Over the last few years a vocal set of Lakers’ observers — be it fans or media — consistently called Kobe Bryant the elephant in the room. Kobe was holding the team back, they said. His contract, his dominant persona, his power and sway from two decades of successful NBA summit climbing giving him carte blanche over one of the marquee brands in all of sports. This was the popular narrative for many.
I’d argue, though, that the real elephant in the room was the Buss Family dynamic. The whispers of discord were always present, like the hum from the a/c unit on a hot summer day. After Dr. Jerry Buss passed away, his children were to lead the organization forward and, it seemed, they just couldn’t get on the same page. The hiring and firing of coaches was an especially touchy subject, one tied to personal relationships that fed into reported mistrust which only escalated pre-existing hard feelings.
While the Lakers wait on their new head coach to finish his playoff run with his current team, there are many questions which still need answering. Will they keep their lottery pick? If they do, who will they draft? Will they even keep that player? What about the 32nd pick in the draft? What about free agency? And on and on we go. These questions are the symptoms of hope, something fans haven’t had much of while dealing with the dread of a 17 win season.
While the actions which come over the next few months will determine whether that hope is well founded, it’s the decision makers whose final calls on all the above which matter most. With that, it becomes quite important (and beneficial) to have insight into their thought process on where this team is, where it’s going, and how they plan to get it there. As it just so happens, then, we have lucked out. Jim Buss recently spoke with Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders and gave thoughts on the team’s young players, hiring Luke Walton, and more.
We’ve reached a point with the Lakers where when an executive speaks, we have to hold our breath for the inevitable backlash as each sentence is broken down, word by word. Tuesday morning, when tweets came across the timeline that Jeanie Buss would be speaking publicly on the state of the Lakers with Colin Cowherd, my immediate and visceral reaction was “great, more of this.” In following with recent seasons, her comments didn’t meet my already considerably lowered expectations.
The appearance leaves more questions than answers, following a trend the Lakers need to correct if the organization wants to earn back the fanbase’s confidence they’ve lost due to how these last few seasons have gone.
Byron Scott is no longer the Lakers’ coach. While a vocal portion of fans rejoice loudly, right with them there is also a chorus of questions about next steps and whether those in charge are going to make a coaching decision which propels the team forward. The doubts this will happen are real and they exist for the exact reason there is even a choice to make now.
I have a hard time reading the tea leaves when it comes to what Byron Scott’s future might entail. Last month, when a report surfaced that the Lakers were “torn” on whether Scott would return for a third season as Lakers’ head coach, I was not really surprised. I am sure Scott has backers in the front office (remember, these people hired him) and Scott is Lakers’ family due to his showtime connections.
When that last point is put into the context of the Lakers being a family business, it truly matters. There were whispers for a long time that Dr. Buss was quite fond of Scott and as a coach whose biggest influence is Pat Riley, that connection to the past is strong.
That said, when the aforementioned report surfaced, I also wrote a leak like this signified that Scott also has detractors in the front office. That there’s no reason for a leak like this to come out unless Scott being let go was truly a consideration. And that concerns which go beyond the team’s record and spill into how he’s handled the team’s young players might carry more weight than the circumstances he’s faced with injuries (his first season) and the Kobe retirement tour + incorporating a slew of young players (season two).
Why does this matter today? Well, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck floated an interesting theory this morning on Scott’s potential future with the organization which adds another variable to the equation:
It is not new news that Jim Buss (and, by association, maybe Mitch Kupchak) has a self imposed deadline for returning the Lakers back into contention. That word — contention — has been defined as competing for a conference championship and/or an NBA championship, so one would assume a push into the 2nd round with either a win or a very competitive loss would be needed to qualify.
The actual timeline has been somewhat debated, but Jeanie Buss has gone on the record, again, to explain that the timeline is by the end of next season. She reiterated this just a few days ago and USA Today’s Sam Amick has the details:
He was a child of the depression, an old school business player and he struck it rich the way the old players did, swinging hard and swinging all night. Jerry Buss earned his doctorate in physical chemistry and made a fortune in real estate which he turned into a bigger fortune in sports. He wasn’t as diversified as some of today’s owners but he lived a lot larger and won larger too – ten NBA titles and that won’t happen again. He liked to be called Dr. Buss, hung out at the Playboy mansion and drove a purple Rolls. He talked softly, had an easy smile and wasn’t shy about dropping the hammer when he had to. And now he’s gone.
The passing of a giant overshadowed most of the other current basketball news, especially for Lakers fans. It reminded us of the frailty of life but in truth we’re reminded every day and sports is no exception – there’s a reason you see so many gimpy jocks and a reason their shelf lives are so short. It’s a tradeoff – they blow out their joints and stress their organs and leave it all on the floor, and some go even harder when they truly believe, when there’s a goal in sight, a unified mission, a team structure, a culture of winning. Or in the case of Dwight Howard, a culture of fun.
Tonight the Lakers face another team with injuries and old stories, the Boston Celtics. There’s a sizable gap between their respective records this season – Boston has faced adversity with their customary zeal and bunker mentality and will play after losing in Denver last night. The Lakers meanwhile have been heading down a wrongheaded path since Phil Jackson limped off into the not-quite-sunset. Is it Jim Buss’s fault? Not entirely. There were some lean years during Jerry Buss’s prime so let’s not forget that. Still, being a Laker under the good doctor’s stewardship held an undeniable panache.
It is truly a sad day for the Laker organization, the city of Los Angeles, and the team’s fans all over the world. Jerry Buss was not just a great owner, but was also great ambassador of the game and, most of all, a great person. He will be sorely missed.
Across the internet, tributes to Dr. Buss have been presented for consumption and, below, we share some of those with you.
Dr. Jerry Buss, longtime owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed away today at 5:55 am after a long illness. He was 80 years old.
“We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community,” a statement released on behalf of the Buss family said.
Dr. Buss had been hospitalized much of the past 18 months in a battle which “showed his amazing strength and will to live. It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy,” the statement concluded.
He is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California; eight grandchildren; former wife JoAnn of Las Vegas; half sister Susan Hall of Phoenix; half brother Micky Brown of Scottsdale; and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyoming.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Lakers Youth Foundation or a charity of the donor’s choice.
From Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Los Angeles: The man smiling in all the pictures, the one in blue jeans and a casual shirt with a beautiful young woman on his arm, looks as though luck has smiled on him once or twice in his day. And truth be told, Dr. Jerry Buss, who turned a $1,000 real estate investment into the keys to the Los Angeles Lakers, and went on to become one of the most influential and successful owners in professional sports, did get one very important break when Magic Johnson fell into the Lakers’ arms the very same year he bought the team. But to chalk up his remarkable life to the whims of fate and fortune is profoundly shortsighted. It wasn’t luck that brought Buss from a Great Depression food line in a frigid corner of Wyoming to the sun-kissed boulevards of Los Angeles and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was vision.
From Steve Springer, Yahoo! Sports: For most men, such a swift and impressive rise would have been enough to savor for a lifetime. Not Jerry Buss. He had his eyes on bigger prizes. That same year, 1979, he pulled off arguably the most complicated and lucrative transaction in sports history. Buss’ savvy real-estate investments helped make him a fortune. Supported by an army of approximately 50 lawyers and accountants, Buss purchased the Lakers, the Kings hockey team, the Inglewood Forum and the 13,000-acre Raljon Ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. The deal broke down to $33.5 million for the Forum, $16 million for the Lakers, $10 million for the ranch and $8 million for the Kings. Cooke, in exchange, received the lease to the Chrysler Building in New York, and properties in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland. When the deal was done, 12 separate escrows finalized, Buss spent his first day at the Forum inspecting the crown jewel of his properties. As the workday ended and the arena emptied out, he lingered, surrounded by only a few security people. With no event that night at the Forum, Buss took a chair and walked down to the empty floor where he was surrounded by silence and darkness, except for a few scattered lights. He sat down at what would be mid-court or center ice, took out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled the magnitude of his surroundings. In his mind’s eye, he could see the seats packed, his Lakers and Kings moving up and down the floor or ice, his championship banners on the wall. Smiling, Buss told himself, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: What many basketball fans will remember him for is winning — the Lakers won 10 NBA titles under his ownership and made it to the finals 13 times. They produced legends of the game such as Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, plus welcomed others such as Shaquille O’Neal. Under Buss’ watch the Lakers grew into the center of the Los Angeles sports universe, and one of the most recognized brands in all of sport. But where Buss was truly an innovator was off the court. Back in 1979 most NBA owners treated basketball as, well, basketball. You came to the game, there was nothing else. Buss understood what he had purchased was an entertainment enterprise that sold basketball. He bought the steak, what he needed to add was sizzle. First in came the Laker Girls, the first dance team unit in the league. Next was Dancing Barry — a guy in top hat and tails who would dance through the crown during timeouts, which seems quaint now but was a revolution in entertainment back in the day. Soon music was being pumped through the arena during breaks. Nobody else was doing that, but Buss started putting on a show with basketball at the heart of it. Buss made Lakers games the coolest place to be seen in L.A., and the celebrities flocked (and still do). Buss established the Forum Club so celebrities had a place to throw back a few cocktails (and plenty of drugs, if we’re going to be honest) before, after and during the game. When they left the club those celebrities sat in very visible courtside seats. Jerry Buss lived that lifestyle, too — he was always seen with a beautiful young woman on his arm. He was part of the scene. None of it would have worked if the team stunk, but in the Lakers first draft after Buss bought the team they got the No. 1 pick and selected Magic Johnson. He and Buss were a perfect fit — Magic wanted to entertain and had a bigger-than-life personality on the court. It was Showtime and it was fun to watch — plus they won. A lot. It was a captivating era of the NBA that lifted the league out of a time in the 1970s when NBA finals games were taped delayed and shown at midnight.
From J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Don’t confuse Buss’ distance with disinterest. He felt better served by watching the games from halfway up the arena, rather than courtside, because the higher vantage point allowed him to see the plays and patterns of the game unfold. As for his occasional decision to, say, stay out West and hop over to Las Vegas rather than watch the Lakers in the Finals because he couldn’t think of anything fun to do in Indianapolis, ask yourself what you’d rather have as a fan: an owner who watches his team in the NBA Finals or an owner who consistently gets his team to the NBA Finals? The Lakers went to the NBA Finals 16 times in Buss’ 33 years as owner — about once every two years, on average. For Buss, wait ’til next year wasn’t a lament, it was a promise. He won with Magic and Kareem, he won with Shaq and Kobe, he won with Kobe and Gasol. He won with Jerry West as general manager and with Mitch Kupchak as the GM. He won with Paul Westhead as coach, then Pat Riley, then Phil Jackson, then Phil Jackson again. Buss was the constant over three decades. He made the Lakers glamorous, bringing in the Laker Girls to dance in front of A-list celebrities, turning the Lakers into the entertainment industry’s entertainment. He never forgot that the product came first, so he steadily reinvested the proceeds into the payroll. He signed Magic to a 25-year, $25 million contract back when that was considered an outlandish sum. He spent $121 million for Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. This season’s team has a $100 million payroll. In 2002, when the Lakers were en route to their third consecutive championship, there was concern they wouldn’t have a clear shot at a fourth because Buss wanted to slash payroll and get the team below the luxury tax threshold. Then they beat the Nets in the Finals, and at a victory party afterward a giddy Buss came up to me and said, “I’ve got a secret for you: We’re going way over the tax! I love winning!”
From Mike Trudell, Lakers.com: Innovative in numerous areas, Dr. Buss made break throughs in advertising (like a major agreement with Great Western Bank in 1988), served served two terms as President of the NBA Board of Governors and helped launch Prime Ticket Network (now FS West/Prime Ticket) in 1985. He got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 in a ceremony he shared with his team’s staff, including each of his six children (Jeanie, Johnny, Jim, Janie, Joey and Jesse) who are continually active in the franchise. Among his numerous philanthropic efforts, Dr. Buss focused on supporting education and the needs of disadvantaged youth and the elderly, leading to honors from such organizations as the City of Hope, NAACP, the B’nai B’rith, United Negro College Fund, United Indian Development Associations, American Hebrew University, National Organization of Women, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and Heart of Los Angeles Youth among many others. Dr. Buss also provided resources for scholarships at Wyoming and USC, and endowed the Magic Johnson Scholarship at Michigan State University.
From Jeff Shultz, Atlanta Journal Constitution: Eventually, and I seem to recall it was just before the sun came up, it was time for the last four or five of us to leave. Somebody had to drive Buss back home – to Pickfair. I regret to say it wasn’t me — it would’ve made this story better. But I have this lingering memory of leaving the parking lot, looking in the rearview mirror and barely seeing the top of Buss’s head in the car behind me as he was slowly sinking down in the passenger seat. It was the end of the show for one night. But there would be others. Magic Johnson starred in “Showtime,” but Jerry Buss produced it. He was a rarity for a sports owner then, and even now, one who connected with people at every level. The sports world has lost a great one. It was cool to have known him.
(UPDATED) From Kevin Ding, OC Register: With savvy decisions that played out both inside and outside of the arena, Buss was always the smartest and most daring guy in the room. That includes the high-stakes poker room, his most recent passion that challenged him to match wits with the best professional poker players in the world. Buss’ intelligence was applicable to a variety of realms: He started out a graduate of the University of Wyoming with a degree in chemistry, believing education would be his springboard to whatever else he could imagine. He was right. Buss sought his doctorate in physical chemistry from USC, bringing him to the area with which he would become so identified. He shifted gears from the aerospace field into real estate – turning a $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building into a Lakers empire that today is valued conservatively at $1 billion by Forbes magazine. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was swayed by Buss’ last-ditch phone call in 2004 in choosing to stay a Laker rather than sign with the Clippers, called Buss “extremely, extremely intelligent and extremely patient.” “You think about the rivalry that took place between the Lakers and the Celtics and what that did for the global outreach of the game,” Bryant said. “It reached me, and I was all the way in Italy and I was only 6 years old.”
Commissioner Stern said today that, “The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come. More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend. Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time.”
And, if you simply hop on twitter, you’ll find countless anecdotes from so many basketball writers, players, and historians. The common theme is that Jerry Buss truly was one of a kind.
Finally, I leave you with Dr. Buss speaking with another Laker Legend — the late great Chick Hearn — talking about Buss’ role as an owner, expansion, and other league topics: