In the Jerry Buss Shadow

…he left a gigantic shadow for all sports. It would be ridiculous to say he’s the greatest owner we ever had but he was… he’s going to be missed. He’s really going to be missed. (Jerry West )

On this day three years ago, Dr. Jerry Buss died. The children he left grieving and the city and franchise he poured his life into have yet to move forward. In a perfect world, the patriarch, leader, confidant, jig-saw puzzler, poker player and guiding star dies when the world is ready. It’s the agreement. But rarely are things perfect and go as planned. This isn’t a movie, the hero isn’t exonerated, the hero doesn’t slay his oppressor. Nor is it a secret, the fall from grace. Three years in, this is what is left of the Lakers, if you recognize them at all through the abyss.

Because one man disappeared three years ago, stricken by a killer disease, the house came crumbling down. Blame cancer if you want. Blame the ravaging of his body by a cellular villain. But it doesn’t negate the other truth. Jerry Buss was supposed to continue on as he always had. He was not supposed to leave an empty chair. He was not supposed to leave the running and team building of the Lakers to the least qualified. He was not supposed to leave his son in charge to do this.

We know now. The son is not the father.

The son is uncomfortable in public moments, his eyes wander, his face is wan. He is controlled, not spontaneous like his father and I have never heard him laugh. His face isn’t old but Jim Buss’ face isn’t young either and it certainly isn’t fresh. He continually hides behind the baseball cap he famously keeps attached to his head like a security blanket. That it means anything to be his father’s son never is quite clear. On the one hand, Jim doesn’t brag and flex, like he could. But on the other hand, he is not someone you put your hope in, he is not a messiah wannabe trying to convert anyone to his side. He is not a salesman. He doesn’t give off an air of shrewdness or intellectualism or that he has any idea as to what he is doing. Because his ideas, he refuses to share.

Jim Buss owns a sports team because someone loved him and that someone died. That is the bare truth about privilege, about it not being earned but a random sort of genetic luck. Parents leave their children their fortunes, their photographs, their memories. The children can honor it or they can dismantle it. JIm wanted to take his father’s place but he didn’t want to take his father’s place entirely. He didn’t want to fulfill the requirements of the job, the interacting with the loyal customers part. He prefers an invisible ghost-like existence roaming corridors where he is invisible. He didn’t want to be accountable either. In front of the cameras he said nothing about the ridiculous, those Dwight Howard Stay billboards a third grader would have thought up. It was laughably inappropriate and excruciatingly embarrassing, so disingenuous and disdainful to the storied Laker history. Lakers don’t beg. They don’t ask for crumbs. Jim Buss never once said that.

He was a fierce competitor, he hated to lose. (Magic Johnson)

While one son is not the father, the other son was not the stepfather, he wasn’t a tough talking, weather faced Wyoming man who dug ditches so his family could eat. Cecil Brown dug ditches and expected the kids to do the same. Nothing was free, everything was earned. Jerry Buss never forgot how hard it was growing up in the Wyoming depression years.

“I can remember standing in a W.P.A. line with a gunny sack and I remember having to buy chocolate milk instead of white because it was one cent cheaper. (Jerry Buss to Boston Globe).

Little boy Jerry with the sweet face used to hunt down random things to stuff in the fireplace like phone books and newspapers, anything to make it warmer on those icy winter nights when there was no house heat. Because his stepfather had a plumbing business, Buss woke up at 4:30 in the morning to work in the cataclysmic cold, digging through snow and rugged ice and rock. It wasn’t the life Buss wanted or dreamed of, and he left home at 16 to escape his stepfather’s stubborn meanness. Working at a variety of jobs before he returned to school, and before coming to California and USC, gave Buss insight and empathy for the have-nots of the world, those with very little material wealth. He would have appreciation for them the rest of his life.

After receiving his doctorate in physical chemistry, Buss assumed he would teach but then bought an apartment building with his good friend Frank Mariani. They become buisness partners, buying and selling real-estate, no real estate more valuable than the $67.5 million he paid for the Lakers, the Kings and the Forum, sold by crusty and irascible Jack Kent Cooke. To complete the sale, Buss had to ask another real estate friend to give him some quick cash. Donald Sterling didn’t hesitate to help.

“He was a transformational figure in sports.” (David Stern on Jerry Buss)

The Hall of Fame talent Buss acquired is unique for any one owner and to a man they will all say the same thing about Buss. Kind. Generous. Warm. Loving. Friend. Someone once said that Buss made the NBA cool again.

He was the first owner to sell the naming rights to an arena, creating millions in revenue. Now every arena has a corporate partner as part of their name. He was the first owner to create a regional sports television network. He and Bill Daniels called it Prime Ticket. The Lakers have long left that behind and have their own network which allows them to reap profits in the lean years when there is no Jerry Buss magic, acumen or heorism.

What made the Lakers great were their players. Magic Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. James Worthy. Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal. Pau Gasol. What made the Lakers extraordinary was Jerry Buss.

Extraordinary is gone.

I like the concept of having the same number of weapons and just see who can run the ship the best. (Jerry Buss)

This is what Jim Buss has done in his career. His credentials are his last name. He was a failed GM for a soccer team, the team folded while he was in charge. Later when he went to work for his father, and in a pure Jim moment, he insulted one of the greatest talent evaluators of all time in Jerry West, who was also his boss, which spoke to the Buss level of privilege, born on third base but acting as if he hit a triple.

What made Jim Buss, who had failed at almost everything he attempted, dismiss the scouting profession, making it seem like it was nothing more than a simplistic guessing game without much skill to it, when it was hours on planes, in gyms, on the road, watching games with average talent, hoping to spot that one special player. Buss told Sports Illustrated that anyone in a bar could scout players and that it wasn’t that hard of a job to find talent and put a good team together. His words back then are karma now. He can’t put a good team together. His three years have proven that.

When Jerry West left the Lakers, Jerry Buss empowered his son. His son hired Rudy Tomjanovich. Rudy lasted 43 games. Jim Buss drafted Andrew Bynum which Buss loved to remind everyone of and it was good pick, it was a brief moment of success that Buss could point to. Bynum eventually became an All-Star and then an intolerable egocentric who had to be traded. Bynum is no longer in the league.

After Phil Jackson left, Buss wanted to erase any connection with him and probably would have hired a shaman to come in and do a spiritual cleanse of the El Segundo training facility if he believed in that sort of thing. Buss felt stupid in the Jackson orbit and like an outsider on those championship teams Jackson built and was so committed to. So Buss refused to incentivize another Jackson generation. He would not hire Brian Shaw and hired nice guy Mike Brown instead because Mike Brown had a good interview and he had no Jackson roots. Then he fired Mike Brown. No one was shocked. But Buss held on to his grudge a little too long and refused to hire Phil Jackson back. He woke Jackson up in the middle of the night to tell him so. Perhaps he didn’t mean for it to be vindictive but it sounded that way, like Buss was finally getting his payback and was enjoying Jackson’s public rejection.

Buss hired Mike D’Antoni. Buss fired Mike D’Antoni. He hired Byron Scott. He will fire Byron Scott.

After his father’s death shook the Lakers fabric, the Lakers have posted wins of 27, 21 and perhaps 16 this year, if they are lucky. It has been an utter catastrophe with Jim Buss running things. Arrogantly confident, Jim boasted to his sister Jeanie, like the smart kid in class trying to prove he is the smartest kid in class, that the Lakers would be in the playoffs in three years or he would quit. Year three is 2016-17. The Lakers will not be in the playoffs. Jim Buss promised to quit. Now he is trying to walk his words back.

The Lakers are broken, not the way a clock that can be fixed is broken, but broken in a way that will take multipe interventions. They are a boat without a captain, without a sail and damage to the hull that keeps getting bigger. Three years ago, their captain died.

All of this is a reminder, as sober as it may be, that a father’s love can only go so far. We like to think the opposite is true. We like to think a father’s love can make the impossible possible and part of that is fact, a loving father like Dr. Jerry Buss can give a son confidence, support and trust. He can bequeath to his son his most prized asset, what he loves the most in the world other than his children. He can give him the sports team he dedicated his life to. But, at the same time, the father cannot make the son be him. He cannot make him be a friend to all, be respected and visible, be a competitor with heart. Nor can he make the son qualified.

The Jerry Buss footprints are empty, untouched, as the tide rolls in. He was magical. He was heroic. His son Jim is ordinary. He son Jim is average. Dr. Buss was a gambler, he loved poker, but with the Lakers his risks all made sense. He traded Shaq because he saw the decline. He traded for Steve Nash because he saw the way the league was trending. Dr. Buss could explain his risks, defend them. His son just hides. Why Nick Young? Why Wesley Johnson? Why Robert Sacre? Why Andrew Goudelock and not Isaiah Thomas?

The Lakers way isn’t the same because Dr. Buss isn’t here.(Jeanie Buss)

Jerry Buss had a quiet death. It was expected after a long and grueling fight, a war that would leave him sallow. He was 80 years old. He lived 8 decades. He lived through all the great social events in history, the depression, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the hostages, the Iraq War, 9-11, prosperity, recession, Clinton and his scandals, Barak Obama. He lived through all the great events in sports history, of which his ownership was one. 10 championships. Two in a row twice. Three in a row once. Slaying the Celtics. Six Hall of Fame players. 10 confetti laced parades.

On the other side of the ledger, Jim Buss has had a clumsy reign. He hired coaches that were doomed to fail from the go. He signed players with limited skill. He gave off an air of arrogance as if he and only he was the smartest one in the room and that is not even the point at the end of the day. That the Lakers can’t win games is what matters. And no one can predict when that will change.


photo via llananba