Trust at core of Jerry Buss legacy

LOS ANGELES -- For nearly two and a half hours Thursday afternoon, the men and women who loved the late Los Angeles Lakers owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, gathered to celebrate his life and share stories that were fit for public consumption.

Jerry West had some doozies about his former boss' ability to stay up all night -- and stick him with the bill for an $8,000 bottle of champagne. NBA commissioner David Stern told of how Buss created a sort of salon for artists and intellectuals at the Great Western Forum. Pat Riley waxed poetic on loss and life. Magic Johnson told of the cultural education Buss insisted on giving him -- introductions to tennis matches, horse races and hockey games -- even though, as Magic put it, "Brothers don't skate."

It was, as it should have been, a marvelous look back at a legendary life. And it could have gone on for hours and gotten far more colorful had anyone been brave enough to turn the cameras and tape recorders off.

It was still light out when it was over, however. And as much as everyone inside the Nokia Theatre would have loved to stay around the campfire all night, reveling in the world Jerry Buss created, the future beckoned.

A future without him. A future without his wisdom and brilliance and perspective. A future without his vision.

In the days since his death Monday, that thought has knocked the NBA off kilter. Who are the Lakers without Jerry Buss? What is the NBA without Jerry Buss' Lakers?

Buss' eldest son, Johnny, put it best when he said simply, "No one can fill his shoes."

But long ago, Jerry Buss had a vision of how this time should go, too. And that vision is, more or less, what the Lakers will be once they get through this adjustment period. His children, whom he groomed and trained to step into this moment and carry on his legacy, will run the Lakers.

Buss had plenty of time to consider the best course for the Lakers after his death. Plenty of opportunity to change course if this path seemed to be the wrong one. And yes, plenty of alternatives.

Magic Johnson could have bought the Lakers instead of the Dodgers. Buss could have sold the team to a larger, wealthier corporation or to one of the current minority owners, Philip Anschutz, Patrick Soon-Shiong or Ed Roski.

But this is what Buss chose and what he obviously thought would work.

The Lakers were built as a family-run organization, and they will remain one. In Buss' mind, that familial bond and trust between the organization and the team was always as vital to their success as their talent and swagger.

"You were either in or you were out," Riley said. "You were with us or against us. You didn't ride the fence. There was no in between.

"Jerry's greatest quality as a leader was the ultimate trust he had in us when things got tough. All you had to do was trust back. We all did, and that's why we are all here today."

That is, in essence, what Buss is still asking: to trust him and his vision for the Lakers' future.

Kobe Bryant told one of the day's more memorable stories when he reflected on the time Buss asked him whether he could play for Phil Jackson again, after the legendary coach had called him "uncoachable" and other unsavory things in his book about the ill-fated 2004-05 season.

Bryant understandably balked at the idea. But Buss was persistent.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Trust me,'" Bryant recalled. "And I did. And that has taken us to a whole 'nother level in winning another two championships.

"But that came from his vision. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew how he wanted to go about it, but he also had this ability to convince you to follow him."

Buss never spent much time selling his vision for the Lakers' future to the public. Perhaps he didn't feel he needed to. Perhaps he simply knew there was nothing he could say that would go over as well as his kids simply carrying on and doing as he would have done.

The Lakers will be owned now by a trust held by Buss' six children -- Johnny, Jeanie, Jim, Jesse, Joey and Janie Drexel. Of those, Jeanie, who runs the team's business operations, and Jim, who runs the team's basketball operations, were entrusted with the most responsibility. And of those, Jeanie has earned far more public trust. She is bright and gregarious and well-respected in the business world and the NBA.

Jim is still something of a mystery, at least publicly. He has chosen to stay in the background, stepping out a little at a time, raising his profile gradually.

The first time we met last fall, I asked him why he had gone about it this way. He said he wanted to let his actions speak for him and to be judged on what he did more than what he said. Thus far, his record is somewhat mixed with three blockbuster trades (for Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard) coming during his tenure as the vice president of basketball operations, but also two failed coaching hires (Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Brown) and a third (Mike D'Antoni) that hasn't gone well so far.

"I just felt like I needed to earn it," Jim Buss said during our interview in November.

He always has been this way. All the Buss kids have. They didn't live off allowances growing up. Jim Buss' first job was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Later he sold ticket packages in the Forum box office, trained horses and ran the Los Angeles Lazers pro soccer team. He started his training in the basketball business some 16 years ago, when he started following West around. Today his younger half-brothers, Joey and Jesse, are going through similar apprenticeships in the family business. Joey is the president of the D-Fenders; Jesse is a scout working under general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Jeanie and Janie have worked for the Lakers and in Buss family businesses for decades.

Jerry Buss gave his kids tremendous opportunities. He also put them to work. And in the end, he trusted in them and that he had taught them enough.

There's no way to know now whether he made the right call. Not all his decisions worked out as planned, either.

But his vision for the future was clear, and it was based on one of the central tenets of his leadership style: trust.

In the program for Thursday's ceremony, Jeanie Buss wrote eloquently of the responsibility she feels to carry on her father's legacy and carry out his vision.

"It will at times be heartbreaking to live without you," she wrote to her father. "And I know there will be plenty of challenges ahead on the path you set for us. But I will draw comfort from your teachings. When questions and doubts creep into my mind, I will draw from your wisdom. For you were my professor, my ally, my captain.

"You gave us a gift which we will continue to nurture and preserve."

It's a lot to ask, of course.

But that was Jerry Buss' final wish.