February 28, 2013

TOLEDO | Farewell to a Legend

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If they ever tell my story, let them say I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Dr. Jerry Buss, constructor of championships. Let them say I lived to see Showtime, ruler of the 80s.

Very corny, I’ll admit, but the sentiment behind my introduction is as genuine as it could ever be. How do you say goodbye to a legend? There are timeless moments in the history of professional basketball in the United States. These momentous times in the evolution of the NBA have come to define generations of fans, have provided iconic images we can easily recognize, but, most importantly, have come to shape and mold the identity of the league as we know it today.

Some of the most important moments in the history of the NBA include the emergence of George Mikan, Bill Russell and Jerry West’s Lakers-Celtics battles of the 1960s, Kareem and the unstoppable Skyhook, Magic vs. Bird and of course the arrival of Michael Jordan to the Chicago Bulls. However, the moment I would like to pay tribute to is the passing of Dr. Jerry Buss, who in 1979 purchased the Los Angeles Lakers and revolutionized the NBA with the introduction of the Showtime Lakers, a team that would go on to win five NBA championships in the 1980s. The acquisitions of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, which formed one of the most potent 1-2 punches in the history of the NBA, culminated in a championship three-peat. Most recently, the modern Lakers have won two more NBA championships. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah on January 27th, 1933, Buss — the engineer of all this success — passed away on February 18th at the age of 80.

During the 1970s, the NBA saw declining TV ratings, low attendance and both perceived and real drug-related player problems. All of this threatened to derail the league. Although many point to the leadership of David Stern as the cause of the NBA’s ascension back into major relevance in the 1980s, Jerry Buss is just as responsible for bringing the NBA back into the spotlight.

When Buss purchased the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979, he inherited a team that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and that had just selected Magic Johnson with the first overall pick in the draft. Buss’s vision for the Lakers franchise was to make their games a form of entertainment as well. Buss felt that since the Lakers were in Los Angeles — the entertainment capital of the world — their games should feature dancers and a live band for home games, which he hired promptly after taking over. Additionally, he wanted the playing style of his team to be up-tempo, an exciting run-and-gun style that prominently featured Magic, along with Kareem, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes and a number of other legendary players who would don purple and gold during the 1980s.

This era of Lakers basketball came to be known as Showtime. The Lakers quickly garnered a Hollywood celebrity following with fans such as Jack Nicholson regularly showing up to The Forum. Buss transformed the Forum Club — a previously family-friendly restaurant and lounge in the stadium — into the hottest nightclub in Los Angeles. Add this to the emergence of the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson — which would help to revive the historic Lakers-Celtics rivalry — and the NBA was back in the public spotlight.

The quality of the Lakers play, along with the high caliber players and coaches involved with the team, led to five NBA Championships in the 1980s.

With the 1990s being somewhat of a dry period for the Lakers, Buss was not satisfied only with his team’s success in the previous decade. So he hired former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson — who coached Michael Jordan and the Bulls to six NBA Championships during the decade — to take over his Lakers. Under Buss and Jackson’s guidance, these Lakers won three NBA championships in a row from 2000-2002.

After the departure of Shaquille O’Neal following the 2003-2004 season, Buss and Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak kept trying to build their team up to championship form again. The acquisition of Pau Gasol in 2008 helped the Lakers win back-to-back titles from 2009-2010.

Buss’ relentless desire for success and perfection is the reason why he will be remembered as such a legend. Most owners of NBA teams are businessmen who are interested in the bottom line. Although those owners do aspire to win championships, if their team is profitable, then they are ultimately happy. Not Jerry Buss. For him, the bottom line meant nothing if there was no ring at the end of it. Since Buss purchased the Lakers, no team has won more championships than LA.

If I had to sum up Jerry Buss in just one word, I would say that he was a winner. It’s about time to start planning the next Staples Center statue.

Original Author: Juan Carlos Toledo