Swanson: Is criticism of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss’ inner circle sexist?

Jeanie Buss believes criticism of her Inner Circle is sexist.

It’s not, but I understand why she’d feel that way.

She brought it up Wednesday in an appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show” when she also discussed Rob Pelinka’s contract extension as the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager following the most frustrating season in franchise history. Formerly Kobe Bryant’s agent before he was hired as the Lakers’ GM in 2017, Pelinka is among the people who Buss has said she trusts most.

“Do you ever ask Mark Cuban who his inner circle is? Or Joe Lacob who his inner circle is?” Buss asked Eisen, referring to the men who own the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors.

Consider, Buss is one of a growing but still small group of women with significant ownership stakes in pro sports franchises. She’s also a woman in this world. She’s well aware of what it is to be alienated and diminished on account of her gender.

Watch the fifth episode of the Hulu series, “Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers,” and you’ll hear her recount when former NBA commissioner David Stern assumed, back when the WNBA was forming, that she, the woman in the family business, would run the Sparks.

She wanted to, it sounds like. “To have a woman run a women’s team really would have been special,” she says. Instead, her brother Johnny got the job.

And there, in a single instance, examples of both an assumption being made about a woman in the corporate space – and an opportunity withheld from her.

Watch and you’ll also hear her describe an incident shortly after she was promoted to alternative governor of the Lakers in 1995. It was a huge moment in her career, but as Cuban says in the documentary, the older generation of owners “didn’t take kindly to women in the boardroom.”

And they showed it. Buss remembers being at a board of governors meeting, one of maybe three women in a room filled with 100 people, “in line at the buffet, loading up my plate, and all of a sudden, someone grabs my butt.

“I didn’t take it so much as a sexual advance, more of a putting me in my place,” she continued. “You don’t get a seat at the table, you’re just a piece of ass.”

Awful. The stuff you internalize and carry with you would become a veneer over all the proceedings involved in her high-pressure, high-stakes work as the governor of the Lakers.

So when she hears people spouting frustration about her inner circle and how much she considers those folks’ opinions, it feels a certain way. Here’s how she told Eisen it sounds to her: “What crutches does she need?” Or, “What does she lean on, because she’s not capable of doing it herself?”

It feels sexist.

But this ain’t that.

This is an invested fan base doing what Buss asked: Holding her accountable.

“Ultimately,” she said, “people need to understand I’m the governor of the team … so if anyone goes wrong, it’s on my watch, and I’m held accountable for it.”

What didn’t go wrong last season?

The Lakers rostered a who’s-who of aging stars that many of their fans believed would contend for another championship. Instead, the team proved a miserable also-ran, finishing 33-49 and missing the playoffs for the second time in LeBron James’ four years in L.A. and for the seventh time in the past 10 years.

So Buss fired Coach Frank Vogel, canning the coach who, with COVID-19 raging in 2020, led L.A. to its 17th championship and did it in the challenging confines of the NBA’s bubble. Because after 2021-22’s stinker of a season, that title felt like a long, long time ago.

Buss can do accountability; she fired her brother Jim in 2017 as time was running out on his self-imposed deadline for returning the Lakers to championship contention. She excused General Manager Mitch Kupchak, too.

But she extended Pelinka’s contract through 2025-26.

Yes, he was the architect of the 2020 title team, piecing together a squad after Kawhi Leonard left the Lakers in the lurch by choosing the Clippers in free agency. But the rosters Pelinka assembled the following two seasons went 75-79.

They left him without useful salary cap flexibility or tradable assets. They didn’t play to the strengths of their championship coach. And no one is happy about the costly acquisition of Russell Westbrook.

On paper, this offseason’s improvements appear marginal, stirring only cautious optimism, at best, among an agitated fan base.

But Buss appears to have let Pelinka off the hook with the extension, news that leaked only last week, although Buss told Eisen that the extension happened before new coach Darvin Ham was hired.

Apparently, the Lakers knew better than to broadcast it, unlike when they sent out a news release in January 2020 about Pelinka’s promotion to vice president of basketball operations and general manager.

The recent extension was in the spirit of collaboration, Buss said, so it matches Ham’s: “Because of my relationship with Phil Jackson, I know what an NBA coach goes through and how it feels like you’re put on the plank to stand out there alone,” she told Eisen.

She brought up Jackson. Her former fiance’s front office acumen might be questionable, but his basketball knowledge won him more championship rings than he can fit on both hands, including five with the Lakers.

That she’d tap into his experience makes all the sense in the world. That she mentioned it is indicative, I hope, of an inclination to share insight and not a defensive reflex.

She pressed Eisen about why he was inquiring about her inner circle, but then she volunteered the names of Jackson and Magic Johnson when the host noted that she used to seek input from Kobe Bryant.

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Phil, Magic, Kobe. Former Laker Kurt Rambis. Pelinka, who’ll be forever tied to Kobe.

Those aren’t behind-the-scenes pencil-pushers who’d be recognizable to only a team’s most ardent fans. They’re famous people to whom the public feels long-standing connections. Their contributions to the Lakers won’t go unnoticed.

The thing is, it’s their discretion that Buss appreciates. And not because they’re good at guarding proprietary material.

It’s because she feels confident knowing “if I say something that they may not agree with I don’t have to worry that it’s gonna be posted somewhere, ‘Jeanie made this dumb suggestion …’” she told the L.A. Times after the Lakers won in 2020. “That freedom, that trust, is so valuable.”

More valuable would be to take the leap of faith required to incorporate some fresh perspective and see if that won’t help the Lakers get back on course.

Because the thing that could make people stop obsessing about her inner circle would be to broaden it. And then to win.

“People are fascinated with that for some reason.”

Asked @Lakers owner @JeanieBuss about her so-called inner circle and leadership style, as well as the re-signing of GM Rob Pelinka through the 2025-26 season:#NBA #NBATwitter #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/V7bFGnRmgl

— Rich Eisen Show (@RichEisenShow) October 12, 2022