LOS ANGELES – The choice was for a warm four-minute reflection Wednesday night before the game, with Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” photos from baby pictures through June champagne showers, a speech by Kobe Bryant and words from Jerry Buss himself drifting down to the crowd via the public-address system.
It was nice. It was touching. It was before the Lakers played the Celtics, so there was even a “Boston sucks!” or two screamed from the stands.
But, really, there could be no way to say goodbye to Buss that would truly capture the breadth of his impact. Point guard Magic Johnson had an easier job playing center in the 1980 Finals as a rookie, Derek Fisher had a better chance of burning the Spurs with 0.4 seconds remaining in 2004, and Robert Horry against the Kings in 2002 was a layup by comparison.
That was how much Buss meant to a franchise, to a city, to a league and to an entire sport, and now those same operations have started the impossible task of framing the life of a young man who earned a doctorate in chemistry, became a self-made millionaire in real estate and owned one of the most famous sports franchises in the world.
Wednesday, playing for the first time since Buss passed away Monday at age 80, the Lakers wore patches with an italicized “JB” on the right chest. They lined up, pretty much sideline to sideline, in front of the bench, just as the Celtics did at the other end.
An 80-second video montage of photographs was first. Buss as a baby. Buss with Magic Johnson. Buss in front of the Forum, the Lakers home before Staples Center. Buss with Bryant. Buss with family. Buss with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Buss with the Laker Girls when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Buss at his Hall of Fame induction.
When the images stopped, the loud ovation started, about 30 seconds in all. Bryant spoke.
Buss, Bryant said, was “the greatest owner in sports. Ever. He was a brilliant, incredible owner, but he was even a better person with a great heart. His vision transcended the game and we are all – all – spoiled by his vision and by his drive to win year after year.”
Bryant asked everyone to join in a moment of silence. The arena went mostly dark, with slivers of light from the concourse peeking through tunnels, flickering flashes from cameras and some bulbs still shining from the timing boxes above the baskets and the smaller scoreboards around the arena. A beam shined on Buss’ usual seat in the now-empty suite.
Then, his voice.
“The real purpose of what I do is to try to have the city totally involved and identify with it,” he said. “I wanted that when you think L.A. – ‘Oh, wait. That’s where the Lakers play.’ Lakers, Lakers. That’s what I want.”
The crowd applauded again and the game began.
Thursday afternoon, there will be a memorial service downtown, close to Staples Center. The Lakers will head over after practice. Commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver are scheduled to fly in from New York in the morning. Many of the greatest Lakers – Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant, Pat Riley – are expected to talk.
That group of speakers will do very well, just as Wednesday night was a touching remembrance that ended with the 113-99 win over the dreaded Celtics. But this process is going to be difficult. There is no way to really sum up such a unique life.