Two Jerrys made the Showtime-era Lakers – Hall of Fame Laker and former general manager Jerry West, whose dribbling silhouette is the basis for the NBA logo, and longtime team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who died Monday at the age of 80 from cancer.
Dr. Buss bought the Lakers, Los Angeles Kings hockey team, a ranch in Kern County and the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., for the paltry sum of $67 million earned through real estate investments – eventually parlaying the Lakers into a franchise worth an estimated $1 billion. Laker fans (like me) were lucky to have an owner who not only wanted to win, but wanted to put on a show as well. Kareem, Magic, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Worthy, Scott, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper, Rambis (!) … then Shaq and Kobe (and Fisher, Horry, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a cast of thousands).
At Laker games in the Shaq and Kobe glory days, my friends and I routinely used our binoculars to scan the owner’s box at Staples Center, where Dr. Buss would inevitably we perched in his usual seat, often next to young women who looked like they had just stepped out of The Grotto at the Playboy Mansion.
Sometimes Magic popped in; he owned a 5-10% of the team back then. Kids (grandchildren … maybe they were his children … oh my God?!) bounced around the seats. Yet his gaze rarely left the court.
His team brought a lot of joy to the pro sports fans of Los Angeles, who haven’t seen the Dodgers win a World Series since 1988 or a football team win a Super Bowl since the Raiders in 1984. (An NHL championship last season ended the pro sports drought).
The decisions he made as an owner weren’t all gimmes. After all, it didn’t take a genius to believe signing Magic Johnson to a long-term contract was a good idea, or to think having scantily clad cheerleaders perform dance routines during breaks in the action would be popular.
Dr. Buss did fire coach Paul Westhead early in the 1982 season, clearing the way for Pat Riley to take the reins and shepherd the Showtime legacy. Jerry also agreed to trade away Magic’s backcourt mate and good friend Norm Nixon for the rights to Byron Scott – who became the perfect complement to Magic and was arguably one of the league’s best jump shooters in the ’80s and ’90s.
As Dr. Buss became older and sicker, he transitioned executive duties to two of his children. Son Jim took charge of basketball operations while daughter Jeanie – Phil Jackson’s girlfriend – became a vice president for business operations. As the mismanaged current team fumbles into the second half of this regular season several games short of a .500 record, many Lakers fans had wished that Jeanie could’ve taken charge of the whole damn thing.
A Lakers team in Buss family hands provided welcome stability as owners of L.A. sports franchises came and went. It’s amazing that the Lakers have managed to remain consistently successful for so long. After Larry Bird’s retirement, even the Celtics plummeted into NBA oblivion and was out of the league elite until they pulled together a formidable team featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo (the wife would kill me if I failed to mention Rondo).
No matter how poorly the Lakers do this season, nothing can erase the splendid Showtime – and Slowtime – memories he helped create. Rest in peace, Dr. Buss. Maybe now we’ll catch a break.