by Kyle Stack / @NYsportswriter
There’s a reason Jerry Buss has won 10 NBA championships in his 31 years as owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s a man with innovative ideas and the gumption to execute them.
It was Buss who helped launch a local television station in Los Angeles in 1985 (Prime Ticket Network, which is now FS West / Prime Ticket) and who gave naming rights to The Forum in 1988, securing a deal with Great Western Bank to rename it The Great Western Forum. And it’s Buss who hired the first female scout in the NBA — Bonnie-Jill Laflin.
Laflin has worked as a scout for the Lakers since the 2003-04 season and also serves as the assistant general manager for the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA Development League. A former cheerleader for the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Golden State Warriors, Laflin began her association with the Lakers as a sports broadcaster covering the team for KCAL/KCBS during its three-title run from 1999-2002.
Laflin spoke with me recently via phone to explain her role with the Lakers, what she values in players she scouts and what it means for her to still be the NBA’s lone female scout.
SLAM: How does it feel to be a back-to-back champion?
Bonnie-Jill Laflin: Oh, I love it. Especially after that Game 7. That was pretty scary. There were times when I had to walk away and cover my eyes. I was like ‘This is not looking good’ after the first half, at halftime. It was brutal. Kobe couldn’t buy a basket. But it came together and we won. I think that’s a sweeter victory than the other ones because of the fact it was the Celtics and that it went to a Game 7 and how that Game 7 played out.
SLAM: You were also with the Lakers during the [Shaq/Kobe] three-peat.
BJL: Yeah, back when I was a sports broadcaster. There’s something different about this one. I think it has to do with the fact that it’s the Celtics, so it’s kind of like sweet revenge. The fact that it was a harder victory, it was a tough series.
SLAM: The pressure in the Celtics series was discernible [from other series].
BJL: Yeah, definitely. And then if you look at the other series with Shaquille, we killed them. This was Game 7, Celtics, it was a whole different feel. Just the way that we played, there was no rhythm, we couldn’t make a shot. Fortunately for Ron Ron, he was our hero. And then his post-game interview and presser were probably the best of all-time. [Laughs] I loved that because it was just so genuine. He was genuinely ecstatic and he wanted to let everyone know. Ron just didn’t hold back anything.
SLAM: I read players were happier for him than any other player since he was the new guy just trying to fit into the team.
BJL: Of course, especially the fact that people have this perception of Ron ever since what happened in Indiana. He’s just not that guy. He’s such a sweet guy and he has a lot of fire and passion for the game. He’s happy that he got a ring and we’re all happy for him.
SLAM: So you are a family friend of Jerry Buss?
BJL: My dad is.
SLAM: And he was looking for a female scout when he hired you. What pitch did you make to him that you should be a scout?
BJL: He came to me, saying that ‘You know so much about the game, about the Triangle, why don’t we try you out?’ Jerry is always one of those guy who is looking for something new. He wanted to try a female [scout] and see how it would work out. The Lakers liked my scouting reports and it kind of just went from there.
SLAM: What are your scouting responsibilities?
BJL: The Pac-10 and Big 12. I went to the University of Texas. Well, now not the Big 12, we don’t know what it’s going to be called. [Laughs]
SLAM: This has nothing to do with what I was going to ask you but were you excited by Texas potentially forming the Pac-16?
BJL: Yeah, I was. I obviously would be able to see them more. I wanted them to come out West a lot more. But I know how Texas is, they want to stand on their own. Now they’re getting their own TV network. You know how Texas is, they’ll stand by themselves.
SLAM: Back to the Lakers — you’re also an assistant GM for the D-Fenders in the Development League.
BJL: Yes. That’s something I’m really passionate about. I love it. It’s amazing to see these guys living their dream and they’re just on that fringe to making the bigs and to see these guys work so hard. They’re not getting paid very well; it’s just like minor league baseball. It’s blood, sweat and tears to at least try to get even a 10-day callup. I really like seeing how much these guys are living out their dreams.
SLAM: How much are the jobs with the Lakers and D-Fenders related to each other?
BJL: Well, obviously when I’m scouting, it’s not just for the Lakers. I’m also scouting for D-League players for our team. So they definitely relate to my job responsibilities because I’m doing both. There are always those guys who teams are going to pass on and I’m thinking ‘Okay, this is a guy who can develop into something good and he’s got some raw talent. Let’s see how he can grow as a player.’
SLAM: Are you always scouting players with the Triangle in mind?
BJL: Definitely. We run the Triangle with the D-Fenders, as well. And obviously running the Triangle, as you know, you have to have a high basketball IQ. We look for someone who is a smart player on the court, good ball handler, someone who can run the Triangle so you have to think of that right away. Phil [Jackson] likes big guards, there are little things we know that Phil likes.
SLAM: How do you judge whether a player has a high basketball IQ?
BJL: A player that makes smart decisions, someone with good court vision. You can tell when a player is smart and has this raw talent that hasn’t developed into the high basketball IQ that we need. It takes awhile to get that Triangle down. We’re always looking for good point guards.
SLAM: Do you just know it when you see it?
BJL: Yes, definitely. There are players you can tell right away if they got it. And there are other ones who are going to need a little more time. That’s obviously where you want to have a player who is coachable and going to listen and grow. Not someone who acts like he knows it all.
SLAM: What facets of a player’s game catch your eye at first?
BJL: For me, fundamentals. I mean, there are players in the League right now who are not fundamentally sound. If you look sometimes at games, it drives me up the wall if a guy can’t shoot free throws. He’s at the line and you know right away, ‘Maybe he’ll make one’. [Laughs] For me, it’s the fundamentals.
SLAM: Right. So why don’t players box out?
BJL: Yeah, exactly. You’re always screaming ‘Box out, box out!’ [Laughs] And then you watch the WNBA and the girls do it.
SLAM: Oh yeah, they do. But why don’t the guys box out?
BJL: I don’t know. They do it once the playoffs start, right? [Laughs]
SLAM: But it just doesn’t seem like a lot of players even on the college level box out. Do they just think all they need to do is jump for a rebound? Do they know how to box out?
BJL: I mean, I think they know. I think a lot of it just has to do with them knowing they can out-jump players.
SLAM: What about setting up in a 3-point stance to pass, shoot or dribble? Is that something players employ regularly?
BJL: Yeah, I know that when we have our training camps [Director of Scouting] Bill Bertka, he’s always concentrating on that. But since we run the Triangle, we don’t really do much of that.
SLAM: Are players cognizant of using that as a means to give them options on offense?
BJL: Yes, definitely, especially at the college level. That’s one thing I think sometimes the Lakers need, are more outside shooters. So it’s something that’s really important. You probably see it more in college than in the NBA.
SLAM: When you’re scouting, how often do you develop an interest in a player who you might not have been targeting before the game?
BJL: It’s funny because when you scout the Pac-10, there are certain guys that you see and you fall in love with them after one game. Then you come back and see them again and you’re like, ‘Ugh, I don’t like them.’ Then you see them in an Invitational…it’s funny how you can go back and forth. It’s like a ladder because then you see them in the pre-Draft camp or in Portsmouth or different places where they’re going up against different players. It can change the whole perspective [of how you see them]. It takes awhile, watching tape on these guys. You start to see so many things that you didn’t see the first time.
When I first started scouting, I’d fall in love with a player right away and a scout would say ‘No, you can’t do that. You got to wait. You have to see this guy a couple more times and then you’re going to notice things.’ You know, certain things that you didn’t notice at first because he had a big game the night you happened to scout him.
SLAM: Is it kind of like a baseball pitcher like [Stephen] Strasburg who has to adjust to different hitters after his first few starts?
BJL: Well, look at him now, exactly. Now the hitters are trying to figure him out. The big thing is seeing these guys when they’re out of their element and they’re not in their system and they’re playing against other guys in these pre-Draft camps. That’s when you really start to see their weaknesses.
SLAM: Do you learn more about a player when he’s on the road versus when he’s at home?
BJL: Yeah, I think there is something to that. I don’t think that much, that I’ve noticed. But there is a little bit where a player has big games at home. But not too much.
SLAM: How many games are you attending per week during a college season?
BJL: Up to three or four sometimes. If I’m in L.A., I can go and see a lot of UCLA and USC. When I go on the road, I try to set up where if I’m going to see Texas, I’m going to try to see Oklahoma and go see Kansas. You try to make your trip where you can see as many teams as possible.
SLAM: How many games are you watching on TV per week?
BJL: Oh, tons. [Laughs] And then March Madness is crazy. I’ve got my TV where it has the split-split-split screen, so I can watch all the games. This past March Madness, oh my God, it was one of the best ever. I loved it. Even people who weren’t real big basketball fans were getting into it. All these Cinderella teams.
SLAM: In regards to game tapes, how much are you relying on what you see at first versus what you pick up going through the game again on tape?
BJL: Well, yeah because then when you have tape like that you can rewind and watch certain things over and over again. It’s good to get tape on a guy for as many games as possible if you’re really interested in a guy. There are certain times where an agent will send a tape that’s basically like a highlight tape, so the guy was amazing. [Laughs] So you got to make sure that you really watch everything on the player.
SLAM: Do you talk to college coaches about certain players and try to find out more about their personalities?
BJL: Yeah, that’s always important, too. Our GM deals a little more with that but it’s always good. You want to find out as much as you can on a player. Personal stuff, family, that all comes into play when you think about it. Someone that you’re drafting, especially if it’s a high pick who you’re going to spend a lot of money on.
SLAM: When you file reports, you just write it up and turn it into your department?
BJL: Yeah, and they file it away on the computer. Each player they have a scouting report for. The reports are hand-written, I can’t go into it too much. But basically it’s the weaknesses on every level — a 1-10 kind of thing. Then you can write whatever you want as well.
SLAM: What are you doing now?
BJL: There’s the summer league, that’s coming up. And then you get a little bit of a break but you’re always looking at new players. Nike has a camp, there’s always something going on. You can always find players to watch. Before you know it, training camp is coming up in October so it goes pretty quick. Especially with us because we go all the way into June. Hopefully we do that every year. [Laughs]
SLAM: When summer league is over, you report everything back to the front office?
BJL: We all talk about the summer league. We scout all the players, not just on our team but all the teams that are playing. We go back to watching tape, and we have an open tryout for the D-Fenders, who bring in a lot of guys there. You try to think of who you want to bring to that tryout. You’re always looking for that sleeper. You want to find that guy who people didn’t think would be amazing, like [Rajon] Rondo.
SLAM: Is the scouting profession what you thought it would be?
BJL: A little bit. There is a lot of time on the road and a lot of time breaking down a player. Like I said, from the beginning you think he looks great and then you kind of are told to watch this guy for up to a full season.
SLAM: Do you think you could run the Triangle from a coaching standpoint?
BJL: Yeah, I’ve been around it for so long. But it’s something that it’s hard to pick up. I mean, you’ve seen that we’ve had a lot of players in the past who have struggled with it and they don’t work out. But it’s something that works for us, right? [Laughs]
SLAM: When players are introduced to the Triangle, what’s their biggest barrier toward understanding it?
BJL: There are so many guys who have problems with it. I could get in trouble answering this. [Laughs]
SLAM: Well I don’t want to get you in trouble so let me re-phrase it. Lots of other offensive systems are very structured whereas the Triangle is free-flowing and permits players to make decisions. Is that freedom difficult for guys to get used to, that feeling of being able to let go?
BJL: Yeah, that”s probably a lot of it. It’s a different kind of game for them, so it is tough for them to let go a little bit. And it’s so much passing. It’s so different than what some of these guys are used to.
SLAM: There are so many legendary players and coaches who work in the Lakers organization. How often do you go to them for advice on learning more about the game?
BJL: From the very beginning, I actually talked a lot with [former Lakers general manager] Jerry West. He’s someone that I just totally admire. I’ve picked his brain about so much. He helped me in the beginning. And [assistant general manager] Ronnie Lester has really taken me under his wing. Bill Bertka, who’s the director of our scouting, is really great. He’s been around forever, so he’s helped me with stuff I don’t pick up. I’m really close with [special consultant] Bill Sharman, as well. Talking about a guy who’s done it all. You know him, Mr. Free Throw Shooter of All-Time, we’re always off about that. It’s great because they are these living legends. They’ve definitely been able to help me.
SLAM: Does it ever become overwhelming because there’s so much to learn from them but also some of it you have to learn on your own?
BJL: Yeah, that’s what is kind of neat. You can pull knowledge from each one of them and then create your own. Especially talking to the old-school guys. Their perception of the game and the way they played is obviously so different than now. I kind of like talking to the old-school guys.
SLAM: It takes scouts awhile to earn respect from their peers. Was that magnified for you because you’re a woman?
BJL: Oh, it was far more magnified. If I was another guy, it wouldn’t be a big deal. With me, especially the first time I was there, scouting at the NBA pre-Draft camp in Orlando. I was the only girl so people were thinking ‘What is she doing? She must be a girlfriend of one of the scouts, she’s in the wrong area.’ Even to this day, when I go scout, certain colleges that I’m going to for the first time will say, ‘Oh, you’re in the wrong section, media is over here.’ [Laughs] And then they realize that I’m a scout. Any female in a man’s world is going to be jumping over hurdles. Something like that is just motivation for me to work even harder.
SLAM: Were there ever times where you thought you could just do something else with your life?
BJL: I’m just one of those people when I’m told I can’t do something, it just fires me [up]. I’m a thick-skinned little girl. [Laughs] My dad was pretty strict growing up and kind of taught me to keep going and roll with the punches and get back on that horse when you get bucked off.
SLAM: You ever think about the similarities between you and referee Violet Palmer? You entered the NBA at roughly the same time, first females in your profession.
BJL: Yeah, you’re right. I think the reason mine has been a little more scrutinized is the fact I’ve taken so a completely different path from me starting off as a cheerleader and a model and a sports broadcaster. My path is so much different than other females in sports. I think that’s why mine is more under the microscope.
SLAM: Did cheerleading and modeling help or hurt you?
BJL: I think it hurts. I’m always trying to gain this credibility. It’s a constant battle because of my looks. People have this perception of if you’re pretty or if you’re a cheerleader, then you must be stupid. [Laughs]
SLAM: But you’ve been around the sport.
BJL: Yeah, but there is still this perception that coming from the path I have. I was getting respect from people in my organization and other scouts and Bill Sharman and Jerry West. I’m good with that. But there are always the outsiders who are always going to say something.
SLAM: Let’s go back to scouting. If you were running a basketball camp and there was one thing you could change fundamentally about players, what would that be?
BJL: Ball handling skills and footwork. The biggest thing is fundamentals. Maybe it’s because I’ve talked so much to Jerry West and Bill Sharman. But that’s a big thing that I think the guys of today have lost.
SLAM: What part of the fundamentals sticks out to you?
BJL: From a young age they’re just not taught. Like passing, sometimes we’ll have Bill Bertka come in with the D-Fenders and from the first day he’s teaching them stuff and they’re like, ‘We don’t want to do this.’ He’s telling them how to pass the ball. They don’t want to do it but all of a sudden they realize they didn’t have the right fundamentals from the beginning.
SLAM: How might the NBA change in the future. More running, more physical?
BJL: It’s funny because you have the showboaters and the dunkers and the kind of stuff that fans love, so I think more physical, if anything. If the refs will let them play the game.
SLAM: You have a unique perspective on the NFL and NBA since you’ve seen so much of each sports league up close. Which has the better athletes?
BJL: I’ll get in trouble with that one. [Laughs]. But you always say basketball players are the most athletic, running up and down the court like soccer players. They have this endurance that is just crazy. I’m definitely not going to say baseball players.
SLAM: What do you do to prepare for the season?
BJL: I think you’re preparing year-round. Like I said, we got the guys from summer league. The majority of the guys on our summer league team will be on our D-League team. They have a lot of guys who are working out constantly at the facility so you go in and you evaluate these guys while they’re there. You’re hitting the tape and watching the players. It sounds like I’m repeating myself but it is kind of the same thing.
SLAM: In baseball, scouts are celebrated and sometimes become famous for discovering one player who went on to greatness. That same scouting culture doesn’t seem to exist in basketball. Do you feel the pressure to uncover a “hidden game” kind of player?
BJL: I’m sure everyone wants to discover that gem and I’m certainly no exception; the best way to do that is focus on your day-to-day job. There’s plenty of talent out there. Focusing on everyone on the court will give you the best chance to find it.
SLAM: Does scouting for the Lakers carry a different aura than for other teams?
BJL: I think everyone looks at the Yankees, the Lakers and the Cowboys — those are the teams that have this history, they have a prestige about them. So obviously working for the Lakers is a dream come true. They’re just the best of the best. It starts from the top, down. Jerry Buss is one of the best owners around, and he treats everyone so great. It’s like a little family over there with the Lakers. Obviously when you’re winning championships, too, it doesn’t hurt.
SLAM: What are your career aspirations?
BJL: Well, I dream big. My goal is to own my own team or run my own team. Basketball, or I would love to own a baseball team or a football team. I’ve wanted to one day be able to run a team and own a team.