Exclusive: Jeanie Buss interview with Sportskeeda featuring stories on LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and more - Mark Medina

Exclusive: Jeanie Buss interview with Sportskeeda (full) - Mark Medina
Exclusive: Jeanie Buss interview with Sportskeeda (full) - Mark Medina

Despite her optimism about the franchise’s direction, Los Angeles Lakers governor Jeanie Buss expressed both hope and uncertainty about the team’s NBA title fortunes and that LeBron James will eventually retire as a Laker.

Buss could guarantee at least one thing, though. Regardless of how the rest of James’ NBA career unfolds, the Lakers will eventually retire his jersey.

“The standard for having your jersey retired as a Laker is when a player is inducted into the Hall-of-Fame. I have absolutely no doubt that LeBron will make it into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame,” Buss told Sportskeeda. “When he does so, then we will retire his jersey. Knowing that he will make it into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame, he will have his Lakers jersey retired, no doubt about it.”

James will switch from No. 6 to No. 23 for the 2022-23 season out of respect for the late Boston Celtics center Bill Russell. James wore No. 23 during his first four seasons with the Lakers (2017-2021), which coincided with helping the Lakers win an NBA title in 2020. James then wore No. 6 for the past two seasons (2021-23), which coincided last season with eclipsing former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Would the Lakers consider retiring both numbers?

“That’s a discussion for another time,” Buss said.

Buss addressed various topics in a wide-ranging interview with Sportskeeda, including James’ possible retirement, her support for coach Darvin Ham and vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka, Pau Gasol’s upcoming induction in Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame and more.

Editor’s note: The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Full Jeanie Buss interview on LeBron James, Lakers front office, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O'Neal statement and more

What was your reaction to LeBron saying after the season ended that he might retire?

My dad [Jerry Buss] told me many times that no decision should be made after a loss in the playoffs. You give yourself time and space to reflect on things and not make any decisions in those kinds of moments. It was exactly how we treated LeBron – it was to give him his space and time that he needed to reflect and make his decision as to what is right for him.

LeBron recently attended Lionel Messi's first game with Inter Miami
LeBron recently attended Lionel Messi's first game with Inter Miami

Until LeBron said officially at the ESPYS that he’s returning, what was your level of optimism or concern about his decision?

Again, it was about giving him his space and letting him make his decision. But with the way he played last season, there was to me no reason for him to retire. But I can’t make up his mind. He has a contract. If he does play in the NBA, he’s a Laker. That part, I knew. But you can’t force somebody to play if they don’t want to play. It was really his decision to make.

LeBron made it clear last season that he would defer to the front office on roster moves and support anything they did or didn’t make. How did you see that dynamic play out?

He was true to his word in terms of supporting the organization and the decisions that the organization is making. It was exactly what he meant. He would be in support of the decisions that the organization was making like hiring a new head coach. I can’t speak for LeBron. But he was true to that statement, and we appreciate his support.


What will you remember most about the night LeBron eclipsed Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

It was really a special moment. It felt like a celebration and the idea that Kareem was there to literally pass the torch is what made it really special. It had a playoff-type atmosphere. It had a family feel with the Lakers family. It was great for LeBron to be able to break that record in Los Angeles. I’m grateful the record will be held by somebody wearing a Lakers jersey at the time.

But it’s really LeBron’s record and a tribute to him for his career. It isn’t a Lakers record. It’s a LeBron record. He’s had just an amazing career. Being the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is a pretty unique title to own. Congratulations to him.

I was just grateful to be a part of it and host an event that people would remember for a long time. I don’t even know how to describe it. I’m grateful the Lakers organization can be a part of such an important milestone in history and we got to witness history being made in person.

What would it mean if LeBron retires as a Laker?

It would mean a lot. But it won’t change his contributions to Lakers history. It’s great if he retires as a Laker. That’s the ultimate thing because a player like Shaquille O’Neal has meant so much to Lakers history, but he wasn’t a Laker when he retired from the NBA. But that didn’t change what his part of Lakers history was. When he retired from the NBA, we retired his Lakers jersey.

Given that, is it definitive the Lakers will retire LeBron’s jersey?

The standard for having your jersey retired as a Laker is when a player is inducted into the Hall-of-Fame. I have absolutely no doubt that LeBron will make it into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. When he does so, then we will retire his jersey. Knowing that he will make it into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame, he will have his Lakers jersey retired. No doubt about it.

Will that be both of his jersey numbers or just one of them?

That’s a discussion for another time.

What’s your message to the James family following Bronny’s cardiac arrest this week?

I don’t want to make any public comments about that. I defer to the request the James family made and am giving them their time to be together as a player. That’s done privately.

(Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said in a statement on Thursday, “Thanks to the swift and effective response by the USC athletics’ medical staff, Bronny James was successfully treated for a sudden cardiac arrest. He arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center fully conscious, neurologically intact and stable. Mr. James was cared for promptly by highly-trained staff and has been discharged home, where he is resting. Although his workup will be ongoing, we are hopeful for his continued progress and are encouraged by his response, resilience, and his family and community support”).

Bronny James with LeBron at the 2023 McDonald's All American Game
Bronny James with LeBron at the 2023 McDonald's All American Game

In light of that, I read you donated money to a foundation on behalf of [NFL player] Damar Hamlin after he suffered cardiac arrest ($2,503 to The Chasing M’s Foundation). Why was that important to you?

I didn’t know him. But obviously with what he went through, I read about him and was really touched by his community work. I wanted to let him know that I support him. I hope someday that our paths could cross and that I could meet him and tell him that.

I made a personal donation because it felt like it was a personal connection. I couldn’t be happier for him in that he recovered and that the medical staff was acknowledged at the ESPYS for their quick work. It still gets me choked up. What I appreciated most is at that moment in time, sports fans on social media all felt the same way.

There’s not many times we can all agree on something. It felt good to be united in something. We were all putting our energy toward hoping for a full recovery for him. I just really appreciated that moment, and I hope there are more moments where we can come together and be on the same page and all be working toward positive goals.

How do you evaluate the Lakers’ past season with advancing to the Western Conference Finals, but losing to the Denver Nuggets?

It was a wonderful run at the end of the season after the trade deadline. You can dial it back to the [Rui] Hachimura trade with bringing in a player that fit in nicely with the team that we had. Then Rob furthered at the trade deadline by making moves that really fit the way that Coach Ham wanted to play. I really like how Rob talked about pre agency and that we got a chance to look at someone like Rui and how he fit in on our team so that we had the first option at bringing him back. Instead of waiting for free agency to make moves, he did it by making trades during the season. I thought the way he handled it was really strategic. He and Darvin were on the same page as to what they wanted to accomplish in terms of roster building.

What were the keys for the organization to maintain continuity, and adding depth within the confines of the salary cap?

It was a strategic and well-planned execution with the team that they wanted to build. It wasn’t about, ‘Hey, let’s look at who is available’ and ‘Do we have enough money to spend on this player in free agency?’ They knew what they wanted well in advance. It was clear that the team that we got to the Conference Finals with, they wanted to try to keep together.

They did a good job at that. With the players that we needed to replace, I think they pivoted with good pickups. A player like Gabe Vincent is really significant with picking up a player that fits the style of play that our coach wants to play.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four
Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four

What’s your outlook on the Lakers’ championship chances given LeBron and Anthony Davis, the off-season moves and the rest of the league landscape?

I’m not going to predict that. That always limits a team. When people say, ‘The Lakers only play for championships,’ well, you have to be in the playoffs first to get to the championship. You have to put one foot in front of the other. Making it into the playoffs last season, to me, was getting over that hurdle.

That playoff experience that we could give to our younger players that had never experienced playoffs was like money in the bank, in particular, for Austin Reaves. You can’t ask a young player to go from never being in the playoffs to now playing in the NBA Finals. That’s a huge jump. You need that experience.

Austin Reaves emerged as a superb third option for the Lakers this season
Austin Reaves emerged as a superb third option for the Lakers this season

It would’ve been nice to get to the NBA Finals. We had an opportunity because we were one of the top four teams. But certainly we came across a Denver team that was very well prepared. Congratulations to the Denver organization for winning the championship.

We learned a lot during that series, and we’re going to use that as we go forward. With the changes to the roster that Rob made, that will give Darvin the necessary tools that he needs to take us to that next level. The end of last season wasn’t just a one off. It’s the momentum that we’re going to continue to build. Stay tuned. There will be more.

What do you think you all learned?

That’s a basketball question. That’s better answered for Rob and Coach Ham. But generally it’s about answering, ‘What were we missing that we weren’t able to beat Denver? What do we need to shore up? What are the pieces that we need? How do we address those needs?’”


What did you think of the Nuggets’ trash talk after winning the title and at the championship parade?

(laughs). It’s just that. I know the emotions they were feeling. [Former Lakers coach] Pat Riley was notorious for putting something out there to motivate his team. If that’s what the coach [Michael Malone] was trying to do, I completely understand it. We’ve experienced those emotions many times in this organization.

There was no offense. No harm, no foul as Chick [Hearn] would say. Good luck to them. On our path this past year, we knocked off the defending champs [Golden State Warriors]. Denver is now going to have an experience it never had before because they’re wearing the crown. That means everybody is going to be coming after that. That’s part of the NBA landscape. That’s what you have to go through in order to defend your title.

So I gather you laughed when Michael Malone was referred to as “The Lakers Daddy?”

(laughs). Yes. I thought it was a very timely pop culture reference to call somebody that. I can take it with the intention that he’s trying to keep his team geared on one of their rivals, which is the Lakers. They know we’re going to be ready for them. He’s got to keep his team motivated with identifying who’s their threat going into the upcoming season.

Last year, there was criticism about missing the playoffs and with the Russell Westbrook trade. Even then, you expressed support for Rob and cited his role with the Lakers’ 2020 NBA title. Rob was also granted an extension before the season started. Then and now, what qualities did you see that gave you confidence he could move things in the right direction?

I always felt then and now that Rob was the right person to be in charge of our front office. I continued to do so. Every decision that is made isn’t always the perfect one. But it’s the decision you make after that that counts. We had a roster that didn’t work and wasn’t working. But you can’t change things overnight in the NBA. But you can set yourself up by making the next right decision.

That’s exactly what Rob did. He’s very strategic. He’s very big picture. He endured a lot of challenges as did I in terms of media scrutiny. But we knew what we wanted to accomplish in the long term. You had to be patient, and you had to do the work. Every decision, you have the opportunity to make the next right decision. That’s what Rob has proven.

The Rob Pelinka-Darvin Ham tandem has gotten off to a good start
The Rob Pelinka-Darvin Ham tandem has gotten off to a good start

I presume you would defer to Rob on Anthony Davis becoming eligible for an extension in August. But philosophically, how does the organization feel about Davis?

Rob said it best. Our intention is that we want to keep continuity with our team. I’ll leave it at that.

The front office has had a strong track record with both drafting players and identifying young talent. Why do you think the organization has been successful with that?

I have to give a lot of credit to my brother, Joey Buss, who oversees our development with our G League team and my brother, Jesse Buss, who is in charge of all of our scouting. He has done a terrific job not only with our draft picks, but also identifying players that aren’t drafted and bringing them to our G-League team, our summer league team and giving players opportunities to be seen.

Even if they get called up by another team, we’re happy for those players that we’ve identified. Giving talent opportunities to make our league is important to us. We will continue to do that. They have identified players that fit the system and the style of play that Darvin Ham wants to play.

Alex Caruso is a huge success story from the Lakers' G-League system
Alex Caruso is a huge success story from the Lakers' G-League system

That’s the influence that Phil Jackson had on me in terms of how you run a basketball team. The first decision that needs to be made is what kind of style of play do you want to play?

Between Rob, Joey, Jesse, Coach Ham, we’re all on the same page as to what type of Laker basketball we want to play. When you’re all in agreement and in unison, that’s when great things happen. That’s when players get an opportunity to shine. That led to the kind of success that we saw and will continue to build on from the end of last season.

Darvin credited you for giving him a lot of confidence and feeling supported both through the ups and downs last season, beginning with the 2-10 start. What were your messages to him?

I gained very valuable insight with being a companion of a head coach in the NBA for many years (Jackson). I know for a coach, it is kind of a lonely existence. You are the face of the franchise day in and day out. I know what it means when the coach receives support from ownership and from the front office.

I let Darvin know that from day one that I am behind him 100% and I will continue to be behind him 100%. I reminded him of that during the season when he faced a lot of challenges.

What I appreciated about Darvin so much was that, in discussions before the season, I said, ‘Things may get worse before they get better. We’ll do everything we can to get the roster the way we want it to be.’ Darvin said, ‘That’s for me to figure out. I’m the coach of this team, so that’s for me to figure out how to bring out the best in each of these players. That’s what a coach does.’ That was music to my ears.

How did you see Darvin try to do that?

He comes from a place of authenticity that he’s done the work. There is really no BS about the guy. He knows what it takes to win in the NBA. He’s done it as a player and as an assistant coach and now as a head coach. This was all part of his skillset that he brought to the Lakers when we hired him as head coach. I think he shined in a job that had a lot of challenges.

He never faltered. What I appreciated so much about him was his calm demeanor, even when we were near the bottom of the standings when we started the season. We were awful with being 2-10. That’s a tough place to be, especially in Los Angeles, which has very high expectations for all of their teams and all of their sports. He never got too up. He never got too down. He always brought the same calm, energy day in and day out. That really set the tone with doing the work.

With Pau Gasol about to be inducted into the Hall-of-Fame, how would you contextualize what he meant to the Lakers?

I really enjoyed reflecting back on him joining the Lakers. It was a trade that was a well-kept secret in the organization. My father had talks at the time with Michael Heisley (the Grizzlies owner). My dad had a really good relationship with him. There were conversations that were had and executed on.

At first it seemed like a trade that might’ve seemed one-sided. Obviously as time went on, Marc Gasol became a very important player for the Memphis Grizzlies. It really was a fair trade. We got a great talent. But we gave up talent. Obviously with the comments by somebody like [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban or [San Antonio Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich, I believe if they had been tipped off that the trade was going to happen, they would offer or convince Memphis not to make the trade. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Pau came into the team that was running the triangle offense. He picked up the offense in three days. He didn’t miss a beat. He was the perfect player. As Phil explained to me, as an organization you decide what style of play you want to play and what team you want to be. Then you hire a coach that runs that style. Then you draft a team or sign players that fit that style.

Here was the ultimate player that fit so perfectly in what we were doing. He fit with Kobe and what Kobe wanted to accomplish. Then the team just took off on a run all the way to the NBA Finals only to lose to our No. 1 rival, the Boston Celtics. That was a heartbreaker. But to come back to win the next two was really special.

Pau Gasol at the 2023 Naismith Hall Of Fame Press Conference
Pau Gasol at the 2023 Naismith Hall Of Fame Press Conference

How did you see Pau handle the difficult parts of his time with the Lakers with the Chris Paul trade being nixed [in 2011], changed rules and being part of trade discussions?

That was a very frustrating time, certainly for our entire organization. At that time, my dad was nearing the end of his life with his illness. It was a difficult time. I don’t know how things could’ve gone differently. When you look back at it, I wondered what would’ve happened if Phil would’ve come back for another run [in 2012-13]. Obviously he didn’t.

Pau wasn’t a player that fit into the kind of style of play that Mike D’Antoni wanted to play. That’s where you’re not on the same page and your roster can’t adjust quickly enough to what Mike wanted to do. That was an observation I had with how Phil saw the game and saw how an organization needs to be built.

Mike Brown, who was a great coach, left. Then Mike D’Antoni came in. That’s two very different styles of play. A roster in the NBA can’t change quickly enough to give a coach a real chance to make his mark in 18 months. When you’re changing coaches that quickly, it’s really difficult to be successful. When Pau left as a free agent (in 2014), that was his choice to do. He felt he had a better opportunity to go someplace else. It was hard to see Pau go. That was the next step in his journey.

Where do you put Pau’s time with the Lakers in context of his whole Hall-of-Fame resume?

His celebration was Lakers centric when we retired his jersey here. But going into the Hall-of-Fame, people need to realize his entire journey as a person and as a player that he is one of the great European players to come into our league and be successful.

It’s that global influence that he’s had and will continue to have going forward. He’s such a world leader, not just a Los Angeles Laker leader. I think the moments for him going into the basketball Hall-of-Fame will be very important.


How did you internalize all the complex emotions with Pau’s jersey retirement ceremony: Seeing and celebrating Pau for what he meant to the Lakers as well as wanting Kobe to be there because of what he has meant to you, the Lakers franchise and to Pau?

It was emotional. It was very emotional for Pau. The fact that Vanessa Bryant was there to participate meant a lot to me personally as well as to Laker fans and, of course, to Pau. I felt like Kobe was in the building. It was Pau’s moment to celebrate his career. But we all felt a little bit closer to Kobe. That was a nice feeling.

Is there any update on when Kobe’s statue will be constructed and unveiled, or too premature?

It’s too premature. It’s not for public consumption yet. Rest assured, there will be an announcement when the time is right.


Will the Lakers’ Hulu docuseries be extended for another season?

No. People have asked me that because we ended with the 2020 championship. Certainly every day that goes by, there is another Lakers story. There are no plans for another season. But we did win an Emmy for ‘Best Sports Documentary’. I was really humbled by that.

With the entire family participating in the project, have things healed between you and your brothers, Jim and Johnny?

Absolutely. It was an opportunity for everybody to share their story and to talk about the Lakers and Dr. Buss from their point of view. I think it went a long way toward opening new lines of communication for all of us.

Shaq suggested he feels excluded that you left him off you list of five most important Lakers…

[Interrupts] Yeah, I fell into that trap. I was reminded when my dad had to face questions like that with ‘Who’s your favorite player?’ His answer was, ‘Well, I’ll give you my starting five. At point guard: Magic Johnson. At shooting guard: Magic Johnson. At small forward: Magic Johnson. At power forward: Magic Johnson. At center: Magic Johnson.’

He knew how to answer a question like that. What I remind people that ask about it is I took the question as, ‘Who are the five most important Lakers to me’ in my career and in preparing me for sitting in this seat. That’s why the influence of Phil was so important. I reference that, and, of course, my relationship with Kobe not only as a great Laker, but as a great friend. He’s a person I can go to for guidance and for counsel.

You collaborated with Michael Jordan on Cincoro Gold. How did that come about?

It’s a tequila company that was founded not only by myself and Michael Jordan, but Wyc Grousbeck (Boston Celtics governor) and Wes Edens (Milwaukee Bucks governor). The four of us spent a lot of time together because we were on a committee that was overseeing the labor agreement back in 2016. The fifth founder is Emilia Fazzalari, who is married to Wyc.

We found out we had a common interest in being fans of tequila. We thought we’d create a tequila that we’d like and would want to drink. That’s really all our intention was when we came up with Cincoro. It was going to be a fun, small project. But with the pandemic and ‘The Last Dance’ documentary where people were wondering what is in the glass next to MJ really launched Cincoro.

Michael Jordan has sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets, but is still a minority owner
Michael Jordan has sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets, but is still a minority owner

It has been a joy to create these friendships with people that are also my rivals. The message for me is that if you don’t have a rival to push you, do you ever reach your full potential? Would the Lakers be where the Lakers are if it wasn’t for the Boston Celtics? There has to be respect for your opponent. I want to beat them on the court. But that doesn’t mean afterwards that we won’t sit down and share a drink and a story and move on to the next day when I’m going to want to beat you again.

I’m sad that MJ has sold the majority shares of his Charlotte Hornets team. But he’ll remain as a shareholder at a smaller level. He’ll still be a part of it. He’s a smart businessman. It seems like everything he gets involved with, he knows how to win. It’s great to be partners with him at a tequila company. But I’ll miss seeing him at all the Board of Governors meetings.

Follow NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Threads.

Quick Links

App download animated image Get the free App now