Steve Springer talks about new book he wrote with Lakers' Jeanie Buss
I recently spoke with Steve Springer, author with Jeanie Buss of "Laker Girl." The former Los Angeles Times writer provides some insights and details about the development of the book project, Buss' relationship with her family and her boyfriend, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, and more.
On the project: "It was something I talked to her about for a couple of years. She wasn't totally convinced that she had enough to fill up a book, but she started tweeting from Laker games, and she now has over 30,000 followers. So I said to her, 'Basically this is just going to be a huge expansion of that. If 30,000 people are following you tweeting, 140 characters could become a 300-page book. She agreed to it. Fortunately, we picked the year the Lakers won the championship, which made it all the more appealing.
"We started opening night of last season. We met before every home game, and we talked on the phone before or after road games. We talked about what was going on in her life. She doesn't have a 9-to-5 job like most people. She's in the office every day. But she's interacting with celebrities, ticket requests and broadcast rights and flying off to league meetings. It's to the average person a pretty interesting life. We talked about what was going on that day or that week. ... She has a pretty interesting life. Her father owns the team, and her boyfriend is the coach. She's been in Playboy. She's run the Forum for a few years. She worked with tennis, roller hockey and musical acts. She has a real interesting story to tell, and it really comes out in the book. I wasn't sure when we'd begin how to do it, but I played with the idea of just having current events trigger memories of her life. But I came to the conclusion and she came to the conclusion that it was just better to separate the two. It would drive the reader crazy bouncing back and forth every other page. I just felt like we'll carry the season through and divide it by months and then intersperse her biography. The book starts with her father as a 4-year-old in a breadline during the Depression. We started way back at the very beginning of the Buss family as we know it. We kept bringing her life along pretty successfully."
On the importance of family to Buss: "It's very strong, and that was her private consideration. When she had thoughts about doing this, her father wasn't a sports owner. He was a real-estate guy. That was her first thought and first desire was to be involved in this real-estate empire. Of course, when it turned out that this was going to turn into sports, that was certainly an appealing way to go and shift in her thinking. But I believe her when she says had he stayed in real estate, she'd be heavily involved in the real-estate business today instead of the Lakers."
On how Buss handled the coaching uncertainty: "There was a drama running through the season because of Phil and the uncertainty over Phil. Here she is in the middle, as she says herself in the book. Her father makes the decision. She clearly is in love with Phil and wants him to be happy. She wasn't even 100% sure what Phil wanted to do. And of course with her own situation, she didn't want Phil to leave because that would affect their own relationship. She also loved the idea that he'd be coach of the team. There was a lot going on there. I think there's a real telling point in the book where she learns Byron Scott has been invited to sit in her father's suite. She hadn't known about it, and this was at a point where she didn't know whether her father wanted Phil back, so there was a lot of tension there. She wanted to look out for Phil's interests, and she didn't like the idea that maybe something was going on in regards to her future that she didn't know about that others in the organization did know about.
"I talked to her about it because obviously it turned out that he did come back. I said, 'This is a diary. So even though it turned out your fears and concerns weren't something you had to worry about, at that moment that was your feeling on that day, on whatever it was. Whatever you were feeling that day is the way you should feel in the book. Then it'll play out almost like a novel where feelings have changed and things have changed. Just because when you're finishing the book, you know that what happens didn't really matter, you should still leave it in because it shows how the whole situation evolved over the month.' By doing the diary, I think it was very valuable because it really showed the audience the growing tension and uncertainty all throughout the season."
On Buss' relationship with Jackson: "We all see Phil on the sidelines and in the press conferences and in public settings, but this takes you literally into their bed. There was an anecdote where Phil was so restless after a loss, he steals Jeanie's pillow and starts fighting with it. He somehow imagines Jeanie's pillow was the ball and he was fighting for it. Not only does it take you so far behind the scenes, it shows everything about a Hall of Fame coach. Everything, it's him doing his laundry or how he devises his game plan or him cooking at home. ...
"In this case, Jeanie understood that she really had to open herself. She had a real deal whether it was the collapse of her marriage, the tension with Phil's situation, her posing in Playboy, all those feelings are out there. She never once -- no matter what subject I brought up -- shied away from it. She got it right from the beginning that this [was] what she was going to do and really open herself up. She even made the statement to reveal herself emotionally in this book was more difficult than it was to reveal herself physically in Playboy. Those were just photos of her. This was opening up her heart and telling her successes, her failures, her thoughts and her emotions for the whole world to see. She understood. When she committed to doing it, she did it, but she said it was more difficult."
On Buss' relationship with the media: "The years I covered, she was the most accessible in terms of the organization and the most frank and most honest. She never counsels it in bureaucratic terms. She understood part of her routine in this was going to league meetings and discussing the possible impending lockout. She understood those private meetings couldn't be revealed in the book. She's responsible. She knows what she can't say. But in terms of a day-to-day operation with the team, she's been frank with that and her feelings about Phil. She's talked in the book about wanting to marry him. I dealt with her over the years and did an L.A. Times magazine story on her a few years ago. She's always been open and frank, and people know that when they go to her, they can get what they're looking for.
"I struggled a while with the structure, and I think it came out fine. I taped Jeanie for over 50 to 60 hours, but this wasn't a case of her talking into a tape recorder and then picking up the book and reading that. She was really hands-on in terms of editing. She didn't take anything out but reworded words that made her feel more comfortable. I told her she had the makings of a copy editor. She really went over it and worked at it. It was funny for her because Phil has a picture book that just came out ["Journey to the Ring"] so the two of them were working furiously on their respective books over the summer. ... There are so many nuggets. There's an item when Del Harris was the Lakers coach, before every home game he'd bring three ties to Jeanie's office and have her pick the tie he wore at the game."
On Buss' approach to work: "She was on the job right from the beginning. She's 19 years old and her father hands her the general manager's job with the L.A. Strings. From that first moment, she's got something to prove. She's got four brothers and a sister involved in the organization, but she has been diligent in terms of working hard. She's the one who comes in the office every day and puts in a full day. She's really put her stamp on the team in a unique way. When they decided to honor the Minneapolis Lakers with a banner and invite the Lakers on that team, it was Jeanie who realized those guys didn't get championship rings. So she went out and got rings for each and every one of those Hall of Famers and presented it to them. That's a personal touch that really shows her feeling and her understanding in embracing the entire Laker organization and Laker history."
Photo: File photo of Lakers vice president Jeannie Buss on hand to pass out Championship rings to open the season against the San Antonio Spurs in 2002 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Alexander Gallardo / Los Angeles Times