEW YEARS ago, over lunch in downtown Los Angeles, Jeanie Buss was asked if it bothered her to hear her relationship with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson talked about so publicly on radio and TV, or her family dynamics dissected so deeply.
She shrugged and explained that her father always said the Lakers were the daily soap opera in L.A., so she’d gotten used to it. Living with drama was just part of the job and the life she’d inherited as steward of the Lakers.
James could relate. More than perhaps any other athlete of his generation, James’ life had been lived publicly since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 15-year-old prodigy and was dubbed basketball’s next king.
There have been many events this season that could have destabilized the alliance James and Buss had forged, or knocked the Lakers off course. A preseason trip to China that became focal to the debate over a tweet sent by Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong. Kobe Bryant’s death in January. Inconsistent play from Kyle Kuzma, constant injuries to starting guard Rajon Rondo. The NBA shutting down for four months when COVID-19 spread across the world. Calls to boycott the rest of the season in support of social justice movements.
Any of these massive international and internal events could have thrown the Lakers into disarray. Instead, the way the team has dealt with them seems to have made it stronger.
There’s a reason Buss and James tried so hard to make that dinner happen on that off night in March 2019: They needed each other.
“I know what my name, my stature and what I’ve done in this league comes with whenever I decide to join a franchise,” James said last week after the Lakers closed out the Houston Rockets in their second-round playoff series. “I know what my name comes with. And it comes with winning. I take that responsibility to the utmost [more] than anything. …
“I understand the Laker faithful and what they felt or maybe were going through over the, I want to say the last decade, of not being in the postseason, not competing for championships or whatever the case may be. I took that responsibility as well.”