It was clear something had been eating at Buss as she sat for breakfast in early May for one of several interviews with The New York Times.
It wasn’t the injuries to James and Davis, which had triggered a Lakers tumble to seventh place in the Western Conference from second in mid-March.
It was Bryant.
The previous 18 months had been heavy for Buss. In December 2019, her mother, JoAnn, died at 86. Less than two weeks later, on New Year’s Day, David Stern — the former N.B.A. commissioner and one of her mentors — died after several weeks in a coma. Then, in late January, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash.
Now the Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony was days away, and Bryant was going to be inducted. Buss was dreading it.
She met Bryant in 1996 after his introductory news conference with the team. She was 34; he was 17. The Lakers’ offices were inexplicably empty that day, with no one assigned to take the rookie out to lunch. Buss was thrust into the gig, and they talked about Italy — Bryant was raised there, and Buss had spent time in the country with her ex-husband, a former professional volleyball player. She remembered being stunned when Bryant asked a waiter if he spoke Spanish, then declared that he was going to learn it.
By his final season, 2015-16, Bryant trusted only Buss to help pull off his goodbye tour. Once, he asked her out to lunch and brought Gianna. He said he wanted his daughter to learn from a powerful female sports executive; Buss now believes that was only a ruse, that Bryant just wanted Buss to know how important she was, to him and to the team.