On Monday, Los Angeles Lakers owner and USC alumnus Jerry Buss passed away at the age of 80. Buss had owned the team since 1979, winning 10 championships at the helm of one of the NBA’s most profitable and successful franchises.
Buss’ legacy has been covered extensively since his death — he reinvigorated the Lakers, giving them an identity as a basketball powerhouse over the last three decades. He oversaw the careers of legends such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and, most recently, Kobe Bryant. And along the way, he established himself as quite the provocateur, frequenting The Forum and later the Staples Center with female companions often a third of his age.
It would be easy for me to sing Buss’ praises as others have done, to list off his accomplishments and give him credit as perhaps the best owner in professional basketball. But that wouldn’t really be a fair bit of analysis. In fact, it would mostly be lazy.
I’m not a Lakers fan. I don’t dislike the franchise — I just have no real ties to Los Angeles (instead, I’m a proud supporter of the hapless Washington Wizards). I love the NBA and watch it more than any other sports league, but I’d be lying to myself if I pretended to truly understand the impact Buss had on the Lakers since he took the reins.
What I do know is this: Buss helped shaped my, and countless other college-aged basketball fans’, views of the NBA.
What does that mean, exactly? Buss helped establish a trend of super teams in the NBA — franchises that are consistently competitive and turning a profit. The Lakers were obviously one of the better squads in the league before Buss, winning five championships between 1949 and 1954 (albeit in Minneapolis) and another title in 1972. They were not, however, a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination. Buss changed that.
The Lakers quickly joined the Boston Celtics as the NBA’s marquee teams in the ’80s. Their “Showtime” offense revolutionized the game and brought in huge ratings for a lagging league that was reinvigorated by the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The team enjoyed an incredibly productive stretch of five championships in a single decade, which was quite the accomplishment in an increasingly competitive landscape of opponents.
The ’90s were dominated by another super team — Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls — but the dawn of the new millennium brought forth another run for Los Angeles’ premier sports team. The early 2000s were also when most early-’90s babies, myself included, started showing a vested interest in the NBA.
In fact, some of my earliest memories of the NBA stem back to 2001, when the Lakers took down Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were an unbeatable duo surrounded by a group of knockdown shooters. The 76ers were easy to root for as the underdogs led by the undersized Iverson, but Los Angeles’ pure dominance was impossible to dismiss.
That 4-1 shellacking of the 76ers sold me on the Lakers. They were clearly the cream of the crop in the NBA, and though my knowledge of the game has increased from a third grader’s level since then, that viewpoint hasn’t changed. I may not root for them, but I certainly expect the Lakers to be a title contender on a year-to-year basis. Some have made the connection between L.A.’s struggles this year and Buss’ declining health. Seems like quite a stretch to me, but it’s not a stretch to say that everyone in the Lakers organization had immense respect for the owner.
Here’s the bottom line — Jerry Buss single-handedly helped make the NBA what it is today. Professional basketball would have a completely different outlook without the Lakers as the biggest draw in the sport.
Clearly, Buss didn’t control the destinies of his star players, and quite a bit of luck and timing was involved in attaining the sheer amount of Hall of Fame talent the Lakers have taken in. But that doesn’t change the fact that Buss led the way in transforming the organization into the biggest sports draw in the second-biggest media market in America.
For better or worse, the Lakers are the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees of professional basketball, and the team continues to serve that role for the foreseeable future thanks to its legendary owner.
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