"At the end of the day, we're all judged by how many games we win."
These sound like words you'd see glazed onto a coffee mug next to Vince Lombardi's face. Or painted on the walls of a high school locker room. Or approvingly shared on Facebook in bad meme form by a million middle-aged dads. It's the kind of sentiment that sounds good, until you think about it for a second.
We're judged by what?
I heard them spoken over the phone recently by Jeanie Buss, the co-owner and governor of the Los Angeles Lakers. She was talking about the decision she made earlier this year to oust her brother Jim from his position running the team's basketball operations. (She also let go of longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak.) In a year that saw Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Isaiah Thomas trades, no NBA transaction was as dramatic as the one that occurred in the Lakers front office.
The cliche would be to put it in Hollywood terms. It was like something out of a soap opera. Or Shakespeare. Or Game of Thrones (I think—I've never actually seen it.) A self-made, high-living, and ultimately beloved sports owner dies. His children squabble in sports pages and tabloids. Meanwhile, without its patriarch, the franchise slides into disarray. Then, in a theatrical, merciless act, one child finally assumes control and brings glory back to the family name (or not, it remains to be seen).
It's revealing that Buss speaks about judgment in terms of wins and losses, especially considering the fate of the Lakers in recent years. Four straight losing seasons, each, in some ways, more devastating than the last. The dismal end of Kobe Bryant's career; the awkward beginning of D'Angelo Russell's. Carlos Boozer. Byron Scott. Timofey Mozgov.
Things are different now, sure. The Lakers have Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka calling the shots. Russell and Mozgov have been exiled to Brooklyn. Lonzo Ball will be running the point at Staples Center. The team even moved into a new practice facility. "You hear this cliche so many times," Buss told me. "Change in culture."
They are going to be fun to watch, or at least more fun to watch than last season. But they don't have a first round draft pick next year. They still have Luol Deng's contract. Their best player is probably Brook Lopez, a veteran who everybody thinks is gone after the season. There's a reason the front office was fined for tampering—their best path to contention is still to hit it big in free agency. The hope now is that they have become a more appealing destination.
And they should be a destination. Soap opera jokes aside, the Lakers are deeply woven into the fabric of Los Angeles, which means that so is the Buss family. The franchise is an actual, beloved, civic institution, with the kind of cache and credibility you can only develop over decades. People care about them, even if they can't afford to go to the games. True story: I was born in Los Angeles in 1986 into a family that liked sports, went to games, watched them on TV, and for years into my childhood I had no idea Los Angeles had a second basketball team. It was just the Lakers. And despite the last few years, it still is.
Jeanie Buss knows this as well as anybody, which is why she has spent months reiterating something she first said last February after she moved to fire her brother and Kupchak: she should have done it sooner. She should have done it sooner, she keeps saying. Her emotional attachments got in the way. She has said it to the national press, and she has said it to the local papers. She said it most recently in a Town Hall interview with KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles. (The interview airs Wednesday evening in L.A., and Thursday evening nationally on LinkTV if you have satellite.)
Imagine being in a position where you are apologizing to a city, not for firing your brother, but for not firing him quickly enough. I could not do that. Jeanie Buss could, and did. And it strikes me as fitting in with everything else Buss told me in our interview. I asked about whether the league was doing enough to expand the role of women on NBA coaching staffs and NBA front offices. She told me a story about watching Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs with her father. "This is going to change the world," she recalls her father saying, perfectly aware of the stakes of the event. But when it comes to actual changes in the composition of NBA front offices?
"It all comes down to winning. If you can win with a woman, then it will be a woman."
It takes a certain type of person, man or woman, to talk about judgment in terms of wins and losses, and then to fire your brother in their name. A confident person, to be sure. Maybe overconfident. A calculating, competitive person. No doubt about that. In this case, it also takes a person who was literally raised from childhood with the notion of one day running the NBA's most prominent and most compelling franchise; who sees her family business as not just a business run by her family, but rather an extension of her family, and an extension of herself.
The thing about the Lakers is that the brand is winning. This is true of the Yankees too. Success is literally what they are selling. When things are going good, then it works. When it doesn't, you find yourself looking longingly at the past. You find yourself hoping that Lonzo Ball is the next Magic Johnson, not necessarily the first Lonzo Ball.
You can be a profitable NBA franchise without being good. But can you be a proud one? Buss talked to me about the Lakers obligation to the city. She talked about her father's legacy, wrapped up in that civic obligation. "His story was that he made L.A. his home," she said. "What it means to be a Laker is that you only want to be a Laker," she said.
When Buss and Phil Jackson ended their relationship (a relationship that certainly complicated the dynamic between Buss and her brother Jim), she said that the principle reason they broke up was distance. But she also said this:
For the Lakers, the lines between family and basketball and business are blurry. It's what makes them fascinating, even when the on-court product isn't. But for Jeanie Buss, it isn't so complicated. The Lakers are an extension of herself. And when you run a basketball team, you're judged by how many games you win.
"To me it's simple, it's always do what's best for the Lakers first."