The Los Angeles Lakers began the 2008-09 National Basketball Association regular season Tuesday night with a victory over the Portland Trailblazers at the Staples Center. The Lakers, who lost to the Boston Celtics in last year’s NBA finals, are entering the 30th anniversary under the ownership of Jerry Buss.
Former player and current assistant coach Kurt Rambis and his wife, Linda, who reside in Manhattan Beach, have played major supporting roles during that time for the Lakers while raising three children.
In fact, Linda has been with the Lakers’ organization longer than Rambis, who played his first season in 1981. She was one of the first employees hired when Buss took ownership of the Lakers after purchasing it from Jack Kent Cooke along with the Los Angeles Kings and Forum in 1979.
“Not a lot of people realize that Linda Zafrani (and later Rambis) was actually a part of the Lakers before Kurt ever wore the purple and gold,” said Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of business operations and daughter of Buss. “Linda and I worked together building the tennis and volleyball programming at the Forum and that is how she met Kurt. When Kurt left in the late 1980s for Charlotte, the organization lost two valuable pieces - both Kurt and Linda. Thankfully, we were able to bring them back in the mid-90s.”
“I started in sales,” said Linda of her first job with the team. “I got my foot in the door the first year Dr. Buss owned the team. Timing is everything.”
She worked for another Los Angeles icon before working for Buss and the Lakers, Playboy and Hugh Hefner.
“I worked at the Playboy Clubs in Chicago and I worked in Miami and I worked at Century City and I managed the club in Century City for some time. I was one of their first female managers. That was how I got to know Dr. Buss.”
In her first year on the job and Buss’s first year of ownership, the Lakers drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson and went on to win the NBA championship over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Two years later, Rambis entered the picture when he signed as a free agent with the Lakers.
“Kurt Rambis is the epitome of teamwork,” Buss said. “When he became a part of the Lakers ‘Showtime’ era, a star was born. He inspired a movement known as the Rambis Youth, which embraced the hard work ethic of their hero. The organization could not have a better role model than Kurt.”
According to Linda, Rambis was sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor at his friend’s house in Huntington Beach at the beginning of training camp.
“He didn’t even feel secure enough to find a place to live so he was just crashing on his friend’s floor,” said Linda.
They first crossed paths at the Forum in Inglewood, according to Linda.
“We sort of bumped into each other in the hallway and then walked into the same office at the same time. He was shy and uncomfortable because it was a pretty big thing to be part of the Lakers organization and he was still on the bubble. His position on the team was not really cemented yet.”
During that first encounter, Linda said she definitely was the more comfortable one. She even recalled the second time they saw each other, when Rambis came into her office that she shared with Jeanie Buss. Jeanie Buss even commented to Linda that Rambis did not say “one word.”
“I was shy at that time,” said Rambis.
The ice was finally broken when he asked a friend about her and she just happened to ask the same person about him. They did not know it was a mutual friend at that time.
“That kind of got things started,” said Rambis.
Later they went on their first date where they went to a video arcade.
“He thought that was the weirdest thing because he had never played a video game before and that was like in the peak of the video game craze,” said Linda.
They talked and found out they had some things in common. But things were then put on hold as they did not speak to each other for a couple of months. Their next meeting happened during the NBA playoffs.
“Then we made it to the NBA championship and I went along with our staff, like our staff personnel, and we flew commercially in those days and I was getting off the plane,” said Linda. “He was in first class or front of the plane where the team was and we were in the back of the plane and I got off at the same time.”
He noticed she was on the plane and then asked her if she wanted to go out that night and she said, ‘OK, that would be cool.’”
Linda said they had a really fun date the second time and not long after that they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Then after the Lakers went on to win the NBA championship, Rambis made a comment to Linda she remembers well.
“After we won the championship we were driving in the car and he said to me, and it was like maybe our second or third date, and he’s like, ‘Someday we’re going to be married and we’re going to have kids together.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, really. That’s interesting.’”
Later they got engaged and on Feb. 9, 1985, they got married.
Except for a five-year period from 1988 until 1993 when he played in Charlotte, Phoenix and Sacramento, Rambis has been involved with the Lakers.
“Work and kids and Lakers and us together has always been synonymous and it’s just our life,” said Rambis. “We don’t think of it as anything different or special. It’s unique, but it’s just what we know.”
Buss commented on their service to the community as well.
“They care about Lakers fans and the youth of Southern California,” Buss said. “They commit a lot of hours outside the workplace helping those in need and provide leadership setting an example of backing up what they stand for.”
A lot of people do not know that Rambis was born in Terre Haute, Ind., where Larry Bird later went on to stardom at Indiana State University. His parents both grew up in Indiana and were graduates of ISU.
The family later moved to Bakersfield and then between second and third grade his family settled in Cupertino, Calif., outside of San Jose. Rambis’ father taught at Peterson High School in Sunnyvale and coached football, basketball and baseball at different levels and at different times throughout Rambis’ youth. According to Rambis, his father never coached in Cupertino though.
“Part of the love of sports was brought on from my dad having the interest and access to all of those facilities,” said Rambis.
His mother and father still live in the home that he grew up in. He has an older brother who lives near Oakland and a younger sister who lives in Cupertino.
Rambis said that he was attracted to sports because of his father’s time spent in the gym. Cupertino had a small-town atmosphere back then that has given way to population growth.
“There were a lot of groves around there,” said Rambis. “When we first got there, we were surrounded by orchards. There were just little developments.”
Whenever he wanted to spend time at the beach, he and his friends would head over the mountains to Santa Cruz.
While Rambis was playing sports in northern California, Linda was growing up in Chicago. She attended Sullivan High School.
Her father lives right down the street in a townhome that he shared with Linda’s mother before she died. She has a younger sister who is an interior designer and runs a business in Hermosa Beach called Fogel Interiors and some of her clientele include individuals from the Lakers.
Rambis later earned a basketball scholarship to Santa Clara University and still holds several school records including most career points, 1,735; and most career points scored in conference play, 897. He also still holds the record for most points scored by a freshman, 413; and the most points scored in conference play, 337, which he did in 1980.
Another current NBA MVP attended Santa Clara as well. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns later played for the Broncos. Asked if he talks to Nash about it, Rambis said that he has not broached the subject with the two-time MVP, although he is very proud of what he has done in the NBA and for his university.
“It’s terrific not only for him as an individual, but terrific for players that have made themselves into great ballplayers. He wasn’t highly recruited. He came to Santa Clara and he did a terrific job there and he’s one of those players that he just continues to work on his game and develop his game.”
After landing a job with the Lakers, it was not too long before Linda was working with Jeanie Buss.
According to Linda, she did well at sales at the beginning and soon Jerry Buss mentioned that he was going to put her together with his daughter Jeanie, who was still in high school at the time.
“We became friends and then worked together throughout her college career,” said Linda.
It was a ground-breaking experience for the two women as eventually Jeanie learned the ropes of the sports world that was dominated by men. But Linda was at her side and the two blazed a trail for other women.
“The transformation in the sports industry in the last 25 years is astounding,” said Buss. “There were many times early on that Linda and I would be the only women in meetings with agents, broadcasters and sponsors. Luckily for us we had the opportunity to work with the greatest trailblazer for women of all time - Billie Jean King. She created World Team Tennis and constantly mentored Linda and I and challenged us to be the best we could be in business. Now women populate the sports business landscape as a norm as opposed to an exception.”
They were even involved in the professional women’s tennis tour with an event that was held inside at the Forum and later moved to the Manhattan Beach Country Club. Now the tournament is held at the Home Depot Center.
Linda has held different titles over the years. Currently she is manager of special projects, which includes special events, preseason games and foundation work.
Rambis has remained with the Lakers for an extended period of time due to various needs by the organization.
“The Lakers have opened up opportunities to wear different hats in this organization and keeping jobs and being employed by the organization so everything has just fit in.”
The have lived in the same house in Manhattan Beach for 25 years now. Asked why they choose the area, their answers were quite simple.
“We were living in Culver City in an apartment and we’re talking about starting a family,” Rambis said. “We had our eye on looking for places to live and homes and everything like that. Linda happened to be driving through Manhattan Beach and saw the model homes and thought it would be great. We went up there and looked at it and agreed. We liked the location, the weather, the proximity to the airport, to the Forum and now in El Segundo where we work. Schools, shopping, everything was just perfect.”
They have really enjoyed every moment over the years in Manhattan Beach raising their family.
They have two boys and one girl. Jordan is a senior at Loyola Marymount and plays on the club volleyball team there. Jesse is in his final quarter at UCLA and plays on the AVP Crocs Tour. Ali is the youngest. She is a junior at Mira Costa and is also playing volleyball.
Both of the boys attended Crossroads High School in Santa Monica.
Rambis said that when he was a player for the Lakers, it was easier to schedule time with the family. It is a little harder now.
“When I was a player, it was definitely a lot better because we would go to work separately.”
The hardest part is when he is on the road. He said that he misses a lot of sporting events and milestones in his children’s lives. He also has to readjust when he gets back from trips.
“There’s always an adjustment period when I come back from a long road trip. It’s like I have to get acclimated to the family routine again too because it carried on when I wasn’t there.”
The worst year was the year he spent in Sacramento and Ali was born.
“That was probably the toughest year,” said Linda.
It was the most time they spent apart.
Over the years, though, they have made an effort to be a part of the children’s lives and still get their jobs done.
“I think just being a part of this organization so much I think the Buss family knows that we’re dedicated employees and we work hard. So if I have to leave early to go do something they pretty much know I’ll come in on a Saturday or a Sunday and we’ll get our work done,” said Linda. “It doesn’t really matter. They’ve been really great to work for in that respect, too.”
Next week the children talk about growing up with a famous father. Kurt and Linda talk about basketball. He also talks about what lies ahead for this year’s Lakers’ team.