Jeanie Buss is one of the most powerful women in sports, running one of the most storied and glamorous franchises in the country. Not surprisingly, she has stories about Kobe Bryant. Two of them about lunches with the Los Angeles Lakers great offer insight into both Buss and one of the giants in NBA history.
Kobe Bryant and Jeanie Buss grew into their roles
Bryant made his NBA debut with the Lakers in 1996 as an 18-year-old. But it wasn’t until his third season that he became a full-time starter. He averaged 19.9 points a game that year, and his season averages never dipped below 22.5 until an injury limited him to six contests in 2013-14.
By the time he finished , Bryant scored 33,643 regular-season points and another 5,640 in 220 postseason contests.
Born in 1961, Buss was finishing work on her degree at USC two decades later when Dr. Jerry Buss made his daughter the general manager of his World TeamTennis franchise. Later, she ran their roller hockey franchise and moved into the role of president of the Great Western Forum. That was her introduction to the Lakers’ operations.
Buss took over as executive vice president of business operations for the Lakers while her brother handled the basketball side of the team. After Jerry Buss died in 2013, leaving his six children with equal shares of the Lakers, she became LA’s team president and the Lakers’ representative at NBA Board of Governors meetings.
She has been in charge of all aspects of the organization since.
Bryant’s first lunch date as a Laker was with Buss
Bryant never played for any NBA team other than the Lakers, but fans sometimes forget that LA wasn’t the team that drafted him.
After living in Italy for half his childhood while his father played basketball overseas, Bryant returned to eastern Pennsylvania to become a high school prodigy. Division I coaches took notice, but most gave up on Bryant early in his senior year when it became apparent that he would turn pro after graduation.
On draft night in 1996, the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the 13th overall pick. Jerry West gets the credit for swinging the trade two weeks later in which LA acquired Bryant in exchange for Vlade Divac.
Bryant was 17 years old at the time, and his arrival in Los Angeles was noteworthy but not earth-shattering since the Lakers, while competitive, were in transition and no one arriving straight out of school was going to take them from contenders to champions.
A New York Times profile of Buss told the story of the Lakers’ offices being nearly empty the day of Bryant’s introductory news conference. Buss, 34 years old and still in a secondary role, took it upon herself to take Bryant to lunch, where they found common ground. Bryant lived in Italy as a youngster; Buss enjoyed time there with her ex-husband. She told the paper that one recollection of lunch was Bryant asking a waiter if he spoke Spanish and then announcing to Buss that he would learn the language.
Bryant said he wanted daughter Gianna to meet a strong female figure
Bryant retired after the 2015-16 NBA season, and opposing teams honored the future Hall of Fame inductee in a variety of ways during his final appearances in those arenas. He relied upon Buss to handle many of the decisions and pull off the logistics, the New York Times reported.
Buss recalled the Lakers legend asking her out to lunch one day that season and surprising her by bringing along daughter Gianna, who would have been 9 or 10 at the time. Buss said Bryant told her he wanted his daughter to meet a powerful female sports executive. She believes the player just wanted Buss to know how important she was to him.
“It’s almost like having to put him away again,” she said, her voice cracking as she recounted the meeting to the newspaper. “He’s going into the Hall, and it’s like we’re leaving him there. It’s hard. It’s hard to go through this again.
“I guess you just don’t get over it.”
Bryant and daughter Gianna died in January 2020, and the Lakers finished the season with their first postseason berth since 2013. It culminated with their first NBA championship since 2010, which was Bryant’s fifth and final title.