Jeanie Buss knew Kobe Bryant for over 25 years. She hired his former agent and close friend, Rob Pelinka, to run the Los Angeles Lakers. The two were as close as a player and team owner can be in the modern NBA, but when Buss and Pelinka finally managed to turn the Lakers back into a champion, Bryant wasn’t there to enjoy it. His death in a January helicopter accident shook the NBA to its core, and Lakers fans are still mourning his loss almost a year later.
Buss spoke at length about her relationship with Bryant in an interview on CBS Sports Network, including how proud she was of the Lakers for playing through not only their grief but everything else they had to endure on the way to their 2020 championship. She credited the leadership of LeBron James with helping the Lakers make it through the season.
“The way that the team came together, they put on their shoulders a fanbase that was heartbroken, and they, led by LeBron James, who, I didn’t really know LeBron until he became a Laker. And watching him, especially in this time of crisis, not only in the loss of Kobe, but during a pandemic and also the social unrest that we experienced this summer, he’s a leader, he’s fearless, he’s taught me just by example that you don’t accept anything less than your respect. He even said it in his speech, ‘I want my respect.’
He has been a comfort to Laker Nation and he led this team, to go from not being in the playoffs the year before to winning a championship is so, it’s mind-blowing, and to do it in a bubble, under challenging circumstances, the team was separated from their home, their families, for over 90 days while they sacrificed to play in the bubble, and to be the last team standing, it really shows their resiliency. People said ‘oh how did you get them to all get behind Kobe’ and all that, and I go ‘do you really think that was a plan?’ That was completely organic, when Anthony Davis hit that game-winning shot during the playoffs and just screamed out Kobe’s name, that camel from his heart, that’s organic, that’s real. And that’s what Kobe meant not only to this organization, but to each of these individuals who wanted to honor his memory, and they did an amazing job, they were inspirational for a fan base that had been heartbroken.”
Her connection was Bryant was as personal as it was professional, though. When her father, former Lakers owner Jerry Buss, died in 2013, Bryant noticed how much she was struggling to deal with that loss. In one gesture, he managed not only to help his friend but to set an example for his daughter.
“Well after my father died, the organization kind of was, we lost our leader, and things were not going well for us, and Kobe, being the person that he is, the friend that he is, the mentor that he is, invited me to lunch, because he knew I was struggling. When I showed up for lunch, he brought Gianna with him, and he said ‘I brought Gianna with me because I wanted her to see a strong woman, and what a businesswoman can be, and what you stand for’. And that meant so much to me, it touched my heart, and it seemed like he was doing it for Gianna, but I really believe that he was doing it for me, to remind me of what I could be in this business world and that I belonged in the NBA. He was such a great motivator and friend and a caring person, and that void will never be filled.”
No matter how competitive Bryant was on the court, he still managed to be unfailingly supportive to those he cared about off of it. That, more than anything, is what makes his loss so devastating to the Lakers.