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.