The greatest testament to Jerry Buss‘ career as a basketball executive lies not in Inglewood or downtown Los Angeles, where his Lakers played during his time as their owner. It lies in New York, Dallas, Chicago and Miami, or just down the hall in the Clippers’ locker room.
Under Buss, the Lakers were almost never terrible, and that is saying something. They were a sideshow at times, such as this season’s Dwight Howard-fueled debacle and the infantile feud between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant at the dawn of this century. They failed to live up to their Showtime roots for most of the 1990s and have gone through several ill-fitting coaches since Pat Riley departed in 1990, with Randy Pfund, Bill Bertka and Frank Hamblen as the highlights (lowlights?). Yet they have rarely been beyond hope.
Buss died Monday morning, bringing to an end one of the greatest runs of sustained excellence by an owner in NBA history. Since Buss purchased the franchise in 1979, the Lakers have been to 16 NBA Finals and claimed 10 championships, by far the most of any team in that span. They have missed the playoffs twice — although this year threatens to be the third time — and failed to make it past the first round only six times.
The tempting thing is to dismiss the Lakers’ success as a product of their environment. From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq and beyond, the Lakers have been able to attract and keep high-priced stars thanks to their Hollywood reputation. Being in sparkly L.A. is always a factor, of course, just as South Beach was a lure for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.
That is why those big cities mentioned earlier are the true homage to Buss’ legacy. The Knicks, Mavericks and Bulls have provided their share of embarrassingly bad squads in the past three decades, even though massive media markets should prevent any of them from fading into irrelevance. It took the Heat two decades and two championships to finally shed the “expansion” label, and the Clippers are only now starting to become something more than a laughingstock. Even the proud Celtics have stunk it up their share of the time during the Buss era.
The Lakers persisted, however, and it started with the ownership. Like George Steinbrenner, Buss demanded begrudging respect from opposing fans because, no matter how greatly they despised the team he oversaw, deep down they wished their owner was just like him. Certainly, the experiment that brought Howard and Steve Nash to L.A. this year has been a disaster so far, but how many owners would even sign off on such a bold series of moves? How many fans would be dancing in the streets if their team had pulled off a similar would-be coup last summer? The answer is: all of them.
In sports, the market does not make the team. The team makes the market. Otherwise, the Rangers would consistently trump the Red Sox in TV ratings and Phoenix would dominate much of its NHL competition. Like Micky Arison in Miami, Buss came into a market, took a brand and allowed it to fulfill its potential. Through his guidance, that potential turned out to be virtually limitless.