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Essay: The Buss Family And Atlas Shrugged

I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand’s objectivist novels. They’re a black and white expositions—claiming verisimilitude—in a world that’s marred in grey. So I wouldn’t encourage any thinking person to read her dogmatic fiction as a schema for life. But the siblings in Rand’s opus, Atlas Shrugged, parallel the Lakers organization, and the offspring of their genial owner, Jerry Buss.

Patriarch, Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss sired four children with his first wife, JoAnn Mueller; two of whom, Jim and Jeanie, play an integral role in the team’s current day-to-day affairs. Jim has taken over for his increasingly infirmed father as the Lakers’ President of Team Operations. Jeanie is the Executive Vice President of Business Operations for the Lakers, and a star in her own right. So how does the progeny of Jerry coincide with Rand’s novel?

If you’re at all familiar with Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart is the overachiever of her family. She’s a strong woman looking towards the future with her family’s railroad only to be impeded by her impish brother, Jim. Dagny is the Vice President in charge of operations for the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, but she’s increasingly left to run things when her brother Jim, the railroad’s President, fails to come through. Sound familiar? It should, because Jeanie is EVP under her brother, Jim, for the Lakers.

This revelation came to me after the Lakers signed new head coach, Mike D’Antoni, to a three-year deal last week. They had signed D’Antoni after initially reaching out to 11-time champion, Phil Jackson. Jackson, if you didn’t know, dates Jeanie Buss. It makes sense the Lakers would want to retain the all-time winningest coach in NBA history, but it makes even more sense when you realize he dates Jeanie. Except, Jim, like Jim Taggart, blows the whole thing.*

In this scenario, Phil Jackson represents the Hank Rearden character from Atlas Shrugged. Hank is a self-made man that owns a steel company with a brand new alloy stronger than steel: trademarked Rearden Steel. One of the myriad of plot points in Rand’s 1000+ page novel is Dagny’s use of Hank’s new Rearden Steel to build train tracks for the Taggart railroad. She also has a fling with Hank before settling down with omnipresent (and possible rapist**), John Galt.

Rearden’s metal alloy is stronger and cheaper to manufacturer than steel, so it should find a natural partner with the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. The Taggart and Rearden combination is just like how Phil’s experience with MJ, Scottie, Kobe, and Shaq can help him lead the current Lakers iteration packed with stars. Except Dagny’s insistence on Rearden’s new steel, just like Jeanie’s boyfriend Phil as the new Lakers’ head coach, is stymied by a sibling, unable or unwilling to cede the power necessary to bring the new coach/steel manufacturer aboard.

Jim’s inability to give in to Phil’s demands is what ultimately broke the initial negotiations for Phil and led to the hiring of D’Antoni. This older, slower team put together by Jim, is now coached by D’Antoni, someone who thrives with young legs and three-point shooters, of which there is a scarcity in LA right now (unless you’re talking the Clippers). Yes, Mike D’Antoni is a good coach, and this conglomeration of talent is impressive, but it’s a better fit for Phil Jackson, which is why we’re now reading hundreds of articles about why the Lakers went with D’Antoni.

Rearden Steel, led by its Horatio Alger wet dream of an owner, Hank Rearden, was a better fit for Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. But Dagny’s brother, Jim—just like Jeanie’s brother, Jim—usurped their siblings’ power, and went with the wrong choice.

But please, don’t read any Ayn Rand thinking it’s some grandiose calculator of the world’s ills. Even though there are parallels to be found among the Buss children and the fictional Taggart children in Atlas Shrugged, Rand was a pretty reprehensible person, and her objectivist rhetoric is socially Darwinist. Ragged Dick characters exist in real life, but it’s not a real governing principle, even if it makes some sense when you’re trying to run a basketball team.

*When I write that Jim Buss blew the Lakers’ opening at coach, I don’t mean to say Mike D’Antoni was a bad choice. In fact, I think he’ll be a great fit as long as Nash comes back from his fractured leg to lead the offense. But Phil Jackson is perfect for this assemblage of Hall of Famers, and you need a coach and a strong leader on the bench to massage or antagonize the egos, which, in turn, helps get the best performances from this 30-year-old bunch of Lakers stars.

**Galt’s first sexual liasion with Dagny is disturbing on many different levels, not the least of which is the fact I have a sister and a mother, and I wouldn’t want Rand’s protagonist anywhere near them.


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