Lakers begin a new transition
It's uncertain how death of Jerry Buss will affect team, but winning cures all
LOS ANGELES -- There were a lot of things the late Dr. Jerry Buss could have said when he was inducted into basketball's Hall of Fame in 2010. It was his stage, his moment to bask in. Instead he shared it with all the players and coaches who'd helped get him there.
"These men put their hands together, their souls together, and brought me with them," Buss said on that warm August day in Springfield, Mass.
Those words were replayed Wednesday night before the Los Angeles Lakers' 113-99 win over the Boston Celtics in a beautiful pregame ceremony at Staples Center that honored the Lakers owner, who died Monday at 80 after a long battle with cancer.
His daughter Jeanie Buss was sitting a few rows back of the court, smiling even as she mourns. Both teams stood respectfully on the court and listened to the tribute. Then Kobe Bryant took the microphone, choked back some emotion and reminded everyone of one of the most important things Dr. Buss taught us.
Everything is better when you win.
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"We are all spoiled by his vision and his drive to win year after year after year," Bryant said. "Through our years here at Staples Center, the one thing that we always counted on was the great Dr. Jerry Buss overlooking his franchise from his box."
Buss is gone now. His box was empty Wednesday night. Only a spotlight shined on the seat from which he watched so many Lakers wins over the years.
It was a symbolic gesture of the loss so many in the Lakers organization felt this week after Buss' death, but also of the state the franchise now finds itself in both on and off the court.
At the same time a torch is being passed from father to children, it also is being passed from Bryant to Dwight Howard. And yes, there is worry over both handoffs.
Worry because the collective faith in the father and Bryant is so strong. But also because of the perceived flaws in those who are receiving it.
Is Howard worthy? Can the Buss children live up to the responsibility?
There is no way to know those answers now. No way to even guess.
But both the children and Howard took a page from the old man's book Wednesday night in the way they showed up and beat the hated Celtics.
There was some question as to whether any of the Buss children, who obviously are still mourning their father, would show up at the game Wednesday night. It would be hard, sure. But it also would make Lakers fans anxious about a future without Dr. Buss as their shepherd feel a lot better.
Shortly before tipoff, one question was answered as Jeanie Buss arrived and sat in the front row during the ceremony and for much of the first half. Showing up, and standing up to the moment, even though it was difficult.
And soon there was Howard, too, finally playing like the Dwight Howard the Lakers thought they traded for over the summer.
On Wednesday night Howard was everything the Lakers have sorely needed him to be all season -- energetic, selfless, a presence at both ends of the court on his way to 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting and 12 rebounds.
"I've been telling [Howard]: 'As you go, we go. You set the tone on both ends of the floor,'" Lakers forward Antawn Jamison said. "He makes it so much easier when he brings that energy."
It was as energetic and active as Howard has been all season. It also was the most committed he has seemed to be to the pick-and-roll game that is so essential to the offense but has never been his preferred style of play.
"I think it started with the pick-and-roll," Howard said. "We just have to keep it up. Our energy was great tonight, our effort. We have to continue to trust each other on the court, trust the pick-and-roll."
When asked whether he truly was comfortable running the pick-and-roll despite resisting it in the past, Howard shrugged and said, "Am I comfortable? I have to do whatever is necessary for us to win."
The words -- and his play -- were what the Lakers have been waiting to hear. And it's probably no coincidence it came the same day Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak publicly said the words Howard has been needing to hear since he arrived.
"Dwight is our future," Kupchak told "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" on ESPN Radio earlier Wednesday. "Kobe has one more year on his deal [this year, plus one]. That's all I can bank on or this organization can bank on.
"It's hard to get talent in this league, and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard. He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples at some point in time."
It was a remarkable show of faith in a player who has thus far been something of a disappointment. It was also a remarkable challenge.
All that Kupchak promised -- his name on a wall, a statue in front of Staples Center -- will be Howard's if he steps up and starts winning.
Could he really walk away from all that? Could he really back down from the challenge?
Howard has been getting crushed locally and nationally for the past two years for what he has done off the court and for what he hasn't done on it.
Kupchak just let Howard know the franchise still believes in him and is his if he wants it. That he will win whatever internal battles lie ahead. That the Lakers will choose him if he chooses them.
"I'm thankful that he did that," Howard said. "I've taken a lot of hits this year. I would love to get up and hit back, but I don't think it's right for me to do that. So I'm just going to continue to play and continue to get healthy. That's the only thing I can do."
These are still strange, uncertain times for the Lakers. But one thing has never changed -- things are good so long as you keep winning.