They gathered at the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, on Chick Hearn Drive and everything, for a public goodbye to Jerry Buss, with Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Stern, Shaquille O’Neal and others talking at a memorial for the Lakers owner who died last Monday. That was followed by a private ceremony Friday as Buss was laid to rest.
Mourners spoke with sincerity and humor – and even love, the way Johnson came to view Buss as a father figure – and in some cases tried to define Buss’ impact on the NBA since buying the Lakers in 1979. That was the easy part. Former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said “He was as innovative as anyone I’ve met in basketball in my four or five decades.” Stern noted a few years ago that “Jerry, quite simply, was a pioneer in understanding what the value of entertainment was in a community” and 10 titles is a statement all its own. Buss made historic contributions.
Placing him in the entire Lakers stratosphere, home to legends on and off the court, is tougher. Several of the 10 or 15 greatest talents in league history have played, or continue to play, for the franchise. One of them (West) is also among the best front-office minds ever. This is the organization that had the rarity of a broadcaster making the Hall of Fame.
Put it this way: Wilt Chamberlain casts a shadow over most every player in NBA history, but has trouble cracking the team’s top 10 because all he had was five seasons. Some were pretty remarkable (20.5 points and 21.1 rebounds in 1968-69, 27.3 points and 18.4 rebounds in 1969-70), but the cold reality is that the imposing Wilt wasn’t even the best center in the L.A. era. Abdul-Jabbar was, and O’Neal may be ahead of Chamberlain as well.
Strictly on impact during the Los Angeles years:
1. West. He averaged 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds while playing his entire 14-year career for the Lakers, numbers that stand out enough but are especial because he and Elgin Baylor helped the team carve out an audience after the franchise moved from Minneapolis. And then West became the personnel boss who kept L.A. in near-constant title contention. Plus, he coached three seasons. His presence with the Lakers span four decades – from 1960 through 2000 – and set standards as a player and executive.
2. Johnson. He was more than just great to the extent of three MVP awards, three Finals MVPs and centerpiece of five championship clubs. Johnson was, well, Magic. He was the embodiment of what Buss wanted in a glam franchise, he was a leader, and he was demanding in a way that was welcome at the time but would have been savaged today in the way every Bryant sideways look at a teammate is dissected.
3. Buss. The doctoral student in chemistry turned real-estate mogul turned owner was the only Laker who bought his way into the organization. Once there, he tilted life in Los Angeles toward the NBA, surpassing the Dodgers in passion in a change that once seemed impossible. Buss did more than just fund West’s jackpot roster moves. He made the money flow by promoting the Lakers as a Hollywood landmark with glitter falling off players as they breezed downcourt, which made the rest of the league jealous and/or angry but also made the rest of the league rich. Buss was known to meddle in personnel decisions, but, a gambler himself, also urged West to go for broke rather than play it safe.
4. Bryant. His on-court feats make him one of the legends regardless, but he gets extra credit as a player who bridged championship generations. Bryant may be known to many for being divisive but should be remembered, among the many positives, for being part of a continuation, no easy task. Simply, if Bryant does not work, prepare and will himself into becoming a superstar, the Lakers get more like one, maybe two, titles in the 2000s instead of the five.
5. Phil Jackson. Jackson was an underrated coach, far better on Xs and Os than most outside the game would credit, but his presence was undeniable. The credibility he built up from the Bulls years allowed him to tweak, drive, cajole and manage head-strong Bryant and head-strong O’Neal. Most others in the same situation would have become road kill.
6. Pat Riley. What a fit in style of play and style period. Riley mastered the psychological tricks long before Jackson and perfected the Showtime system Buss wanted, all the way to Riles becoming part of the Hollywood production himself. The slicked-back hair, the expensive suits, the draw to the spotlight, the growing ego – Riley fit the mold. Four titles in seven years said it was OK to be that way.
7. Abdul-Jabbar. Of course the numbers – the average of 22.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in 14 seasons in L.A., the three MVPs in that time, the five championships, the first two seasons of leading the league in five statistical categories each time. But the real impact is that Showtime doesn’t play out to full glory without his professionalism and preparation. Imagine if Abdul-Jabbar led with his ego when Magic splashed onto the scene. Imagine the infighting, imagine the trade possibilities that could have altered the NBA landscape for years. Kareem was a selfless, well-liked teammate from high school to college to the pros, and never was that more meaningful in setting an example of maturity with the Lakers.
8. O’Neal. People forget, in the rush to knock Shaq for his behavior late in his career, that the O’Neal of the Lakers years was an awesome display of power that few can come close to matching, let alone actually being on the same short list. When the work effort matched the talent, he was that rarity of the player no team could answer. And when the work effort didn’t, because of health or dedication, he still put up Hall of Fame numbers.
9. Baylor. He never won a championship, which pained him decades later anytime someone mentioned it as a needle, but an incredible forward who once averaged at least 27 points a game in five out of six seasons. It was Baylor, not West, who was the established star to attract attention when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
10. Chick Hearn. A tough call between Hearn and Chamberlain. Chick’s impact on the Lakers, though, is greater. He had a huge role popularizing the NBA after the move from Minneapolis and, in decades to come, became nothing short of one of the popular men in the city, if not the sporting world. Hearn was a connection that lasted decades.