The year was 1979, and the Los Angeles Lakers had just won a coin toss against the Chicago Bulls that rewarded the franchise a number one pick. Yes you read the correct, a coin toss. With Earvin “Magic” Johnson entering the NBA draft that same season, Dr. Jerry Buss saw an incredible opportunity. With Dr. Buss on the verge of completing what eventually became the biggest transaction in sports history, one vital factor lied on the table; Magic Johnson would be wearing purple and gold.
With reports leaking out that the Lakers were very interested in Sidney Moncrief out of the University of Arkansas, Dr. Buss made it clear he would purchase the team, pending whether or not Magic would be part of the future.
With Magic offically being drafted by the Lakers, Dr. Buss went ahead and purchased the Lakers, Kings, a 13,000 acre ranch and the Forum from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million dollars. The Lakers were valued at just $16 million dollars in the deal. Dr. Buss made his fortune by investing $1,000 in an apartment building complex. Real estate was his job, but sports was always his passion.
I think many of us know what Magic did in his rookie season, and for those of you who don’t, the Lakers went on to celebrate their first championship since the 1971-1972 season, with Magic making his mark in the league shifting to center. Magic filled in for the all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, show-boating his versatility and beginning a new dynasty in Los Angeles.
Now, fast forwarding to a dark day in the NBA. Dr. Buss passed away on February 18, 2013, at the age of 80, after fighting cancer for nearly two years. Arguably the greatest owner in the history of sports, rivaling the New York Yankee’s George Steinbrenner, Dr. Buss had an impact on the NBA for a multitude of reasons. With the Lakers winning ten championships under Dr. Buss’s watch, they have become one of the most decorated franchises in sports history.
Not only has Dr. Buss been an integral piece to revolutionizing the NBA to what it is today on the court, but he helped pave the way when it comes to the entertainment aspect as well. Now you can argue all day and night who is the more famous cheerleading group, the Cowboy girls or the Laker girls, but the fact of the matter is Dr. Buss is the reason NBA teams have cheerleaders today. His goal was to entertain the crowd during timeouts and half-times, and when the revenue started booming, teams couldn’t help but to follow. Now, once being a New York Knicks season ticket holder, I can tell you first hand the Knicks City Dancers definitely enhances the experience. Famous choreographer Paula Abdul just so happened to be discovered by “The Jacksons,” after making her name as a Laker girl.
Dr. Buss was known to treat every single person affiliated with the Lakers as a family, whether you were an usher, or a multi-million dollar rotation player. In an interview on ESPN, Magic referred to Dr. Buss as his “second father.” Dr. Buss treated his players like they were his own children, which was highlighted by his reaction following the news of Magic testing positive for HIV in 1991. Magic explained his first meeting with Dr. Buss at his home after the news broke, saying it was two straight hours of tears and laughter, reliving legendary memories.
“He didn’t know what would happen,” said Magic. “He felt, like most people, he was losing a son. He was just there for me every step of the way.”
After coming off three straight championships between 1999-2002 and four consecutive finals appearances, Dr. Buss went in a direction many people questioned. The Lakers traded away Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in a deal that involved bringing in Lamar Odom, ultimately handing the franchise over to the 27-year-old Kobe Bryant. With the Lakers being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs two straight years, Bryant elevated the scrutiny in Laker nation after reports came out of him demanding a trade going into the 2007-2008 season. With the young Bryant looking and sounding like the typical NBA-superstar-diva, Dr. Buss called a meeting with him to clear the air, knowing the caliber of player he had right in front of his eyes. Never losing his composure, Bryant walked out of the meeting knowing he would be a Laker for life.
“He’s meant everything to me in my career in terms of taking a risk on a 17-year-old kid coming out of high school and believing in me my entire career,” said Bryant. “And then for the game itself, the brand of basketball that he implemented in ‘Showtime’ carried the league,” Bryant said in news conference during this year’s All-Star weekend.
Within months of the meeting between Dr. Buss and Bryant in his house on the hills, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak completed a trade that sent Memphis Grizzlies power forward Pau Gasol over to Los Angeles. That same season, the Lakers found themselves in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Bryant was demanding a trade in September, and then playing in the NBA Finals by June, alongside one of the league’s most talented big man in Gasol.
Although the Lakers fell to the Boston Celtics that year, the team catapulted themselves into winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers were able to take down the Orlando Magic for Bryant’s fourth championship, and Dr. Buss’s ninth. To cap off the final championship Dr. Buss won, the Lakers had a chance to avenge their 2008 Finals loss to the Celtics. The Lakers won in one of the most riveting seven game finals series the NBA has ever showcased.
I touched on the incredible impact Dr. Buss has had with making personnel and entertainment decisions for the Lakers, but the respect he had for the other franchises in the NBA was astronomical. In 2010, when preparing for their 2008 finals rematch against the Celtics, Dr. Buss flew over two planes full of Celtics fans to attend the games in Los Angeles, making sure their was enough tickets to go around. Pure class.
The imprint Dr. Buss instilled in not only the NBA, but professional sports, will never be duplicated, and his spirit will never be shook from Laker land. As for Laker fans personally, you can only hope that his son, Jim Buss, can carry on the championship pedigree the Los Angeles Lakers will forever be famous for.