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Friday, August 13, 2010
Humility carried Jerry Buss to HOF

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Jerry Buss was welcomed Friday into his new home in Springfield, Mass., at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he'll forever be recognized as one of the game's greats.

His official label associated with the enshrinement is "contributor," which puts him in the same group as Lakers luminaries Chick Hearn and Pete Newell -- the latter of the two was recognized posthumously Friday as the coach of the 1960 USA Basketball gold-medal-winning Olympics team.

"Contributor" is an all-encompassing label.

It would have made more sense to call a spade a spade and induct him as simply a "Laker," his name joining the long list that includes Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley (who all presented Buss on stage Friday) as well as Jerry West, James Worthy, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, etc.

Jerry Buss
Jerry Buss, exchanging a handshake with Karl Malone on Friday, says the best Lakers team of his tenure could be the one coming next season.

Or if you wanted to distinguish him from being a player or a coach, perhaps having him enter the Hall as an "owner" would have been more appropriate so he could be grouped with the late Bill Davidson of the Detroit Pistons.

But, with the eyes of the basketball world upon him on a night when Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson, Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira and Cynthia Cooper were honored as players, Bob Hurley was honored as a coach, and the '60 and '92 gold-medal winners were honored as teams, Buss bestowed a brand-new label for himself.

He was going into the Hall of Fame as a fan.

"I guess you can tell I'm happy to be here," Buss said to the crowd after approaching the podium with a grin so sly it belonged on the face of a Lakers fan who sneaked from the mezzanine level to a courtside seat next to Jack Nicholson without being asked to show his ticket. "In fact, I'm probably happier than anyone because most of the people that come up here have an inkling of the idea that someday they may make the Hall of Fame. Believe me, when I was 21, I never thought I'd be enshrined with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan."

There wasn't a hint of arrogance to him. He didn't throw up both hands and spread out his fingers to represent each of the 10 championships his teams have won in the 31 seasons since he took over in 1979.

Think about that. He has hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy 10 times. That thing weighs 15 pounds; Lakers trainer Chip Schaefer could implement it as a shoulder exercise for the current players.

No, there was none of that.

There wasn't any mention of the Lakers' 66 percent winning clip under his watch or their 15 Finals appearances or 29 playoff berths.

He didn't talk about how he built the team into the most popular professional sports franchise in Los Angeles or how he built the team's brand into one of the most recognizable worldwide, on the same level as Manchester United or the New York Yankees.

He kept quiet about the team's market value growing tenfold from the $67 million he purchased it for to the $600 million Forbes estimates it's worth now.

He didn't boast about how more movie stars hang out at his place of business than on the set of an "Ocean's Eleven" sequel.

Nope, he wasn't going to peacock to prove his name belonged next to Magic and Larry and MJ. He just wanted to be known as the guy who appreciated he got to live the dream of owning a professional team after rooting for Wyoming to win a national title in basketball when he was a student there and later choosing USC for graduate school because it had the best athletic program for him to cheer for.

"There were times when I was in the locker room and I would be surrounded by five Hall of Famers," Buss said. "As a fan, you can't imagine how that feels."

For Buss, ever since owning the Lakers, he has felt like a kid in a candy store (or like Lamar Odom in a candy store; take your pick).

"I couldn't believe that I was suddenly in charge of a legendary franchise and that my thoughts would influence the future of this team for so many years," Buss said.

He dabbled in owning tennis, soccer and volleyball teams, and even did some boxing promotion before breaking through to basketball, buying the Lakers after two years of negotiations.

For a guy who described his own athletic career as "overly competitive but under-ly endowed," it could have been a chance to finally tell all the jocks what to do now that he was the guy with the money and the power.

Instead, he treated his players and front-office staff with respect and admired their prowess on the court and knowledge off it.

Just listen to the words Buss used Friday. Having Bill Sharman and West come into his office on his first day as owner brought him "excitement and reverence;" drafting Magic "elevated the franchise to the heavens;" having Abdul-Jabbar on his team brought him "happiness knowing he played for the Lakers, my Lakers;" Riley served as his "guardian angel;" and signing Phil Jackson was the chance to work with someone who had achieved "mythical statistics."

Added Buss: "You see, it's not really such a miracle I'm here. These men put their hands together, their souls together and brought me with them."

I grew up in Philadelphia, where the labels associated with the owners of our pro sports teams were words like "bum," "cheapskate" and "moron." When I reached out on Twitter to ask my followers what they loved about Buss so much, they praised Buss with the same reverence with which Buss gushed about his players and coaches.

"It's easy to love an owner who wants to win and goes about making the necessary moves to do so," tweeted @cocoqti81.

"He's proven time and time again he makes the best, well thought out decisions that are aligned with true Laker fans best interests," chimed in @StevenLoi.

"11 Championships in LA! Need we say more?" wrote @JoeyReid.

The ring count actually stands at 10. If the Lakers capture the three-peat next season, they'll have 11.

And the fan in Buss can't help but think it's going to happen.

When asked by NBA TV during the red-carpet portion of the telecast what he thought was the best team of his tenure, Buss said, "It's hard to say. To tell you the truth, I think it may be the one coming up."

Dave McMenamin, who reported from Los Angeles, covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.