Lee Klose was born in California and now lives in Arizona. Her book, Late for the Buss: An Adoption Story explores the confusion she felt as a child and the challenges she faced as an adult seeking biological information on her family of origin. After a lifetime of searching, she discovered that she is the eldest child of Dr. Gerald Buss, the legendary owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. With six younger siblings who knew nothing about her and the realization that she has no legal claim to the family wealth, Lee continued to write and eventually met her siblings and most importantly, her mother, JoAnn just before she passed away. In this interview, I sit down with Lee to discuss her story and what it is like to be Unknown Buss.
Joe: Lee, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really looking forward to learning more about you and hearing more about your story.
Lee: Thank you!
Joe: So for those of you who don’t know, Lee is the author of the new book Late for the Buss: An Adoption Story. I read the book recently and it really stuck with me. So I have a couple questions I want to ask you and I’ll start at an early part of your book.
You mention that “writing this book has been an experience like none other in your life. It has been a healing journey and a harrowing one all at the same time.”
So – two part question here. What motivated you to continue writing through the harrowing times? And what was healing about the writing process?
Lee: Well I’ve always been a journal writer. So, writing is part of my life and that was my healing journey. As I was working on trying to find my birth family (the Buss family), the writing process, everything about it was healing. By the time I started writing the book, I had found out who my birth family was, and I took my journaling and interwove it with what was happening – and that felt really good.
The harrowing part of it was because the family is a celebrity family and they are well known, I didn’t know exactly what the repercussions might be, and I didn’t know how to present it. So, I was nervous. I was also putting my life out there as an open book. Through therapy I was encouraged to keep writing and to put it all down on paper, so I did!
Joe: Did you ever any concerns that people would not believe you, especially since your family is a celebrity family?
Lee: No. That is the beauty of ancestry, even though none of my immediate family had joined ancestry, the research about ancestry and DNA made everything both positive and certain. And since they are a celebrity family, I was able to find a bunch of pictures and discovered a lot about my birth father and the puzzle pieces all fit for my non-identifying information. So, no. I never had any concerns about people not believing me. And I look just like them too, so I was never worried about that.
Joe: That’s the benefit of all of our scientific innovation! You can really prove something beyond doubt or question.
Anyway, I found so much of your book interesting. But one thing I found fascinating was your early thoughts on being adopted.
You said, “I don’t remember exactly when my parents told me that I was adopted, but it may have been about the same time I was learning how to ride a tricycle. Neither event caused me much worry”.
But then you talk about that moment in third grade, when you felt that “sting” of being adopted for the very first time when teachers were talking about you. Why was it easy to accept very early on in childhood? And why do you think it eventually began to “sting” when you were a third grader?
Lee: Sure, I think as a little girl when you are five years old, you trust the world and you don’t second guess it. Everything is fun! You find a butterfly, have ice cream in a cone, your world is small and safe. You just live in the moment and have fun.
Then when you get a little older and start school, the world gets a little bigger. By the time I was in third grade, I was building confidence and feeling pretty good even though I had already moved a few times. I was always a go-forward type of person. But then when I heard my teacher say to another teacher, “Well, she is adopted..” All of a sudden – wham, I got hit.
I had this feeling of inferiority that I had never felt before.
Joe: At that moment or at any other moment of your childhood, did you start to think about your birth parents more frequently?
Lee: Oh absolutely. By third grade, you can understand as a child about who gives birth, and who doesn’t. My adopted parents were older, and they never tried to hide anything from me. So I knew that my adopted mother didn’t give birth to me. So it was like .. who did? Where is she? What does she look like? Those kinds of things.
Joe: It’s interesting that you always will have that inner desire to know even though you share in your book how your adopted family was great, and that you love them, and have so many wonderful memories. For example, I love that moment in your book where you talk about Aunt Fay watching the Lakers. It just reminded me so much of how I watch the Sixers. Like her, I’m always pacing around the room, nervously tapping, just trying to get through the games and not really having fun during them.
Lee: I can visualize her today tapping her fingers. I can see the kitchen table. I can see the little TV. She was just so into the Lakers.
Joe: I’m the same way, just pacing back and forth. And that brings me to something that I really like about your book – as you go through your story, you always keep the connection between your life and the Buss family. You always share an update, and I thought that was really interesting. As their life moves forward, you continue to make it known that you are the Unknown Buss, and I thought that parallel storytelling was really well-done, and I think readers will really enjoy it.
Lee: Yeah there’s a couple favorites that I have – I have 14 different interspersed parallels of what was going on in their life and in my life. Two of my favorites are – the connection between the Hollywood Walk of Fame and also the Chrysler building, that’s a good one.
Joe: I do want to know what it feels like to look back at your life now, knowing that you lived all of those years completely unaware of your birth family’s activity. Does it frustrate you? Are you at peace? I’m just so curious what it’s like on your end to know now what your blood family was doing as you were navigating your way through the world.
Lee: Well, the answer to that is yes and yes. Of course I was frustrated and yes, I’m at peace. But that was again because I had a great therapist, and I was always a curious child, and I just never gave up. So, the frustration lasted a really long time – even when I had non-identifying information. So a lot of frustration, of course.
Joe: So speaking of frustration, you speak about moments of your life in great detail. Your childhood, adolescent years (which are always fun), and adult life. When you look back at your life, can you point to any and say, “this one was the most challenging to endure as an adoptee?” Or did they all present equally difficult circumstances?
Lee: Laughs* Well, I would say that we didn’t have an easy life financially, but my adopted mom would say things like – when things were not so good – “I cried when I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet”. And that would throw me back into reality. But my adopted parents stuck together through it all, and that had a lot to do with my resilience.
Joe: It takes time. It takes time to learn how to put things into perspective. But you always took great advantage of opportunities. Specifically, I’m thinking about how you got your corporate career started with Rubbermaid when your friend, Kerry, had to turn down a job offer because her husband wouldn’t allow it – so you interviewed with them.
Can you discuss what contributed to you professional success as you began your career as a young adult?
Lee: Sure, sometimes things fall in your lap. I have a very good friend who wanted to go to work for a company as what they called a marketing rep. She came home so excited, she got the job, told her husband. And he said, “No, you can’t be out there working with men, we’re not having that”.
That was the 1970s. There was so much of that. It was so much different than it was today. Men were the decision makers and she called me all upset letting me know that she couldn’t have the job, and that I should interview for it. I called and I interviewed, and I got the job. I always like to compare it to the Butterfly Effect – when a butterfly flaps its wings it could change something around the world.
When you stop and think about decisions that are made, and how that changes your life forever, it is fascinating. And I had a lot of those things happen to me.
Joe: So much of your life revolves around the butterfly effect. Now, as your life went on, you raised your son, Scott, and built your own life, you started to feel more secure and comfortable with your life as an adoptee. But then when your father passed, you mention that the adoption wound began to open once again. Why did your father’s passing make you start thinking more about your birth father?
Lee: My adopted father was my champion. Even when I got in trouble, he was right there for me. When he passed, I lost that. I knew by that time with the non-identifying information, that my birth father – at the age of 20, already had his Bachelors degree and was on a fast track to a PhD in chemistry. So, my imagination made me wonder if I could find a replacement father! My birth father is probably a professor at a local California university, so maybe I could find him!
Joe: I could imagine feeling the same way. You need that in your heart, to know that someone else is out there. Now, I go to the early days of your ancestry search. I keep thinking about how you went through every nook and cranny of Ancestry.com, emailing anyone with cousin status/relation to you.
Lee: Well you could say that I was obsessed because many nights I stayed up all night long trying to figure out what it all meant. I would constantly email people that Ancestry.com recognized as first-cousins. But when you have nothing to go on, they think – who is this weirdo? I got better at writing the emails as time went on though. It seemed more natural when I would introduce myself. I was able to match with relatives by evaluating Centimorgan data. Centimorgans are the units used to measure for the frequency of genetic recombination. When there is a high number of centimorgans, it’s pretty clear. But when you go down the list, it can be a wide array of relatives.
Joe: And speaking of that, what was it like when you got that first reply? For so long, it seems like it’s going nowhere. But then, Aunt Susan finally replies. Can you talk about this moment in your life – can you share what you felt as you began to speak to Susan and finally make some progress?
Lee: I wrote in my journal, “never, ever give up”. It took a year, and it was amazing. By that time, I had done more research and had some other second cousins who had contacted me. And I knew that Susan was more than a first cousin. When I first spoke on the phone with her and found out she was an author, the whole world opened up. I learned about her book that was dedicated to her brother – Jerry Buss. And it all clicked.
Joe: What was it like when it finally hit you that she is your father’s sister, and your father is Jerry Buss – can you even put it into words?
Lee: It’s very visual because I knew who Jerry Buss was. If anybody is involved in sports, they know who Jerry Buss is/was. It is hard to put it into words because I waited for so long and did so many searches. And then, all of a sudden, there it is. The answer.. in black and white.
Joe: Jerry passed away in 2013 and you discovered this all in 2018, do you ever feel frustrated that you can never meet him?
Lee: I missed him, didn’t I? That was very frustrating and very sad for me. What’s bizarre is – Jerry is so well known, so I could just go on YouTube and search for him – and so much pops up digitally. But I could never say hello.
Joe: And now there are so many Lakers shows! I mean you have John C. Reilly portraying your father in an HBO show.
Lee: Yeah, let me say something about that. It was based on a book by Jeff Pearlman, and it’s fun. It’s a little juicy, a little X rated in some cases. Some of it is right on, and some is hyperbole. For example, Jerry’s mother has a prominent part in the show, but she died before Jerry ever bought the Lakers. So, you have to take it all in stride and know that it all isn’t 100% true. That’s why the other documentary is coming out on Hulu.
Joe: These shows all will dramatize it and make it more interesting for TV. But it makes for good entertainment. I also want to go back to your father’s passing. The beginning of chapter 12 really sticks with me. You discuss the obituaries for your father that say, “Dr. Buss is survived by his six children” and that it would “pierce your heart”. I can’t imagine how I would feel. How did you cope with this – knowing that YOU are truly his daughter too? How did you process all of it – since it was as though you never existed.
Lee: That always hurt. Every time I saw it, I thought – I want to call and speak to the newspaper and the author! There’s another Buss out there. There’s an Unknown Buss, and I’m the oldest daughter. I also knew because of my Aunt Susan; I knew that my story would come out in the right way at the right time. So I pulled back and I would journal about it. I knew it would unfold the way it was supposed to unfold.
Joe: Can you take us through your mental health journey throughout this process?
Lee: Well, I believe in therapy. The best gift I ever gave myself was the gift of therapy. There’s a pretty good story about that in the book. I was fortunate to have one of the best psychiatrists in the country and in the world. He was a doctor first who worked with Native Americans, and he learned that mind-body connection. I was fortunate because I saw him when I first got my non-identifying information, and he walked me through that. I was able to participate in native-led sweat lodges. And then 25 years later, when he was almost 80 years old – a basketball fan by the way, I called him and told him about my birth family. He agreed to see me again. Not everyone can be that fortunate to see the same therapist for 25 years who knows the story and can help me through it every step of the way.
Joe: So what was it like to meet the first person in your birth family – Aunt Susan? I’d like to talk about that amazing meet-up at the Olive Garden – November 21, 2018, where you meet your flesh and blood. What was it like meeting Aunt Susan? What was it like to find out your birth name – Marie?
Lee: Aunt Susan was a treasure. When we first met, I already knew who she was, but I didn’t want to tell her until we saw each other face to face. So as soon as we sat down and looked at each other, I had the papers and she just sat there quietly. I said, “are you ready?” And that’s when she uttered my birth name (Marie). The whole world changed. That’s the Butterfly Effect. There’s a song by Johnny Cash called A Boy Named Sue. Well, never liked my name. I was the girl named Lee. I never liked it! When I heard my birth name, Marie, it changed my life. It was so pretty, and such an ancient name. I loved it. She never called me anything other than that.
Joe: Did you make Marie your middle name?
Lee: It’s funny because I did that right at the beginning when I found out because I thought, “I’ll just go by Lee Marie”. I started doing Lee Marie and then I got so many questions about it. I put it on Zoom and people who knew the story really enjoyed that.
Joe: It’s interesting that you mentioned the mind-body connection because discovering your birth family actually started “eating your heart out”. I know how mental stress can be as – if not more – draining than physical stress. What was the physical and mental impact like during this time?
Lee: The fact that the Buss family is so high profile caused a lot of the stress. My Aunt Susan cautioned me. She said to be careful, and that it’s a big story and to let it develop on its own. I would see my siblings in the media, and I could see but never touch. But everything had to go a certain way, which it did, and that was a lot of the stress. Sometimes I’m like, if only I just had a normal family down the street… There is a family mediator and we’ve become good friends. I told him one time that I just want to play Pictionary in the living room with my brothers and sisters. Maybe someday.
Joe: What is your relationship with your siblings like now?
Lee: For anyone out there, I want to make it very clear that I have no legal claim to the Buss family wealth. I was given away properly at birth before Jerry made any money. I want that to be very clear. The siblings have been very nice to me. They have been very darling. We’ve had nice times together. I was in California for my 69th birthday, and they were all there. We had a blast. We were having so much fun and laughing, and it was as if we grew up together.
Joe: That is great to hear. Especially after you couldn’t have a relationship with your birth father, it’s good that you can have that with your biological siblings. It’s a win from the story.
Lee: I’m fascinated by nature versus nurture and DNA. When we first got together, the thing that amazed me so much is that we all have blonde hair about the same length. We’re all in our 60s, but have the same straight long blonde hair.
Joe: Do they feel like your siblings?
Lee: Yes. Very much so.
Joe: I can understand that. I can go years without seeing my brothers and always feel that connection. So, you were able to meet your mother, JoAnn. I don’t want to spoil too much of it because everyone should read this book. But it will stick with me for a long time. Did you feel love in your heart for your mother when you saw her for the first time in 65 years?
Lee: Absolutely. Every year on my birthday I would think about her, and I would say a prayer for her to be okay. The timing could not have been much shorter – she passed eight months to the day that we met. So we didn’t have much time, and it was a miracle to meet her. It was love at (second) sight.
Joe: It was such a great moment in your book. And if you had both parents in a room with you right now, what do you think you would say to them?
Lee: Well, I’d like to have both sets of parents in the room at the same time. I know that they handed me over, and I would like to ask my birth parents what that was like. I’d like to ask what their first impressions were of my adopted parents. And then, I’d like to ask my adopted parents what their first impression was of my birth parents. I would just love to ask both sets of parents what it was like to meet each other, and what it was like to pass me off at three days old.
Joe: I think that something really admire about you is that you just have so much appreciation. It’s so easy to be in your shoes and feel resentful at times. I just really admire how you are so loving regarding the Buss family, and so appreciative of your adoptive family. You don’t hold any grudges or resentment. It’s so admirable. You seem at peace. It speaks a lot about you as a person.
I do want to ask a fun question. As I mentioned, I love the Sixers, even though they make me sad. So, what is your fan allegiance, Suns or Lakers?
Lee: You know when my son was growing up, it was sports every minute. But I’m not that involved with sports. But if you ask the little kid in me, I will tell you I’m a Lakers fan – and the Dodgers. My aunt and uncle were sports nuts, and they gave me the love of the Lakers and Dodgers. My adopted parents were not sports people, but my aunt and uncle taught me that sports love. But as an adult, I would tell you that my adult history is with the Suns! But, if you ask the future me, nobody really knows yet.
Joe: So I think I want to ask you one more question. How has it been – since your book has been released – have you heard a lot of responses from readers? I’m very curious what the feedback has been like for your book.
Lee: Without giving too much of the story away, I’ve had a lot of readers reach out about some of my teenage decisions. There have been plenty of good laughs, but it turns out I was more of a rebel than a lot of people thought was! Some people are fascinated by the ancestry part of it if they are involved with genealogy, but everyone pulls something different out of it. It’s been really fun.
Joe: You can get a lot out of it. You can nerd out about the ancestry, and it’s also a coming of age story as you’re growing up and discovering who you are. I enjoyed all of it. I recommend everyone reads it. Thank you so much for your time. And remember you can purchase Lee’s book, Late for the Buss: An Adoption Story on BookBaby Bookshop and anywhere else you purchase books.
Lee: Thank you, Joe.