Jim Buss appeared Friday on 710 ESPN's Mason and Ireland Show for an exceedingly rare interview, done by his own admission to help fans learn more about who he is. Listening to him, I suddenly thought about how 13 years have passed since The Blair Witch Project first hit theaters. It was a movie that unexpectedly took movie audiences by storm, with an influence that can be felt to this day. The hand-held, shaky camera cinematography, which at the time literally caused motion sickness for some viewers, has become mainstream. Low-budget, no-star films have become a bankable horror film formula. It launched the "found footage" genre, which has become a horror movie staple and recently branched into comedy with Project X.
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The man in the hat has some folks scared.
But mostly, what The Blair Witch Project illustrated was the power of what really scares people the most: The fear of the unknown.
With all due respect to Jason, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, they've got nothing on the power of an imagination fueled by paranoia, then allowed to run wild. The human mind is capable of playing horrible, cruel tricks. A frightened brain will generally have no problems conjuring up visions of demise. The longer it goes without tangible reassurance, the greater an apocalypse envisioned. As terrifying as seeing a crazed lunatic with a machete would have been for those kids lost in the woods, being left in the dark about how death would take place was even scarier for them. And by extension, movie-goers.
In many respects, Jim Buss has been the flesh-and-blood embodiment for Lakers fans of being lost in that endless woods. As his power within the organization has increased, so have the bad dreams of an eroding franchise. In part, this is the result of fans being spoiled by the success experienced with his father at the helm, and their desperate fears of it slipping away. But it's also the result of Jim Buss remaining a complete mystery. He rarely grants interviews. He rarely speaks publicly. Among the few memories fans have of hearing him speak at at came while sniping over radio with his sister Jeanie. The current executive vice president of player personnel, he's worked in the organization for quite some time, but nobody has ever been quite certain about what he really does or what successes (or even failures) have come from his influence. About the only thing people agreed upon was that his birthright played huge role in being handed the keys.
His presence has existed in the shadows, and nothing pleasant ever happens there.
That reclusive nature has allowed Jim Buss' narrative to be shaped by others, through a hodge-podge of media influence, dots connected and conclusions perhaps easy to reach. That he wants to put his "stamp" on the Lakers, which means a refusal to even move Andrew Bynum, a player widely perceived as one he can take credit for bringing into the fold. That he wants to remind people he's now in charge, reflected in a willingness to leave Kobe Bryant out of the loop with big decisions. That a personal dislike for Phil Jackson (who has never worked hard to convince of a close relationship) sparked a severing of ties to their championship years. That he's putting the bottom line ahead of winning in a way his father never did, which resulted in financially advantageous trades involving Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.
Prevalent storylines like these create the impression among fans and media of the wrong man for the job, an heir apparent in over his head. I'll be the first to admit, I've questioned at times Jim's capabilities to properly run this franchise. Have all of my concerns been rooted in reality? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't really know, because Buss has done so little over the years to dispel my concerns. He has remained uncommunicative, seemingly content to let fear swirl around him. Whatever unreasonable doubts I or Lakers fans may have about Jim Buss, they are to a certain degree his fault for allowing them to exist.
Of course, like all Laker fans, I actually want to believe in Buss. I want to believe he has been properly groomed for his destiny. And there have been positive signs. The Chris Paul deal, scuttled or not. The recent acquisition of Ramon Sessions. These are all things that should be automatic points in Jim's favor. However, this is also proof created behind closed doors, where Jim always seems to reside. In the minds of the skeptics, Mitch Kupchak is the one concocting the deals, with his boss on the sidelines watching.
Bottom line, until we're offered a clear idea of who Jim Buss really is, he'll remain too easily pictured as the Blair Witch leaving those creepy stick figures in the woods.
That's why it was incredibly important for him to appear for an hour on radio, putting a voice to a face seen far too little. Accessibility can go a long way toward erasing mystery and negativity. For certain, work still remains on behalf of his image. Buss didn't appear always entirely comfortable nor sure of himself while answering questions, and at times allowed the hosts guide his responses. More importantly, this is a process. His reputation, fairly or otherwise, has been controversial for years, and could take just as long to rehabilitate for the majority of Lakers fans. More time in front of a microphone or camera will be needed. More opportunities to say the right things, which he certainly did at times during this appearance. And obviously, these words have to backed up in positive results. Any benefit of the doubt will be nothing if not hard-earned.
But at the very least, an appearance like today's represents an awareness of his perception, along with a desire to erase those fears of a terrifying future. In and of itself, that effort is a step in the right direction.