TrueHoop: Jerry Buss

Magic Johnson's big deal

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
11:35
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
On Friday, Lakers owner Jerry Buss will be among the inductees into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

It's not difficult to shower Buss with all kinds of superlatives. But one of his wiliest, most creative and, in retrospect, brilliant moves was inking 22-year-old Magic Johnson to a 25-year, $25 million contract extension in 1981.

M. Haubs of The Painted Area puts Buss' decision into historical context:
Since a $25 million contract for an NBA superstar looks positively quaint in 2010 terms, it's hard to fully explain how stunning the deal was at the time. It was the longest and richest contract in professional sports history when signed - both the length and total dollar value were just monstrous numbers compared to others of the time.

Only two other players - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone - were making a $1 million annual salary at the time, and the league minimum was a whopping $65,000. Nolan Ryan was the highest-salaried baseball player at the time, after signing a 4-year, $4.4 million deal in 1979.

Kareem immediately voiced concerns, both publicly and privately to Buss, about whether Magic would be able to remain coachable with such an enormous contract. And given Magic's extremely close off-court relationship with Buss, many Lakers teammates were uncomfortably uncertain about whether Magic had essentially become a member of team management.

Indeed, a major controversy developed just months later, as Magic's public comments were widely perceived as the cause of the firing of head coach Paul Westhead. At 22 years old, Magic's image became that of the classic modern athlete run amok, who had been given too much, too soon, and he was even booed at Lakers home games for a time. Of course, the Lakers went on to win the 1982 NBA championship under Pat Riley, and the Magic-Westhead controversy has long since been relegated to Lakers history.

Roland Lazenby's two posts about Kobe Bryant on TrueHoop got a lot of people talking, including Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times.

He's actually an integral part of this story, as it was Heisler's quote of a Laker Insider, way back at the beginning of the summer, that reportedly touched off Kobe Bryant's firestorm of angry media interviews.

More recently, Heisler has been all over the story, including these two stories. 

Heisler felt compelled to respond to some of Lazenby's points, and emailed the following:

One of the highlights of covering the Laker soap opera is watching all the theories bounce back from around the country, like the one that this is a poker game between Jerry Buss, the master who's counseling patience, and Phil and Kobe who want to win now, with everyone coolly playing their cards.

Buss and Bryant are actually emotional, dismayed and showing it regularly.

Kobe went bonkers in May trying to get traded, finally realized it wasn't happening -- not now -- came in and made up with everyone.

The organization that spent the summer like Londoners during the Battle of Britain relaxed for 10 days in Hawaii before the normally soft-spoken, all-forgiving Buss weighed in during his usually uneventful sit-down with the beat writers.

(Buss enjoys attention but not that kind. He does the annual session, hoping the beat guys won't bug him individually any other time.)

Wounded by Bryant's slurs, skeptical of keeping Kobe or both, Buss not only reversed the position team officials had taken -- they weren't trading Kobe, period -- he sounded resigned to it. ("You can't keep too many loyalties. You've got to look at it as a business. He looks at it the same way I look at it.")

Always aware of the business aspect, Buss may also have been signaling his fan base he might have to trade their darling.

However, anyone who thinks Buss still has 150 IQ points left can't think he was telling Bryant to shape up or ship out.

Buss wants to keep Kobe as surely as he wants to keep charging $2,200 for courtside seats and dating 21-year-old girls. Offending Bryant is like daring a tornado to come your way. Kobe is fresh off May's week-long clinic on how much trouble he can be when he's not feeling his best.

Now they're all in the comfortable position of feeling like the victim, a necessary precursor for blowing this up.

Buss must have been offended at being called an "idiot" and a "liar."

Bryant was definitely offended that Buss violated the pledge they made in Barcelona to keep things within the family (after having called him an idiot and a liar).

This isn't a debate over their direction. If the Lakers can't persuade Kobe to stay, they know their direction: straight down.

It's not even about Jim Buss, as irritating as he is to Phil and Kobe.

It's about Kobe's accurate perception that he can't win a title with this team in this conference.

Of course, if Kobe had figured it out in 2004 -- it wasn't hard, believe me -- he would have signed with the Clippers as he planned to until the end, giving him a real shot at a title and saving him all that grief about running off Shaq.

Jim Buss didn't hire Rudy Tomjanovich.

Rudy T was hired by Jerry Buss who still makes decisions commiting him to $30 million obligations. Detached as Jerry is, we're not talking about George Steinbrenner.

The notion that Jim hired Rudy comes from a story that went everywhere, in which he defends the choice to his sister, Jeanie, who's upset that her boyfriend has been shown the door. Jim supposedly claims Rudy's $6 million salary -- as much as they paid Jackson who won them three titles -- was standard for coaches.

Jim did play a part in drafting Andrew Bynum, joining Mitch Kupchak and Ronnie Lester as they scouted Andrew (it was the third time Lester had seen him) and helping Kupchak talk his father into it.

Bynum was either a good choice (their alternatives were Sean May and Fran Vasquez) or a coup. We'll know more in the next year.

The bottom line is, even if Bryant has them under tremendous pressure and Kupchak is under the gun, their basketball operation isn't dysfunctional at all.

The Buss family does have an issue or two, though.

Phil isn't upset at Kobe for not playing defense, not practicing or anything else.

Phil doesn't get upset at Kobe. Phil can't get upset at Kobe any more than he could get upset at Michael Jordan, even if Mike did something outrageous.

No Kobe, no way the Lakers have any hope of going anywhere this season which means no reason for Phil to show up to work. And Phil likes to work.

Happily or not for all concerned, this soap opera has about run its course.

SPONSORED HEADLINES