How LeBron’s decision instantly changed the Lakers, Cavs and NBA

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She woke up at 4 a.m. on July 1 with nothing to do but wait for the sun to rise. With as much as Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers had riding on this day, she was lucky to have fallen asleep at all the night before. In a few hours, the NBA would learn where LeBron James had decided to spend the next phase of his NBA career, and Buss’ Lakers had emerged as the favorites to sign him.

She’d seen her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, pull off landscape-altering trades and free-agent coups like this before. But since his death in February 2013, it had been as dark for the Lakers as it was on that Manhattan Beach morning as she tossed and turned in bed.5

“There was a feeling of confidence,” Buss said. “But I’d been there before, so I wasn’t going to allow myself to take anything for granted.”

All she knew at that point was that Magic Johnson had met with James at his house right as free agency began the night before. She didn’t know how it had gone or what had been said. No, she’d spent the night of June 30 watching the first few hours of free agency unfold on ESPN’s The Jump special just like a regular fan. And it didn’t go well for the Lakers at all, as Paul George announced he was staying in Oklahoma City without even meeting with other teams, let alone his hometown Lakers. Just like that, one of the Lakers’ top free-agent targets was off the board, and this was starting like the past five unfulfilling summers.

Buss had fired her brother, Jim Buss, as president of basketball operations, and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak in February 2017, replacing them with Johnson and Rob Pelinka to help change what had become a losing culture. Her dad had taught her many lessons in the years he’d groomed her to run the Lakers, but perhaps most important was that Lakers fans expect their team to have superstars and contend for championships year after year. Anything less, and they go elsewhere for their entertainment. This is Hollywood. There are plenty of other shows in town.

Jeanie Buss felt that angst personally the past five years. The Lakers had never missed the playoffs more than two years in a row in the 34 years her father owned the team. Since his death, they’d been shut out of the postseason five seasons in a row and seen the last link to their glory years, Kobe Bryant, retire.

Lakers fans might have been spoiled by all the prosperity, but that’s hardly the kind of trait the Buss family wanted to soften. No, it needed to produce another hit as soon as possible.

“Yeah, there was no push-back from me because I knew there was no way to argue that we weren’t at the bottom of the standings,” Jeanie Buss said. “We were. The numbers showed that as fact.”