On Dr. Buss’ Birthday The Lakers Pay Tribute


Dr. Jerry Buss was born on January 27th 1933 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Today is his birthday.

It cost $16 million dollars. It was a complicated financial transaction, the biggest of its kind at the time, but it delivered the Lakers into Dr. Jerry Buss’ willing hands. In 1979, a chemist turned real estate savant, now basketball owner, did not know what was coming, what would evolve.

February 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) speaks about recently deceased owner Jerry Buss before playing against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It was this. 34 years of winning, of iconic players, of Jerry West, of exercising ghosts, of isolated misery, of Showtime, of Shaq-Kobe, of Kobe-Pau, of Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, of gambling and taking chances and dreaming the unthinkable- that was Dr. Buss’ abbreviated biography.

Consider: after he purchased the team the Lakers appeared in 44% of the NBA Finals, winning 10 championships. They were graced with the talents of 4 dynamic players, the most gifted in NBA History (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant). Buss’ $16 million dollar investment would appreciate 16,000% and be worth 2.6 billion dollars.

When Dr. Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, he had very specific ideas on how he wanted to revolutionize the Lakers experience. A brilliant visionary who was always a step ahead of his peers, he believed sports and entertainment should mirror one another. It was a radical concept in the early 1980’s.

America was dealing with the hostage crises and Iran. There was massive debt, homelessness and the first symptomatic AIDS cases had just been documented. But, Buss understood the importance of sports as a diversion, a place to put whatever troubles you have on hold, if only for a few hours. Showtime fit the bill.

Excellence would be his professional legacy, what he brought to the sport, but to define Buss simply as that, as a man who knew how to build things over time or a man who reorganized the game to entertain fans or a man who would gamble on players the same way he gambled at cards, somehow reduces his legacy to something smaller than what it really was. Clearly, Buss enjoyed the celebrations and the winning, especially when the Lakers won in Boston and put behind them those dreadful years of Celtics dominance.

But, on a much larger scale, he took a special interest in his players, attaching himself to them emotionally, as if they were part of his close knit family. Every season he came to a Lakers practice and could be seen talking to his star players who were favorites of his- from Magic to Shaq to Kobe to Pau. His face, in those moments, was suffused with light.

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Every season, Dr. Buss gave a “State of the Lakers” address to talk about his concerns and where he wanted to lead the team so the fans understood what he was thinking.

That sort of closeness died with him. This version of Lakers ownership puts a discrete distance between themselves and their customers, almost in a prideful way. Cancer, by definition, is the multiplication of damaged cells. This Lakers regime, by definition, is a multiplication of damaged intentions. Nothing they have done has worked or paid off.

Losing a dynamic leader who had a specific vision subtracted a larger force from the Los Angeles sports landscape. There is a gaping, Grand Canyon sized hole.

It was Dr. Buss who signed off on trading Norm Nixon for Byron Scott. He knew it would create controversy but he did it anyway. It was Dr. Buss who signed off on drafting James Worthy instead of Player of the Year Terry Cummings. He signed off on the $100 million dollar Shaquille O’Neal contract. He signed off on trading an All-Star center for a 17 year old high school senior. He signed off on trading Eddie Jones so Kobe Bryant, the teenager, could have more playing time. He signed off on trading Shaq and keeping Kobe.

And when Byron Scott was fired from the New Orleans Hornets, the first person to call him was Dr. Buss.

There was never a moment when Buss didn’t understand what it meant to be a Lakers fan. Most Lakers fans are in a different tax bracket from their celebrity followers, they are not the 1%. Buss grew up poor with an absent father, he sympathized with the experience of fans who could never afford tickets to a game. For them, he lived and breathed. He was extraordinarily loyal.

Tonight, the Lakers are honoring Dr. Buss on his birthday. They are asking fans to wear torn jeans since that was how he came to games. They are asking fans to remember how beautiful things used to be. To honor that memory, they are passing out rings to everyone who attends.

It is a fitting tribute even as it is a sad one. The last time a Dr. Buss team lost 8 games in a row was March of 2005. It landed them Andrew Bynum in the draft. So, in a way, his legacy continues as it always has in the past. Gambling on a better future: it was the Dr. Buss way.

Next: Nick Young: Time To Step Up