The long, slow breakup of Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss
Phil Jackson wasn’t in the mood to stop and catch up. His New York Knicks had gotten out of Staples Center with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers and he’d gone an entire game without having to wave to nostalgic Laker fans on the big screen.
“I think the Lakers are trying to move away from that kind of stuff,” Jackson said, as we spoke briefly outside the Knicks’ locker room on Dec. 11.
There was such a distance in the way he said, “The Lakers.” This, after all, is the man who won five NBA titles in Los Angeles and was still engaged to Lakers president Jeanie Buss. But that distance was real, and it had kept growing as the years went by and Jackson spent more and more time in New York, running the Knicks, and in Montana with his children and grandchildren, during the offseason.
His connection with Los Angeles, and his fiancée, was simply too hard to maintain. On Tuesday night, Buss and Jackson announced that they were mutually ending their four-year engagement.
Like the Camelot in Richard Burton’s Broadway musical, this had always been an impossible romance.
The owner’s daughter dating the team’s coach? And not just any owner: only one of the most powerful owners of all time, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. And not just any coach: only the most successful NBA coach of all time.
Then there were hurdles, like Jeanie Buss being the team’s vice president in charge of business affairs at the time, and her brother Jim Buss being in charge of basketball operations.
So many tangled webs, and yet Jeanie Buss and Jackson somehow made it work for 17 years.
During the best of times, when the Lakers were winning NBA championships, they’d ride to the arena together from their house in Marina Del Rey. At games, Jeanie would sit with her girlfriends Linda Rambis and Stacy Kennedy in the second row, across the court from the Lakers bench, where Phil could see her and the players could hear her.
Once on the drive in, Jackson mentioned Lamar Odom needed a little extra encouragement as he adjusted to his new role as a sixth man. So during the game, Buss and her girlfriends made a point of cheering for Odom as he checked into the game. “Take your pants off!” they yelled out, as Odom shed his warmups near the scorers’ table. He beamed at the attention.
It was a small thing, but…