I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, without a national sports team to cheer for, so I will never forget the first time I watched the Lakers. I was a boy. It was the Showtime era. Magic, Kareem, James...I watched in awe and I was hooked. I became a Lakers fan that day and every day after that. I liked basketball, but I never thought I'd be a professional basketball player. These guys were amazing. Game after game, giving me joy, excitement and a team to root for, my family huddling around the television screaming, cheering for the Lakers.
In the Summer of 1996, dreams I didn't even know I could dream came true. Dr. Jerry Buss and his organization, the Los Angeles Lakers, chose me 24th in the first round of the NBA draft. I was in shock. The team that I had watched, rooted for, and idolized was now something I was actually a part of.
I remember vividly getting the chance to meet Dr. Buss and talk with him after arriving in Los Angeles as a rookie. After one conversation in particular, he gave me his business card, which had his home phone number listed. Our relationship changed in that moment. We morphed from employer/employee to personal friends.
And then it was time to play my first game. Being a Laker was surreal. I had been in training camp for weeks, played scrimmages against another rookie, Kobe Bryant, and a few pre-season games. But when the lights turned on at the Forum that night, emotion and adrenaline were at an all-time high. Everything Dr. Buss had done for the organization and everything players before me had accomplished weighed heavy on me. This was not just a jersey to throw on. This wasn’t just a game to play. This was an honor, and to wear the “Purple and Gold” was a responsibility.
Through the years, Dr. Buss was present at key moments, though in the Locker Room only here and there, because he trusted us, he trusted his coaches and his management to do their jobs. He put the right people in place and let them make magic. He wasn’t a micromanager, he didn’t love the spotlight. He loved his team and he loved to win, and he let all of us do that for him.
I played under Dr. Buss for a total of 13 seasons. And each one was an honor. We made it to the playoffs 12 times, became Western Conference Champions seven times, and won five Championships together. This doesn’t happen by accident. It took Dr. Buss making strategic decisions, having a vision sometimes no one else saw, having confidence in himself and his decisions, and trusting his gut. Dr. Buss was unwavering. He was sure of what he was doing. And as players, even if we had bad games or even a bad season, we knew he was on it. That he had a plan bigger than we were aware of.
A few months ago, I remember sitting with Dr. Buss in his hospital room one afternoon. He was ill, but his mind was sharp. We talked for hours. About the Lakers, about life, about family. In all the experiences I ever had with this man, this was the most meaningful to me. No cameras, no fans, no basketball in site. Just two men talking.
As everyone knows, I am currently not with the Lakers, and while I plan to play again, I am not sure that I can ever top the experiences I had with that organization.
Dr. Buss was a visionary, a trailblazer, a competitor, a force, a dad, a grandfather … but what I will miss most is my mentor and friend. He changed lives, he gave people joy, he gave people something to cheer for. He changed my life on and off the court.
Thank you for everything Dr. Buss. For giving kids everywhere a reason to dream big. For giving families a time to come together and cheer. For giving me a chance and a purpose. May you rest in peace.