The last Laker
With the passing of Dr. Jerry Buss, Kobe Bryant now stands in a singular light
None of the other names and faces that spring into your mind when you think of the Los Angeles Lakers has an official connection to the Lakers. Pat Riley last coached a game at the Forum in 1990. Jerry West has not been responsible for the team's personnel since 2000. Chick Hearn called his final game in 2002 before moving up high, high above the Western sideline. We're coming up on nine years since Shaquille O'Neal last wore a purple jersey. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is no longer working with the Laker big men. Magic Johnson sold his ownership stake in 2011. And now Jerry Buss, the one constant that tied them all together, has passed away.
Kobe continues. He's still out there on the court wearing the uniform he refers to as "the golden armor." Still capable of dropping 40 points. Still in the same place, with the same team. He stayed around longer than the Logo and all of the franchise icons. He is the last Laker.
"Wow," he said, allowing it to sink in as he removed his feet from an ice-filled tub.
"I feel a responsibility to pass it on to the next generation of players," Bryant said. "Most of these guys are so young. They don't understand the significance of this franchise.
"[Thursday] was a big day for them to see, really, what this franchise is all about, what this organization is all about. I can embody that, in a sense, because I grew up on that. I have those same values. I understand what Dr. Buss is all about. I know the family. I definitely think it's a responsibility."
Thursday, the team attended the memorial service for Buss. Bryant was the next-to-last speaker, just before Magic. They also spoke at the Michael Jackson public memorial that was held at Staples Center in 2009, and, in its own way, that was an even bigger tribute to Jerry Buss than the speeches they gave at Buss' own service. Buss wanted the Lakers to be bigger than sports, to be a part of the Hollywood entertainment scene. That vision was fulfilled when two of Buss' basketball players were called to pay tribute to a pop icon.
As Bryant stood at the podium on Thursday, speaking without notes, he looked out at the Laker legends among the estimated audience of 3,000 and thought: "It's a family."
"That's the thing that struck me the most," Bryant said. "No matter where you go -- no matter where Jerry West went, no matter where Riles went, Magic, Kareem, Byron [Scott] -- everybody still has that connectivity. It's a bond. It's an unspoken bond that will never, ever break."
To be sure, departure from the Lakers doesn't mean defrocking. Magic's voice still reverberates throughout Lakerland from his pulpit on ABC and ESPN's pregame show. West was given courtside seats and received standing ovations at Staples Center even when he was the president of the Memphis Grizzlies. O'Neal, whose split was the most acrimonious, is very much back in the fold these days, and his return will be officially confirmed when his jersey goes up to the rafters in April.
When Riley felt pangs of fear before he began his second coaching act, with the New York Knicks, Buss took him to dinner and eased his trepidations. Riley entertained thoughts of returning to the Lakers in 2004, before deciding to bring the Lakers' cornerstone center, O'Neal, back with him to Miami.
Riley is quick to make the cross-country flight for Laker championship team reunions or statue dedications. His most telling remark when he spoke at the Buss service was his opening line: "Hello, everybody. I feel like I'm back home."
That sense of being a Laker never left any of them. But Bryant is the only one who never left the Lakers. The last time it was a possibility dissipated when he signed a three-year extension near the end of the 2009-10 regular season. Then, he went out and won another championship, and offered a post-negotiation confession at the victory rally: "Where else was I going to go?"
During the Buss memorial service there were fascinating insights into pivotal moments in recent Laker history. Phil Jackson revealed how Buss talked Bryant off the trade-demand ledge in 2007 by comparing Bryant to a valuable diamond that Buss could not receive equal value for. Bryant said he went along with Buss' desire to bring Jackson back in 2005 -- even after that book -- because he trusted Buss' vision for the franchise.
The Lakers are approaching another crossroads. Dwight Howard's free agency is this summer, followed by the end of Bryant's contract in 2014. Will Kobe bridge the chasm that has separated the two stars this season and recruit Howard to stay? Does Howard want to stay? Would Kobe want to stay beyond next year if Howard is gone and the Lakers have to start a rebuild? Would Bryant sacrifice money in order to facilitate Laker roster moves?
Howard sat in the audience on Thursday, trying to soak up everything that was said about Buss, trying to learn what made him such an admired man. Bryant experienced it all firsthand. Will his next decisions be infused by what he learned from Buss, and will he go forth in the same manner?
Buss' eldest son, Johnny, provided the best summary of the 34-year Buss ownership of the Lakers: "Not everything went right. But because he was always thinking ahead, everything became right."
Jerry Buss signed off on the Lakers' acquisition of the teenage Bryant after West became enamored of him. Buss encouraged coach Del Harris to play Bryant early on when Harris wanted to bring the rookie along slowly. Buss chose Kobe over Shaq when they reached an impasse. The reward was a second dynasty, sold-out seats, all varieties of Bryant jerseys flying out of the team store.
Now Bryant is the only one left in the building who embodies the Lakers -- be it the greatness, the history or the drama.
"I will carry that torch," Bryant said. "Happily. It's an honor. A tremendous honor."
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