Perhaps we have it all backwards. Perhaps winning was a Jerry Buss value. Perhaps it died with him, clutched in his hands. That is the only explanation that makes any sense some thirteen months later when you think of what just happened. It is still stunning. The greatest winner in the past 40 years, Phil Jackson, was shunned by the very family to whom he brought riches. He won them five titles. But in the end he had the wrong last name. Jackson was not Buss. Go back 34 years. Only eight franchises have won championships. Only four have won back to back championships. Only two have won three championships in a row. Every three- peat team was coached by Phil Jackson. Try this out for size: you use Phil for good and he uses you for good and everyone gets something. The city gets at title, you become revered.
Parents leave their children fortunes, that is not new. The children do one of two things. They take what was given and adapt it to their vision or they submerge it under water so it drowns. Gardens are built from dirt. Or gardens are decimated because all the flowers are killed off. Jim is doing the latter, killing off all of the precious resources. Why else would he think it is better to be mediocre and family run then it is to be great and influenced by a legend. For Phil Jackson, Jim would not move aside. And so here we are. Lebron James now says he is willing to consider the Knicks. Translation: he would have considered the Lakers if Phil were here. Camelo Anthony called it a ‘power move’. Dwight Howard wanted Phil Jackson as his coach. So this is the price. Keep everything in the family but set the house on fire.
When they are discussed it is always the Buss “children”. Or the Buss “kids”. Interesting to note that Hank Steinbrenner is not referred to as George’s “kid.” John Mara is not thought of as Wellington’s kid. Both Hank and John are given the respect of adulthood because they have earned the right to be trusted to take their father’s life work and grow it for the future. The New York Yankees and the New York Giants are more profitable and just as storied as the Lakers. Their second generation families have exuded trust and dedication and intelligence. They don’t turn their backs on greatness. But the Buss’ are considered “children” for good reason. Rarely is there a world where children are completely trusted. Children are not supposed to be left home alone without supervision.
Last week Magic Johnson asked: who is the face of the Lakers organization? Like it or not it is Jim Buss. Unlike his father, Jim is invisible, a ghost, a shadow. He does not attend games. He does not interact with fans. He does not represent himself and his vision on local talk radio. He is the man behind the curtain that expects loyalty from us when he does not give it in return. In trying to act like his father he is missing a big part of what Jerry Buss did that made him so beloved. Dr. Buss connected with the public because he loved the public’s adoration of his team. Dr. Buss made everyone feel as if they were a part of the team and a part of his family. Every year he had a State of the Lakers interview with the Los Angeles Times. Every year he made it to at least one practice where he talked to the star players to get their feeling on the team and the season. Every year he went on one road trip. Every game he was in his owner’s suite, cheering on the players, whether they were winning or not. Yes, Jim wants to take his father’s place but he wants to do so without taking his father’s place. He does not want to do what he does not want to do. But the NBA, by and large, is a people business. The people who matter, the players, respect brilliance and they respect winners and they respect loyalty and they respect decency. And they decide where they are going to play and for whom.
This is what Jim has done in his career. He was a failed GM for a soccer team; the team folded. He insulted Jerry West, whom he was working under at the time, by ridiculing the scouting profession. He hired Rudy Tomjonavich. Rudy lasted 41 games. He drafted Andrew Bynum who was an All Star. Bynum has been slow to recover from his flawed knees and a lack of maturity. Jim has operated without courtesy. He never told Brian Shaw he was not the new head coach. Or Kobe Bryant. In the middle of the night he ambushed Phil, saying he hired someone else. He fired Mike Brown. He ignored the chance to build a relationship with Dwight Howard. In desperation he put up billboards that were insulting to the Lakers brand. He is a protector of the Lakers brand but he is the biggest defiler as well. He hired Mike D’antoni and then said he was the better fit even though D’antoni hates post players; the Lakers had three. In his ten year career D’antoni’s defense has been at the bottom of the league every single year. But Jim said D’antoni gave the Lakers the better chance to win.
The Lakers organization likes to describe themselves as a family business but what sort of family has these unmovable divisions. These lines in the sand. Kobe was clear that the people at the top, Jim and Jeanie, need to get their act together. They are broken. If it stays that way they should sell the team, that is their only way out of this mess. What good is it to be a permanent resident of medicority? No free agent is ever going to want to play for an organization that is in this state of flux and limbo. Free agents seeks stability and consistency. The Lakers have no more stability than the Frank McCourt Dodgers a few years ago. Who do you trust?
This is the wrong business for narcissism and feuds. The NBA is a league with a handful of iconic players. When they become available the competition for them is fierce and can get downright dirty. You can write the script now. The Knicks are going to tell Kevin Love and Kevin Durant the Lakers are falling apart, they are a boat without a captain, they are drifting out to sea.
All of this is a sobering reminder that a father’s love can only go so far. There are certain things that can never be willed to a son that have nothing to do with how a father feels about his son. He cannot make people respect the son. Or trust him. Or believe in him. There was something heroic about Dr. Buss, and there was something magical when he was in the room. There is something ordinary about Jim Buss. And average when he is in the room. Still. Jim Buss is coming up on the summer of his life where he gets to plant the flag on the beach and say this is what I stand for. This is what my vision is. His father is not here to help him. Neither is Phil Jackson, which says everything you need to know about Jim and Jim’s ego. He let Phil get away. It sealed the fate of others too. Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. And whoever comes behind them.
A long time ago Magic Johnson played in a championship game very few people saw. He played all five positions. He did what he had to do regardless of the price to him. He didn’t care about suffering or how he looked. All he wanted to do was win and hold up the trophy which only meant he did not put himself first. He was the ultimate team player. Jim Buss is not. He is at the precipice. If all he wanted to do was win Phil Jackson would be the team consultant. But he wants something far different. At the end of this summer we will know exactly what that is.