Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss, majority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, died Monday morning in Los Angeles. He was 80. He’d been hospitalized for months with undisclosed intestinal problems, but it was recently revealed that he’d battled cancer for over a year.
Since Buss bought the team in 1979, the Lakers have won 10 NBA championships and solidified their status as one of the most successful franchises in professional sports. Buss is also credited with fusing athletics and entertainment in the “Showtime” 1980s, building a flashy celebrity culture through Magic Johnson, coach Pat Riley, and the party-friendly Great Western Forum arena. But with the drama surrounding his son, Jim, and the Lakers’ thus-far nightmarish 2012-13 season, what kind of legacy will Buss ultimately leave behind?
Laker Nation has feared this day for a long time.
Not only are Laker fans saddened to lose such a towering figure in our city’s cultural history, we’re entrusting our most popular sports franchise to a man whose track record is shaky, at best. Jerry’s son Jim Buss destroyed his credibility last year after allegedly offering the Lakers’ head coaching job to Phil Jackson, the legendary “Zen Master” who’d led the team to five titles between 2000 and 2010. But while PJ was considering the offer, Jim pulled a fast one and offered the job to Mike D’Antoni instead, who promptly accepted.
The reasons for this move are vague. Most attribute it to Jim’s strained relationship with his sister Jeanie (also, adding another wrinkle, Phil Jackson’s fiancee), and with Phil Jackson, whom he’s never gotten along with. Regardless, I paraphrase Michael Corleone: “[This should be] business, not personal.” Laker Nation doesn’t care if your little sister picked on you when you were kids, or whatever the problem is. Laker Nation cares about championships.
The Lakeshow now sits at a 25-29 record for this NBA season, as a 10 seed in the Western Conference and two spots out of the playoff picture. Their average age is almost 30-years-old, and Coach D’Antoni’s offensive system favors a pace that’s unkind to old legs.
Even when Jerry was alive, fans feared Jim’s increasing influence; now that he’s gone, it appears his “idiot son” is free to run the Lakers into the ground unchecked. Considering University of Southern California's football’s recent humiliations, and the Dodgers failing to make noise in the MLB despite an exorbitant payroll, haven’t L.A. sports fans suffered enough? Sure, there’s the historically terrible but now awesome Clippers to share the spotlight with the Lakers in the NBA, and the Galaxy in Major League Soccer, who’ve won consecutive MLS championships. But let’s face it: soccer has yet to take off in the U.S., so who cares? And as we say in LA: “There’s no such thing as Clipper fans, only Laker haters.”
Overall, the future looks grim for Southern California sports. We’ve lost one of our brightest stars, and those who’ll take his place seem far from capable of maintaining his legacy.
It may seem insensitive to talk about sports when a man has just lost his life. Make no mistake, my heart goes out to his family, friends, and my hometown, who are all mourning Buss's passing as we speak. But to that, I’ll also add this:
“Welcome to Los Angeles.”