The suite of Dr. Jerry Buss was empty tonight – empty for the first time since he bought the Lakers in 1979 – with a single light illuminating the chair in which he always sat. Tonight is the first game the Lakers have played since the passing of the beloved owner on Monday morning. Fittingly, it’s a home game against the Lakers’ biggest rival, the Boston Celtics. The Lakers have had a miserable season up until this point but this dominating 113-99 win over the Celtics on Dr. Buss’ memorial night had to be one of the most emotional and most important wins in a long time.
Jerry Buss wasn’t simply the best owner in the history of the National Basketball Association; he was arguably the greatest owner in American professional sports history. Buss bought the Lakers in 1979 for $67.5 million and under his watchful eye the Lakers won 10 NBA Championships. Buss turned the Lakers into a continuously-relevant worldwide franchise now worth $1 billion.
“The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said.
Signs of admiration and remembrance of Buss have been evident: the flags at Staples Center have been lowered to half-mast, flowers and notes have been placed on the statue of late, hall-of-fame Lakers’ broadcaster Chick Hearn, and large blank banners have been displayed across the street at L.A. Live for fans to sign their names and write a message about Buss. The Lakers will wear a purple and gold commemorative “JB” patch on the right side of their jerseys for the remainder of the season.
“He was a brilliant and incredible owner but he was even a better person with a great heart,” Kobe Bryant said during his pregame speech. “His vision has transcended the game and we are all spoiled by his drive to win year, after year, after year.”
Buss created what it meant to be a Laker. He rewarded fans for their dedication and helped garner generations of Laker fans. Buss brought in stars and put on a show. When a highly sought-after free agent – like Dwight Howard – has a decision on where to play, the NBA world assumes, “Oh, he’ll choose the Lakers.” And why wouldn’t a player choose the Lakers? When you played for the Lakers under Dr. Buss, you always had a chance to win an NBA championship.
As Bill Simmons put it in his Buss obituary, “Even as the league’s salary cap and luxury tax worked against him, Buss kept stacking the Lakers with superstars, knowing that Los Angeles remained his biggest weapon — the weather, the beach, the celebrities, the ladies, the ritzier neighborhoods, the privacy, the Hollywood connections. Players wanted to play for the Lakers. They wanted to play for Dr. Jerry Buss.”
This win over the Celtics, though emotional, may not be a sign of things to come for these Lakers. In reality, it probably won’t be. But tonight everything went well for the Lakers. The ball movement was impeccable. Kobe Bryant differed to his teammates when it was the right decision. Steve Nash was on fire and passed (pun intended) Magic Johnson on the NBA all-time assists list. And Dwight Howard actually played like the Dwight Howard we all thought he would be.
The Lakers have played pitifully all season – lackadaisical play on defense, with locker-room squabbles and poor play overall. For one night, however, with the Buss family in attendance, the Lakers decided to play like the team that everyone expected. This win probably won’t result in a miraculously inspiring run to clinch a playoff spot but tonight, Jerry Buss’ Lakers did what the Doctor would’ve wanted – put on a show. And beat the Celtics. This one was for Jerry.
“One of the biggest reasons I bought the Lakers was to beat the Celtics,” Dr. Jerry Buss.