When Lakers owner Jerry Buss passed away Monday, the NBA lost one of its greatest owners.
Though most regard the Los Angeles Lakers as one of the most successful NBA franchises, the team had just one title since moving from Minneapolis (where they won five titles in 12 seasons) until the time Buss bought the franchise in 1979 from Jack Kent Cooke.
Of course, they had six-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the team and soon landed the number one pick in the draft, which turned into Magic Johnson, and just like that, the Lakers were off to five titles and eight finals appearances in the 1980s.
Buss still made his mark along the way, though, firing Paul Westhead 11 games into the 1982 season—just over a year removed from their latest title—and promoting assistant coach Pat Riley to head coach. “Riles” would prove to be more than just a stop-gap though, winning four more titles with L.A. He is now widely considered one of the all-time great NBA coaches.
With a marketable team, a fast-paced style of play and of course the Laker Girls, Buss was able to attract top Hollywood celebrities and soon the Forum became the place to be.
By the early 1990s the team, decimated by the retirement of Kareem, Riley stepping down as coach, and then the sudden retirement of Magic (due to HIV), the Lakers came back to earth, not winning a playoff series between 1992 and 1994.
But Buss, who always seemed to find hidden gems, had promoted Jerry West (now regarded as one of the best talent evaluators ever) to general manager and the two of them had one of the all-time great offseasons in 1996.
West wanted a high-schooler in the draft that year named Kobe Bryant, but didn’t have a pick high enough to grab him, so he traded center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick and grabbed Bryant.
Then just a few weeks later, during free agency, the Lakers signed away the gem of the class—Shaquille O’Neal—to a mammoth contract. Just like that the Lakers were back in business.
But after three years of successful regular seasons with Del Harris, followed by disappointing playoff exits, Buss gambled in letting Harris go and hired Phil Jackson prior to the 1999–2000 season. Jackson had led Chicago to six NBA titles during the 1990s but doubts still existed about whether the Jordan-led Bulls would have won them no matter who was on the sideline.
With a marketable team, a fast-paced style of play, and of course the Laker Girls, Buss was able to attract top Hollywood celebrities and soon the Forum became the place to be.
But the partnership worked with the Lakers winning titles in each of Jackson’s first three seasons. By the end of the 2004 though, Buss took a major gamble in letting Jackson walk and trading away Shaq, thus handing the team over to Kobe—now a perennial All-Star.
While Shaq’s numbers soon tailed off in Miami, letting Jackson go turned out to be a mistake. A year later Jackson was back on the bench—but with a lesser team that Bryant didn’t necessarily like.
After back-to-back first round playoff exits in 2006 and 2007, Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off a clearly one-sided trade for Pau Gasol in early 2008 that put the Lakers back in the driver’s seat.
The team then won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 to give Buss 10 championships overall as owner.
Buss clearly went out a winner.
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