March 2, 2008
The best owner in the history of professional sports is strolling through his sprawling hilltop home when he comes upon an ornate wooden door riddled with three gaping holes.
It is the door to his private elevator. It is also, perhaps, the portal to a philosophy.
"Let me tell you a story about those holes," Jerry Buss says.
On a recent Saturday, while Buss was inside the elevator, it jolted to a stop between the first and second floors.
A man with a presence as sprawling as the Southland was suddenly stuck in a small, dark place.
"What could I do?" he says. "I sat down and I waited."
And waited. And waited.
He talked pleasantly to his houseguests as they scurried for help. He was polite to the firemen who were baffled by the elevator's mechanics.
But, finally, after 40 minutes of black isolation, the man needed to move.
"I told them, enough, enough, do whatever it takes, but get me out of here," Buss says.
Out came the saws. Down came the door. It is perhaps no coincidence that Buss hasn't yet fixed it.
These are the scars that define a man's soul.
For 29 years, he has owned the Lakers with a smile and a wink and a young hottie on his arm, the epitome of Southern California cool, a city's favorite funky uncle.
But for 29 years, when the air has gotten thick and the light has disappeared, he has broken down doors to let that city breathe.
"Make money? I've been there and done that," he says, his voice soft, yet strong. "I'm doing this for the license plate."
The license plate?
"The one on my car that says, '9XWCHMP,' " he says. "I want to change it to 10."
Buss, responsible for eight of those NBA titles, recently took a huge step toward that alteration by spending millions to acquire Pau Gasol, breaking out of the funk of the last three seasons, making a city howl again.
That's the reason for this lunch.
Buss is back, bigger and more powerful than ever, the only owner in sports who seemingly can move mountains with an idea, the aging mathematician whose equations never get old.
Buss is back, and I wanted to know, how, why, and will it ever end?
"You like CPK?" he asks, sitting down at a table near a window looking out at mountains and ocean.
This is him, the powerful owner dining on takeout from California Pizza Kitchen, the glamorous owner wearing blue jeans, the brainy owner celebrated for his babes.
"I don't mind that people think of me like that," the 75-year-old man says of his penchant for dating younger woman.
"I have a 24-year-old girlfriend right now," he says. "I've known her six years."
Go ahead, laugh, raise your eyebrows, nudge your buddy.
Do it all the way to June, when Buss, boldness and competitiveness could again lead this team to another NBA Finals.
Do you know that in his 29 years, the Lakers have made the Finals 13 times? Nearly every other season?
No other sports owner in history can boast of such enduring success. No other sports owner in history has adapted better, survived longer, won more.
The Dodgers' revered Walter O'Malley won half as many titles in exactly as many seasons.
The august Walter Brown, founder of the Boston Celtics, won two fewer championships, and all in the same era.
George Halas owned the Chicago Bears for 63 years but won only six titles in that time, and is remembered for his opposition to pro football's integration.
Even Jacob Ruppert, who owned the New York Yankees from 1914 to 1939, falls one short of Buss' eight titles.
We sometimes forget this about the guy, don't we?
We chuckle at his quirks and stare at his Laker Girls and dance to his Showtime and forget that, for nearly three decades, he has done whatever it takes to bring this city a championship.
"What's kept me going is my competitiveness," he says. "I really, really do want to win."
We forget this because, as he walks through the Staples Center tunnel with a colorful shirt and a laughing date and a pleasant handshake for everyone, he seems like just another L.A. dude.
We forget that he had the smarts to help engineer the NBA's deal of the season by getting rid of Kwame Brown . . . because, well, you see that seemingly empty house across the narrow street from his house?
"Kwame Brown lives here," Buss says, shrugging. "Seriously. We used to hang out. We're friends."
When is the last time an owner admitted that his team makes him cry?
Jerry Buss says that when the Lakers are playing well and Staples Center is rocking and the city is embracing his baby, he is moved beyond words.
"It's a tearful experience sometimes," he says.
His team can also make him so mad, he will storm out of his box in silence.
"I'll say, 'I'm sorry, I'm just so angry now, I can't talk,' " he says.
Jerry Buss doesn't own the Lakers, he lives them, from filling the front office with his family to filling some of his players with unabashed love. Maybe this is one of his secrets? The team isn't run by him, it is him?
"I love Kobe Bryant," he says.
"No, I love him," he says. "The way Kobe plays now, he's at a level I've never seen before. I've never seen anything as obvious and succinct as what Kobe is doing right now. Knowing what he should do, then being able to perform it, it is a miracle."
He should win MVP, sure, but didn't he rip you last summer, then pout during training camp when you talked about possibly trading him?
"I talked to Kobe, he's called me, we're fine," Buss says, then adds that he hopes Bryant will stay a Laker forever. "I certainly hope so. My guess would be yes. But, you know, sometimes when you want something so badly, it's hard to divorce your wishing from reality."
The reality is that Buss truly tried to honor Bryant's trade request this summer, but never came close to finding equal value.
"I promised Kobe that if I could get the right material, that I had respect enough for his desire that I would pursue a trade," he says. "But I didn't see that there was enough talent there, so we didn't do it. I was wishing he understood how difficult these things are, but I do love him."
There are some who think the Lakers traded for Gasol only to placate Bryant. Buss shakes his head at what could clearly be seen as an insult after all those years when he found great players without prodding.
"I'm glad Kobe likes the deal, but that's not why we made it," he says. "We always try to get the best players. We always have."
Buss believes in General Manager Mitch Kupchak as much as he believes in Bryant.
"I spend a lot of time making sure I have the best people around me, and I think I do," he says.
Kupchak, roundly ripped the last few years by most, always supported by Buss, and who's looking smart now?
"Mitch spent so much time learning from Jerry West, essentially it's like I'm still dealing with Jerry," Buss says. "I think Mitch is the most gifted general manager in the sport right now."
Buss said he has looked at Kupchak's lack of big trades before the Gasol deal the same way he looks at his beloved poker.
"When somebody asks why I didn't do well in poker, I say, 'Why don't you just give me your pair of aces for my two jacks, then I'll do fine,' " he says. "You just don't go out and get a good player that easily. I knew what Mitch was doing, I knew what his difficulties were, I think he's done a fabulous job."
While Buss treats his team like a family, he treats his family like a team.
Every couple of years, especially when the Lakers struggle, there have been calls for Buss to sell.
Forget it. It's not happening. He's giving the Lakers to his children, who have proven to him that they care enough to keep the winning alive.
A few years ago, Buss said, he was faced with "a reliably huge offer" for the team. He summoned each of his six children to a one-on-one meeting and asked them a question.
"I said, 'Are we keeping the Lakers because I love them, or because we all love them?' " he recalls. "They all said something that made me happy."
Not that Buss is planning on handing over control any time soon.
He's one of the few owners in sports who probably has actually gotten healthier as he has gotten older.
Since his DUI arrest last spring he has stopped driving, only drinks wine and has cut down on his clubbing.
"In his book, Phil [Jackson] wrote that I still go to discos and he has no idea why," Buss says. "Well, Phil, it's because I really like it."
He has few regrets like this in his life, he is rarely bothered by public criticism, he wraps himself in his Lakers cocoon and forges ahead.
"I practice self-inspection as much as anyone, and I think I'm doing fine," he says. "I think I could explain almost every move I've made as the most logical one at the time."
Even the trade of Shaquille O'Neal, which I still believe may have cost the Lakers at least one more championship?
Buss smiles. He notes that without the trade of O'Neal, the Lakers would never have had the players to acquire Gasol, who can offer them more hope for more years.
"Shaq was the toughest thing I've ever done, it was very, very tough," he says. "But I was little surprised Shaq reacted as negatively as he did. If there's ever been a true businessman in sports, it has to be him. He's promoted himself as well as anybody in the world."
True to Buss' nature, though, don't be surprised if O'Neal's jersey is lifted to the Staples Center rafters moments after his retirement.
Buss has survived so many new eras perhaps because he never forgets the old ones. The organization is filled with longtime employees and former Lakers who have returned.
Look around the court during home games, you'll see former Lakers sitting on the bench, under the basket, at the broadcast table, everywhere.
"One of the first things I tried to do when I bought the team was to make it an identification for this city, like Motown in Detroit," he says. "I try to keep that identification alive. I'm a real Angeleno. I want us to be part of the community."
The city feels this. The Lakers have become as big as the Dodgers in the Latino community. And Buss said one of his greatest honors was being told that he could knock on any door in south Los Angeles and be invited for dinner.
"Los Angeles is about diversity, and so are the Lakers," he says.
He has done much for this city, yet he is a guy who doesn't want to be remembered with a statue or a name on a court.
"My name is on my children, that's enough for me," he says.
He's a guy who wants people to understand that he knows exactly who he is.
"I'm the luckiest guy I ever met," he says. "I have the best job in the world. I'm very, very fortunate. I'm just happy running the Lakers."
Buss drops his fork into his takeout pasta and smiles and remembers.
"Right after I bought the team, I used to go into this little lounge in Santa Monica. The owner was also musical director for MGM, and they used to perform musicals there late at night, it was just fantastic," he says. "Just before they would start, everyone would start shouting, 'Showtime! Showtime!' I remember thinking, this is how I wanted people to feel about their team."
Their team. Our team.
For 29 years, the best owner in professional sports history hasn't really owned, he has shared, turning a team into a fabric, a city into a neighborhood, conflicting hopes into a singular dream, everyone huddled against the oncoming light shouting, "Showtime! Showtime!"
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke
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