Lakers owner Jerry Buss remembered
LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss was remembered in true "Showtime" fashion Thursday.
A legion of Lakers players, coaches and personnel -- both past and present -- as well as VIPs from across the world of entertainment, assembled to pay homage to Buss, who died Monday from kidney failure after an 18-month battle with cancer.
"He cared about all his players, not just on the court but off the court as well," Magic Johnson said. "As men. As people."
Johnson, who called Buss a "father figure," was the last invited guest to speak at the nearly two-hour private ceremony held at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles and attended by an estimated 3,000 people.
"I'm sure when he went to the gates and God met him, I know he said, 'I hope you have a basketball league up here,' " Johnson said. "And I know that he said, 'Wilt (Chamberlain), you're coming on my team.' He already hit Chick Hearn up, saying, 'You're going to be my announcer. Again, we're together.' But the one thing he better not do is get a point guard, because I'm going to see him one day soon."
Johnson asked the approximately 50 current and former Laker players and coaches in attendance to stand up and be recognized and later asked the entire crowd to hold up their thumb and index fingers in the shape of an "L" to show their Laker pride.
"This is a celebration of life," Johnson proclaimed. "This is a celebration of success. We shouldn't be sad. We should be happy that the man enjoyed his life and did it his way."
Buss oversaw an unprecedented era of winning after purchasing the Lakers for $67.5 million in 1979, capturing 10 NBA championships and reaching 16 Finals in his 34 years as the owner.
Even with all of Buss' success as both a professor of chemistry, real estate mogul and professional sports owner, speaker after speaker credited his down-to-earth nature.
"Just being around him and just feeling the warmth in him, he was genuine," said former Lakers player and executive Jerry West, who was very emotional during his speech. "He was a man for all people."
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The only thing mentioned as much as Buss' passion for the Lakers and kind demeanor might have been his lust for life, particularly nightlife and high-stakes poker games.
"It was not surprising that he held on to Valentine's Day, a day that meant a lot to him," said Johnny Buss, Dr. Buss' eldest son, referencing his father's reputation as a ladies' man, even to his dying day as an 80-year old.
Johnny Buss was the only one of Dr. Buss' six children to speak on Thursday, but each of them wrote a message in the memorial program.
"You did it your way and I'm so proud of you," wrote Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, following a stanza from Frank Sinatra's "My Way" underneath a photo of him and his father singing a karaoke duet.
"When questions and doubts creep into my mind, I will draw from your wisdom for you were my professor, my ally, my captain," wrote Lakers VP of business operations Jeanie Buss.
Jeanie Buss' fiancÚ, Phil Jackson, recalled the time Dr. Buss convinced Kobe Bryant to stay with the franchise in the fall of 2007.
"During one of those meetings, Dr. Buss said, 'Kobe, if I had a diamond of great value, four or five carats, would I give up that diamond for four diamonds of one carat? No. There's no equal value for you. A trade would not net what you bring to this team,' " Jackson said.
Bryant said it was Buss who got him on board with Jackson coming back to coach the team in 2005-06, after he had written a scathing book that included pointed criticism of Bryant.
"He said, 'What do you think about bringing Phil Jackson back to coach you again?' " said Bryant, who then wriggled his body on stage to show just how uncomfortable he was with the proposition at the time. "I said, 'I don't know really how I feel about that, Dr. B.' He just looked at me and he just said, 'Trust me,' and I did and that has taken us to a whole 'nother level in winning another two championships, but that came from his vision."
All 10 of the NBA championship trophies the Lakers won since Buss bought the team adorned the stage, along with Buss' trophy commemorating his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as dozens of floral arrangements.
NBA commissioner David Stern spoke about Buss' impact that went far beyond the sport.
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"It's not an exaggeration to say that Jerry was nothing less than a transformational force in the history of sports," Stern said. "Creating the value proposition through pricing, naming rights, cable TV networks, TV rights and entertainment all of which underlie all stadium and arena construction in the United States and around the world."
That entertainment factor was on full display Thursday as the speeches were interspersed with musical performances by Randy Newman, who played "You've Got a Friend in Me," Davis Gaines, who sang "Music of the Night" from the "Phantom of the Opera," and the USC band, which played "Amazing Grace."
Other speakers included Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pau Gasol (who spoke in Spanish primarily), and Buss family friends Frank Mariani and Greg Tomlinson.
Notable guests included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and NBA great Bill Walton.
As much as the day was a celebration of Buss, it was also a day that recognized all things Lakers.
"Jerry dreamt it, we saw it, we went after it, and it became a reality," said former Lakers coach Pat Riley. "Jerry created a new Laker paradigm and for 30 years, it captured the imagination of the entire sports world. We weren't just the best of the best. The Lakers are unique, they still are. The Lakers separated themselves from the pack and left footprints to follow, and there's a lot of teams that are trying."
And the Lakers will continue to try to continue their standard of excellence without their patriarch.
"Now the legacy is passed to his kids," Johnson said as his closing remarks. "Please, Buss family, do not ever sell the Lakers, and win more championships."