The White Shadow

Oct 8, 2013; Ontario, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss attends the game against the Denver Nuggets at Citizens Business Bank Arena. The Lakers defeated the Nuggest 90-88. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

He is responsible for all of it, there is no one else to blame. It was on his watch, the Kobe Bryant contract extension. He is the reason the Lakers have yet to sign a starting point guard. Without regret he hired a coach that has never coached defense. These are his business decisions, no can save Jim Buss from what he has done. No one can reassure him either. Because Lakers basketball is a job without mercy. You are judged. You are not forgiven.

All men have flaws. The best men, the greatest men, the most influential men have flaws. The worst men, the most vulnerable men, especially destructive men have flaws. But here lies the difference with those that occupy a dynamic place in our culture, the ones who are revered: what we remember about them is not what they may have done wrong. Or what they did not achieve. Or how they slipped and fell in their careers. Or how they misjudged a situation. No one is immune from bad luck or ups and downs or bad years. But there are a small number of people who actually glow. They radiate confidence, success, intelligence, persistence, desire. You can call it charisma or charm or poise or salesmanship, the language hardly matters. What is relevant are the magical threads they weave around us, convincing us of their possibilities. We walk in their light because we need to believe what is in them is possible. It is in us too.

From the moment he left Wyoming to attend USC and then, years later, as he traveled along the glittery streets of Los Angeles and began buying and selling real estate and amassing a personal fortune which he leveraged into the complicated acquisition to buy the Lakers from irascible Jack Kent Cooke the evidence was overwhelmingly clear. Jerry Buss was a star. But this is also true: his second son inherited very little of his father’s gift, the instinct and certainty and swag; birthright should matter but in this case the divide is huge. Compared to his father, Jim Buss is like that house on the corner with a good foundation but something is wrong with the roof or the windows.

At the age of twenty six Jim became president of a professional soccer team. The team, the Lazers, had relocated to Los Angeles after they were purchased by Jim’s father. They drew only four thousand fans partly because Los Angeles never had a strong soccer base. In 1985 the team was particularly dreadful. In his version of a pep talk Jim informed the players that only a few of them had a chance at a new contract. The players responded as expected, in mutiny. The team finished in last place.

Behavior operates in a pattern of memory; people do the same thing over and over which explains a lot, it explains Jim Buss. There is no other way to describe it than to say JIm was a loser, a public one, the son who was not the father. If anything is true in life it is that reputation precedes you and reputation lords over you. It is what you build and what you destroy. It is what your name means, not to a friend but to a stranger. So Jim Buss is the past and Jim Buss is the present. Lose here, lose there, injury here, injury there, descending player here, descending player there, bad coach there, bad coach here.

Jim was an assistant to Jerry West. It was during the Lakers second renaissance, the first being the Showtime era, and Jerry could walk on water. He traded for Kobe Bryant, a stunning development since he traded for a player thought to be a huge risk. He yanked Shaquille O’Neal out of Orlando by paying him the most money. He pursued junior college transfer Nick Van Exel, a troubled soul but talent recognizes talent. He drafted Eddie Jones, a tough nosed dedicated player. Jerry West was himself a tortured man, one who depended on self scorn but he was a mythical figure to the outside world, one who had a gift: he identified greatness. This was the father in him, the father he wanted for himself but never received- Jerry loved the players he loved with a vengeance, he believed in their possibilities, he fought for their right to assert themselves, he nurtured their sorrows.

One of the truisms about children of the rich is the old saying about being born on third base and thinking you have hit a triple. And so it was that Jim Buss in his first year working for Jerry West gave an interview to Sports Illustrated. Suddenly he was the gambler’s son; he went too far. About pro scouting Jim dismissed the science of it. The difficulty. He said it was not that hard to identify talent. He said any ten people in a bar could go out in the street and have the same results as professional scouts. In essence a drunk could do it. It was a stupid thing to say even if he thought it was true. And if he thought it was true what was he trying to imply about his boss, Jerry West, one of the greatest talent evaluators in NBA history?

Six years later Jerry West was gone, driven away. The Lakers needed a coach for the team and it was Jim’s idea to hire Rudy Tomjanovich. Rudy was a player’s coach who had a collaborative, open style of inclusion but he struggled as many do with the pressure that comes with the Lakers after Phil Jackson. Tomjanovich would be the first of three coaching hires Jim was responsible for, three consecutive failures. Tomjanovich lasted half a season; to go away the Lakers paid him ten million dollars.

In 2011 Jim made another failed hire, Mike Brown. Mike Brown coached seventy one games before he was fired. It’s what Jim did best, firing coaches and then, as if blind, as if videotape and statistics did not exist, hiring the wrong replacements. Jim’s hire of Mike D’Antoni was like a volcano spewing hot lava everywhere. Mike began his tenure by creating a turbulent relationship with Pau Gasol just as he had a few years before with Carmelo Anthony. His defense was careless and expectedly horrible, his devotion to Steve Nash was generous but misplaced, his disdain of big men was foolish and cost the Lakers Dwight Howard.

There are various ways in which to ruin things. The venture capitalist way is to buy a company and then sell off its parts for profit until there is nothing left that existed of the original organization, until it is nothing more than ashes. Can you really trust Jim? His father did. His father chose him. When he chose Jim he chose a dream. To Jerry Buss it was the sort of vow you make during a marriage ceremony, love and cherish and obey; love the team I am giving to you, cherish the team I am giving to you, obey the team I am giving to you. Jim has made good on the first two promises but has failed on the last.

“I would like to turn it over to Jim”, Dr. Buss said a few years ago, “to see how effectively my strategy is while I am still alive and still have time to correct it if I didn’t do it right.”

If you want to waste time try to change someone. You will fail. People don’t change. Jim can never be his father, never. He can never occupy the suite at Staples Center and have thousands look upon him with adoration because he created something here. He can never walk into practice and have his franchise player stop what he is doing to talk to him. He cannot act as if he is a builder because that would mean he has the sort of hands that understands how to put things together, to know where the joints are, where the glue is. It is not complicated who Jim really is, what he really is- a ghost, a quiet American, his father’s white shadow, a math guy, a math guy who had a rich father and a famous father, a father who died and left him to take care of it all. He is not half of what people say he is but he is not half of what his father was either, not a quarter, but that is not a crime either. The truth takes care of itself.

Summer will come, it always does. The draft will come, it always does. The free agent market will come, it always does. Jim Buss will have his moment then and in the light he will either wither or expand. Perhaps the world will see that in the end his father’s strategy was right all along. Jerry Buss the gambler will become Jerry Buss the prophet. Or perhaps the last thing we will remember about Jim Buss is how he ruined it all the old fashioned way. He ignored the smoke and the house burned down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Topics: Jim Buss, Los Angeles Lakers

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  • Daryl Peek

    “Six years later Jerry West was gone, driven away”

    Very disingenuous statement the way it’s used as are many other points in this article. West was ran off in part due to beef with Dr. Buss over a stake of ownership he wanted in the Lakers, and mostly due to Phil Jackson. If you’ve read “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” you’d have a better understanding why I say this Jimmy bashing is a bit overly biased.

    “Fuck Phil Jackson!!” these words are explicitly stated and reiterated by West in his book and a stance he still leans on to this very day. It was evident in the Dr. Buss memorial speech given by Phil. Phil actually took a shot at West in his speech.

    The prejudgment of Jimmy is very unfair. Even the coaching hires are skewed in this article. Rudy T. was a two time championship HC who resigned due to illness and has not coached in the NBA since. Brown had been to the finals with a much lesser talented team in Cleveland and is from the Greg Popovich coaching tree. D’Antoni is a Larry Brown like NBA retread. Larry took plenty of heat for not winning the big game up til he finally beat the Lakers in 04.

    I agree though, Jimmy will never be his dad. No one will. Dr. Buss struck gold when he purchased the Lakers in 1979. It was perfect timing. Everything was lined up for him to succeed. The irascible Jack Kent Cooke was also somewhat a cheap owner. West was very frustrated dealing with Cooke when it came to FA signings. West had proposed to Cooke that the Lakers go get Dr. J and pair him with Kareem as the ABA was about to fold. The Nets were asking for 6 mil for the rights to the Doc. Cooke was not about to spend that kind of money on a player.

    Buss and his willingness to spend was a breath of fresh air for West and Sharman. Keep in mind I said West and Sharman. Jerry Krause was on that staff with West as a college scout also. You’re talking about two of the greatest talent evaluators in NBA history with the great Bill Sharman as their GM. Buss could do nothing but succeed. And lets not forget the number one overall draft pick they had via the Goodrich trade to the New Orleans Jazz which became Magic, literally.

    Showtime (on the court) was all but handed over to Dr. Buss when he purchased the Lakers. His personality and entertainment vision was the icing on the cake… a perfect Hollywood fit. Jimmy nor anyone else will ever have a platform like that as beginnings. Jimmy has an indifferent league to deal with, coupled with opposing owners hell bent on destroying the success Dr. Buss has had, now wanting parity in the NBA. In the 80′s the Lakers and Celtics dynasties were the key to the resurgence of the then failing NBA from the 70′s. The 90′s saw the propping up of player star power come to an all-time high with the like Mike, Jordan theme. Kobe and Shaq rode that as the Lakers landed Phil. The championship run in the dynasty theme runs in cycles. The Lakers are in a down time of the cycle and Jimmy is the sacrificial whipping boy. Phil and the triangle always flames out. See the Bulls and the 04 Lakers.

    Timing is everything. Dr Buss West Krause and Sharman did not have to navigate this new more hostile to big market spending CBA, NBA. Jimmy was given the keys to a great franchise but one that is under attack nothing the likes of Dr. Buss’s humble beginnings. It’s a different world and Lakers Nation and its fans are gonna have to be patient in watching Jimmy, Jeanie and Kupchak forge their niche as the new Lakers hierarchy.

  • Jim213

    Sounds like someone had to get a lot out of their chest. Yes, I’m also not too confident about Jim Bust but Kupcake (GM) gets a lot of the blame too. Since he’s been GM he hasn’t drafted young players to mold for the future (franchise player(s)) rather he focused on the now instead of the bigger picture (long term success of the brand). Rather than using their brains to reach the top they seem to throw money at players who are past their prime (Nash etc.) believing the best of them is yet to come.

    Although, both had the chance to be around J West you can’t compare them to one of the Greatest basketball players of all time (experience). Too many mistakes have been made to believe they can turn this tide around next season thus it may be a 1-3 yr process IMO if they manage to change things for the better, But IMO I’d fire Kupcake after the 2014 season if he fails to make any moves given he has brought in some decent players to help Kobe out but not the elite (franchise) players that will keep the boat afloat which isn’t the owner’s job foremost but both get the blame for the team’s current condition.

  • hookedonnews

    Just a few comments–Dr. Buss approved the hiring of D’Antoni. He had wanted a return to Showtime for years and thought MDA was the best coach to accomplish that. I think the FO did a good job in the offseason bringing in players with very little cap room. They went from the worst bench in the league to the best.

    D’Antoni didn’t create a turbulent relationship with Carmelo Anthony. What’s the problem in NY right now? It would take too long to address the Gasol/D’Antoni relationship but suffice it to say that player/coach relationships are a 2 way street. Pau is as much responsible for any friction in that relationship as D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s so called disdain of big men did not cost them Dwight Howard. He bent over backwards to cater to Howard. The primary reason that Howard went to Houston was that he didn’t want to play with Kobe and that he thought he would have a better chance to win there. No, MDA was not his favorite coach, but those who know him say that Kobe was the real problem.

    No, Jim Buss is never going to be his father. But I’m not sure he deserves all the bashing he gets from fans and others. Jim Buss is not responsible for the injuries that occurred last season. He’s the one who approached Phil Jackson to coach the Lakers. I’m guessing that Dr. Buss really didn’t want Phil back and was the man behind the D’Antoni hiring. At any rate he agreed with it. Phil has said since then that he was kidding himself that he could return to coaching, and we’ve all heard the demands that he made about no traveling, etc. that no owner would ever agree to. If Jackson’s name had never been brought into the coaching conversation I don’t think the D’Antoni hiring would have been as controversial as it was. Of course, not everyone would have agreed, but bringing him in with Nash at the PG seemed like a no-brainer. It remains to be seen how it’s all going to play out because the team has been decimated with injuries again this season. I think the final judgment on Jim Buss in general and the MDA hire in particular will have to be made a few years down the road. But, I think it’s time to move forward and stop writing about what happened in the past. I will say that I think Kobe was given too much money, but no one doubts that he was going to be re-signed. I don’t think Jim Buss was responsible for the departure of Jerry West. That is the biggest mistake that’s been made IMO.

    • Chrmngblly

      Yeah? Well the one thing I hold Jim Buss completely responsible for is that he let Howard walk for free. Howard is, was and always will be a sheep in wolf’s clothing and I am glad the big cry-baby is gone, but Jim Buss was raped, punked-out because he is a punk compared to his father. He is not an NBA caliber owner. I fear that the Lakers will not recover their stature until JB either steps down or sells out. Somebody has to have the stature to cut a deal, man to man, with all-star NBA players. Mitch can do that. Certainly Jerry West could. Phil Jackson can. Maybe Jeanie Buss can. LA has weak ownership.
      D’Antoni has no team. Howard’s gone. Kobe is old, hurt, overpaid and may never be the same. Nash is toast. Pau is recovering from an adult stem cell procedure whose outcome nobody knows yet. Whatever else may be said about Pau, he has never been a stretch forward and is too slow now to become one. Pau is strictly a center at this point in his career and D’Antoni is a fool to try to argue with that fact.
      Pau is a good trade piece for right before the deadline when there will be one contender that just needs one guy. We should get a deal like Chicago got for Deng: Draft picks and cap space. Or a young talent.
      The biggest mistake was Jerry Buss dying.

      • hookedonnews

        I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of the financial side of the game, but they didn’t want to make a deal for Howard because of the cap space/luxury tax situation. As I said, the next few years will tell the tale on Jim Buss. No franchise makes the correct decision every time. I’m willing to cut the guy some slack. These last 2 seasons have been nightmares because of injuries. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for that.

        • Chrmngblly

          You need to pay closer attention, money was never even a worry in the Howard discussion. He refused to sign with the Jim-Buss-Lakers even though the Lakers could have paid him $20 million more than Houston is paying him today. My point is that a blind man could see that Howard did not want to be in LA. It was too great a gamble to keep him, even if you loved Howard, than to risk losing him for nothing—as Jim Buss did. Howard should have been traded. The big loser could have brought us a different star and picks, not years in the wilderness, as we face now. That was just pitiful management.

          • hookedonnews

            Once it was known that Howard wasn’t staying they were content to let him walk and have the cap space available for free agents in 2014 and beyond. Few people questioned that strategy. Howard was still waffling at the 11th hour about whether to stay or go, so I don’t believe it was as cut and dry as you say. Whether or not that was a good decision will be clear at some point. I think they were more interested in bringing in people like LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, etc. who were not available via trade.

          • Chrmngblly

            You are insane. They were never willing to let Howard walk, they just hoped the LA lifestyle and the Lakers name would convince Howard to commit to LA long term. Teams were lined up to trade anything to get Howard and Jim Buss just assumed that nobody could walk away from LA.

            Also, everyone questioned that strategy. Where where you? You must have been so thrilled over SAC holding onto the Kings that you missed the whole controversy. Everyone thought Howard was dogging it. Remember the all-star flap when Pop chewed Howard out over not hustling? Howard was all pissy because he wanted the ball to flow through him and not Kobe. Howard was like a child. Where were you?

          • hookedonnews

            Where did I say they were willing to let Howard walk? I said once they knew he wasn’t staying. Of course, they didn’t want him to walk. “Everyone” didn’t question the strategy.A lot of people I am aware of agreed with it or at least understood why they did it. I agree with everything you said about Howard’s behavior, but there were still reports on the day that he made his decision that he was thinking about staying. I think the guy is a moron, and I’m still mad about the way he sabotaged the team. Maybe it would have been better to try to trade him, but it’s too late to worry about it now. It was a cap space/luxury cap decision, and as I say, they’re hoping to get some great players through free agency. Doubt they’re getting LeBron, but I think they wanted to be able to make a run at him (at least that was the speculation at the time).

          • Chrmngblly

            Whatever. The way you are thinking, nobody knew until Howard announced his decision that he was going to Houston. I say everybody with “people sense” knew. Regardless, my point is that it was totally irresponsible for Jim Buss to take such a big risk of that actually happening, AND, in my view, contributing to the possibility by being such a low-life, unattractive rich man’s son personally.

            Of course it is too late to worry about Howard now, but my point–and the point of the article–is that Jim Buss is a schmoe and has not earned his place at the table and is not respected by anybody. The Buss family should realize that they are being demeaned by leaving this ne’er do well at the helm of the Lakers.

            You blabbing off about Howard’s leaving being in any way related to a “cap space/luxury cap decision” is total bull sh*t. Sorry, I tried to be charming as long as I could.

          • hookedonnews

            Man, you and I are having a problem communicating. I agree that a lot of people thought Howard was going to Houston. All I was trying to say was that on the day he made the decision it was reported first that he was going to Houston, and then it was reported that it was 50/50 that he would stay in LA. The guy is notoriously incapable of making a decision (Orlando). I didn’t really hear that much criticism of LA not trading him, although there were a few on blogs like this that weren’t happy about it.

            Yes, cap space/luxury tax were a consideration in not trading him. Those millions of dollars in luxury tax make a difference even to an organization like the Lakers. I didn’t just make up that concept. That’s what the experts were saying as one reason they didn’t try to trade him. As I said (about 3 times), they were more interested in free agents than anyone they could get in a trade. Maybe that was a bonehead move. I guess we’ll know in a year or two when we see who they are able to get via free agency.

            I agree that Jim Buss doesn’t get a lot of respect. Whether that’s fair or not I don’t know (although I certainly don’t agree with every move he’s made). I thought they made some good moves in the off-season with very little cap space available. The next few years will prove whether or not he’s a total idiot or not. Personally I hope not because that would be bad news for the team.

          • Chrmngblly

            I don’t wish to be unkind. “Reports that he might be staying” be damned, it is about executive judgement. In February, when thy could not at least get a verbal commitment out of Howard, they should have traded him. Also, when everyone had a chance to see how he fit in in Lakerland–that he didn’t–they ought to have dumped his ass. Because they had already hired D’antoni, they were committed to running a non-Howard-centered offence. So they never really knew even then what they were trying to do. Regardless, Howard never fit. His father would either have pulled the plug or got him to commit.

            You keep talking about when Howard informed everyone of his decision. That was way too late from a management perspective. They let all the power end up in Howard’s hands. That’s not responsible to the Lakers organization and the fans. I was writing at the time about who I thought they could trade him for. It was just a giant blunder, pure and simple. Houston just bent little Jimmy over and porked him.

          • hookedonnews

            I think we’ve exhausted this subject. As I said, time will tell if this was the blunder you believe it was.

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