Owner’s Death

02.19.13

What Happens to Los Angeles Lakers After Death of Jerry Buss?

Owner Jerry Buss, who died Monday at age 80, turned the NBA team into Showtime! But aging stars, a dismal season, and dissension in the front office are dragging the franchise down. Magic Johnson tells Allison Samuels they can get it together. Can they?

Magic Johnson admits he cried most of this morning after receiving the news that his good friend and mentor Jerry Buss had passed away. Johnson experienced the good old days of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty after being recruited and treated like a son by Buss, the team’s owner in 1979.

Those days, known as “Showtime,” cemented the Lakers as one of America’s most celebrated NBA teams, with Magic leading them to five NBA championships. Still, Johnson’s memorable moments with the popular Hollywood franchise mark a vastly different time for the Los Angeles Lakers of today. A team that was already depressed over its dreadfully dismal season now must mourn the loss of its very popular owner.

“He was an amazing man, a great man, and very smart man,’’ says Johnson. “He loved the team and he loved Los Angeles. He wanted to bring the championship to this city every time out, and he was disappointed when he couldn’t. He liked the fans to be happy.’’

The fans haven’t been happy for a while now.

Though reports say Buss has been gravely ill with cancer for the last 18 months, and hadn’t attended any Lakers games recently, he surely was aware of the Lakers’ recent sad fate on the court. Their current record is 25–29.

Buss was said to be heavily involved in the trade that brought both future of Hall of Famers Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to play side by side with longtime Lakers star Kobe Bryant this season—a move surely meant to bring yet another championship to Los Angeles quickly and guaranteed to return the Lakers team to its proper place as NBA royalty.

Yet it hasn’t quite turned out that way. Nash and Paul Gasol have struggled with serious injuries the entire season, and Dwight Howard and Bryant have yet to learn to play well with one another. The team is on its second coach of the season after Mike Brown was fired late last year, and with more losses than wins, the playoffs are looking more and more out of reach.

“I can’t imagine Dr. Buss was happy with the way this season was turning out,’’ says a Lakers executive who did not want to be identified. “This isn’t the way he would have wanted it. He wanted the Lakers to be real competitors, and this team isn’t even on the same page with real winners, since we’re No. 10 in the West. Not to mention that not winning leads to all kinds of drama with the players and off the court.’’

“Jerry had a legacy of winning, and that will continue with the Lakers no matter what is happening now.”—Magic Johnson

Serious drama courtside occurred between two of Buss’s children last year, after Coach Brown was fired unexpectedly. Daughter Jeanie Buss, vice president of business operations, suggested that former Lakers coach—and her fiancé—Phil Jackson be rehired to replace Brown. Jackson brought five more championships to the Lakers franchise during the last decade.

Son Jim Buss, president of basketball operations, offered Jackson the job, but when Jackson failed to answer immediately, Jim instead hired Mike D’ Antoni.

Jackson said he thought he’d be given two days to ponder the decision.

The former Chicago Bulls coach also “wanted an ungodly amount of money for his salary,’’ said someone in the Lakers front office. “Jim wasn’t going to pay him that, anyway.’’

Reports say the brother and sister have not spoken to one another since that decision was made last November.

“Jeanie was pissed. Nothing pretty about what’s been happening around here with the Buss children at odds with one another and Jerry being very sick,’’ said the Lakers front-office person. ‘’Winning masks a lot of things, but losing brings out the worse in everyone, and I don’t see it getting any better with Jerry’s death.’’

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In this June 15, 1987, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss gets doused with champagne from members of his team as he holds the NBA Championship trophy after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics, in Inglewood, California. (Lennox Mclendon/AP)

Buss has six children, who all work with the Lakers organization in some capacity. Buss owned 66 percent of the team and did not want it sold after his death. Offers are still expected to come in for the team.

Lakers players also have had their own highly documented incidents over the years.

Kobe Bryant has long been considered the “problem child” of the NBA, and weathered a well-publicized sexual assault charge in 2003 and recently endured the start of divorce proceedings. He and his wife, Vanessa, announced they were reuniting earlier this year.

Former Laker Lamar Odom made headlines when he married Khloe Kardashian in 2009 and filmed a critically panned joint reality-TV show during the basketball season. It was a move that many on and off the team felt was a distraction for the Los Angeles Lakers, and helped cost them the playoffs in 2011. Odom was traded the next season.

“That should have been filmed during the off-season,’’ says Johnson, who had 5 percent ownership of the team at that point. He sold his percentage to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. “That was a mistake that didn’t help the team at that time, or Lamar.’"

Johnson says he believes Buss had faith in his family’s ability to keep the team together no matter the issues, and ultimately in the team’s ability to get on the right track and back to its winning ways.

“He believed in giving the players everything they needed to get the win,’’ says Johnson. “He did that with me, and he did that with all the players and everyone he worked with. He wanted Jeanie to run the business side of things, and he made sure she went to school to be able do that and it will continue. Jerry had a legacy of winning, and that will continue with the Lakers no matter what is happening now. They will get it together. That I know.”