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Jerrymeandering

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time when the Lakers ran effortlessly. They did have their, uh, awkward days, such as the one when Magic Johnson went off and Paul Westhead disappeared and Jerry Buss tried to give the coaching job to Jerry West, who lateraled it to Pat Riley right in front of everybody at a news conference, as if it were a hot rock.

In those days, everything seemed to happen for the better. They won a championship that season and Riley, until then a lowly assistant, became their greatest coach, leading them to three more titles in the ‘80s.

The ‘80s are over. The Lakers fell and rose in the ‘90s but won no titles. Though both deny any rift, the relationship between the Jerries, owner Buss and basketball boss West, no longer seems as effortless.

Longtime Laker hands worry that West is tangled up in the new bureaucracy around him. Two seasons ago, he talked of being “burned out” and retiring. Last season, he withdrew as the Dennis Rodman experiment, championed by Buss, spun out of control, undermining Kurt Rambis, who had come up from assistant, like Riley, but didn’t become one of their greatest coaches.

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The season was a spectacle, marked by firings (Del Harris), stars joking they were running things (Shaquille O’Neal) and high-profile tensions (O’Neal hinting at his impatience with Kobe Bryant, West suggesting professional jealousy, O’Neal sniffing: “Superman will never be jealous of Wonderboy.”)

Then there was the Rodman Experience: the month he kept them waiting, the sobbing at Planet Hollywood after the media dragooned him into finally announcing a decision, the missed Saturday practices after his late-night Friday rounds, the week off to attend to personal problems during which he went to Las Vegas, the bald proclamations he didn’t feel like playing, the refusals to reenter games.

If it looked embarrassing, Buss claims not to have been embarrassed, nor to have seen any change in his relationship with West.

“Wiser,” Buss says. “Not embarrassed. If I thought I knew everything in the world then I’d be embarrassed, but if I feel I’m in a learning mode I learned a good lesson. . . .

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“I’ve never felt [that there’s a problem with West]. Certainly, I read the papers like everybody else. I’ve read the innuendoes. But Jerry’s and my relationship seems to have been a constant since I’ve dealt with him.

“I think Jerry, himself, has gone through some introspection. I think he, at times, has felt that he would like to retire, he would be ahead of the game and everything. So I think most of what has been said has been his questioning what he wants to do personally. But I don’t think it had anything to do with our relationship. . . . “

Not that the enterprise has suffered in the meantime.

The Lakers are leaving the ‘90s as a colossus, their marquee status so bright that NBC and Turner televised more than half their games nationally last season, prompting critics to rename the game of the week “the Laker Hour.”

The team’s financial status, as it moves into Staples Center, is robust. The local TV package, $26 million from KCAL and Fox, is larger than the $22 million the Lakers will get from NBC and Turner. A Staples sellout is expected to bring $1 million a game--not counting the revenue from luxury suites and premier seats.

In-house projections of gross revenue this season run to $130 million to $150 million. Even a conservative estimate of $115 million, put together by industry sources and assuming no playoff revenue, would be almost 50% higher than the club record, thought to be about $85 million.

Industry sources suggest $90 million in expenses, factoring in the $10 million annually that Buss pays West and Phil Jackson. Assuming revenues of $115 million, this would leave a $25-million profit.

Dean Bonham, a Denver marketing consultant, projects the value of the franchise--conservatively--at $300 million. That means the franchise, which owns no arena and has no holdings but the contracts of its players, may be worth within $11 million of what Fox paid for the Dodgers, Dodger Stadium and Dodgertown.

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Something has been going right all these years, but not everything.

When Were the Good Old Days, Anyway?

In what now seem like the good old days, when West was Mr. Clutch, the most adored player of his time, the one whose profile became the league’s logo, he only thought of retiring every game or so.

“I can’t tell you what the day of a game was for me,” he says, sitting in his office at the Great Western Forum. “It was nervous, anticipation, coming to compete and, more importantly, to win.

“If we lost, it was always my fault, it wasn’t anyone else’s fault. I don’t care how well I played or how well I didn’t play, it was my fault. And if I did play very well, that made it even worse.”

The numbers he had put up seemed to mock him, as marks he had better live up to. The titles they didn’t win haunted him so badly, he still talks about his career in terms of what wasn’t accomplished. His body was always giving out on him, his nose running into someone’s elbow, his hamstrings pulling. It might have looked like fun from the outside but from the spit on which West rotated, it was hell.

Nor did going upstairs do anything but multiply the anxiety. Even in the Lakers’ heyday, West suffered. Asked if he would be going to the ’85 parade, after the breakthrough win in Boston, he grumbled that he wasn’t going to ride on some float and give anyone a chance to boo him.

Of course, he was good at his job or he would have quit in the blink of an eye. They won five titles in the ‘80s, but he had his finest hour in the ‘90s, gambling on prickly personalities such as Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos, taking the team back north of 50 wins while keeping the payroll south of $20 million, giving the Lakers a chance to recruit O’Neal in 1996, then stealing Bryant in the bargain.

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Then, when expectations were piled as high as they could go, people began noticing the pieces didn’t fit. Elden Campbell, who had just signed for $7 million a year, struggled alongside O’Neal. Eddie Jones seemed on a collision course with the golden child, Bryant, at shooting guard. The young roster annually went boom against older, wiser teams like Utah in the playoffs.

Fixing it tested the hierarchy. Once the division of duties was clear and everything ran as if on mink. Buss provided the grand vision, paid top dollar and created a franchise that became Hollywood’s darling and the first option for every NBA player. West handled the basketball.

Now there were overlapping interests and others with a say in the basketball end: West’s lieutenant, General Manager Mitch Kupchak; Assistant General Manager Jim Buss, brought into the operation by his father; club attorney Jim Persik; and Jerry Buss himself. The result was more often compromise than one man’s vision.

And some of the compromises might have worked out better.

Trading Jones for Mitch Richmond, which Buss acknowledges voting against in 1997, might have been a missed opportunity--even if Richmond had required a big salary.

Trading Jones and Campbell for Glen Rice doesn’t seem like a coup--even if Campbell was getting $7 million to come off the bench and Jones would have required a big contract too.

Buss denies that paying Richmond or Jones or Campbell was the determining factor and says he will pony up for a third star if he has to.

On the other hand, Buss concedes price can be a problem, as with Scottie Pippen, whose acquisition he vetoed this summer, concerned about the $42 million Pippen might earn in the last two years of his contract--and the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax the Lakers might have to pay on much of it.

West, not one to enjoy watching his prerogatives dwindle, nevertheless says he understands why Buss has become more assertive.

“You know something?” West says. “He should be. Today we’re talking about millions of dollars. There’s no doubt, there’s going to be a tax in this league that we don’t want to get involved in paying, so it has made decisions more difficult.

“But I would tell you that Jerry, for me personally, without a doubt has been the easiest owner to deal with, period. He has been encouraging. If we make mistakes, he has been let’s-forget-about-it-and-move-on. You couldn’t ask for a better owner, period.

“But, to say that the situation hasn’t changed, that wouldn’t be fair either. It changed because of the financial repercussions.

“I’ll give you an example. We had some very attractive players here that aren’t here. Nick Van Exel is now playing in Denver. He makes $10 million a year. That would not have happened here. Maybe at the time he didn’t understand it, but for him, it’s been a godsend that he could go somewhere else and make that kind of money. We would not simply have been able to afford him.

“With Eddie Jones--I loved Eddie Jones. Drafted him. You know, he’s going to command a huge salary. Sometimes trades are made with the consideration you’re not going to be able to afford these players. . . .

“That’s just the reality of this league today. We can’t afford to have a $70-million, $80-million payroll. We know we have two of the best draws in the league in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. So our money has to be spent wisely.”

West’s friends note they’ve been through this before, often, and that he is still on the job. Of course, things changed again over the summer with the arrival of Jackson, who makes no secret about what he needs. West, who was anxious enough, has never had one like that.

West could stay, leave or simply give his opinion when asked and melt into the background, which may have already started to happen, as Kupchak handles more of the press duties.

“I really don’t want to get into what my future’s going to be here,” West says. “I don’t. There’s been too much said already. There have been times at the end of season that I have just been so frustrated with how we’ve ended our seasons. . . .

“It’s stupid to say I’m going to be here three years from now. I’m going to try to work year by year. . . .

"[Buss] has done things for me that the public would never know. He has been very generous to me. He has provided an environment for me that, I don’t think anybody else in the league has had that.

“But it has changed. It has changed. And it has not changed because he and I are on a different page. It’s changed because of the enormous financial burden an owner is asked to take today.”

Remember When He Was a Rich Playboy?

Buss may still be a playboy, but in NBA terms he isn’t that rich anymore, not with the arrival of billionaires from Microsoft (Portland’s Paul Allen), Carnival Cruise Lines (Miami’s Mickey Arison), Amway (Orlando’s Rich DeVos) and ravenous corporations such as TCI (New York) that laugh at salary constraints.

In those circles, Buss notes, laughing, “I’m a pauper.”

We should all have to bear such indignities, but in the NBA it does pose a competitive challenge.

When Buss took over 20 years ago, he was as wealthy as anyone and 100 times as lavish or irresponsible, depending on your perspective, the Allen of his day, with his $25-million “lifetime” contract for Johnson in Magic’s second season.

In ensuing years, Buss’s generosity continued. He gave the departing Riley a severance bonus worth more than $1 million out of sheer gratitude. He gave Johnson a last season at $14 million--after Magic had retired.

Nevertheless, no one got too upset because Buss quickly became known as a league guy. He became chairman of the board of governors, then was asked to stay for additional terms by Commissioner David Stern.

“No. 1, his mathematical abilities, dealing with complex financial issues--escrows, taxes, projections--always served us in good stead,” Stern said from New York. “In addition, his sensibility is very ecumenical. He both wants to make a profit and understands the rationale of the other side. So he always has been a good sounding board.”

It wasn’t as if Buss never stuck his nose into the Laker operation, either--and that the operation often wasn’t better for it.

When O’Neal turned down their $100-million offer in 1996, demanding they beat Orlando’s $105 million, it was Buss who ordered a wavering West to forget about Plan B--Dikembe Mutombo and Dale Davis--and go for broke.

West sent Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver for draft choices, getting the cap room to go to $115 million--and winning O’Neal.

After that, however, it got harder until last season’s daring/risky/stupid decision to hire Rodman. Buss, who counts Rodman as a friend, since, he notes, he has been partying with him through the ‘90s, pushed this to the end too, but he had lots of allies: O’Neal, Bryant, Harris, Kupchak.

Even West went along, at first, though with reservations, each of which was soon borne out. But for all his stature, West was never one to confront his boss and he didn’t this time, either, although he second-guessed himself to friends about that later.

So, a debacle was born. Now, of course, no one is standing up to proclaim he wanted Rodman, and Buss is stuck with it.

“It was obvious we needed a rebounder, and the way I understood it, there was a consensus that Dennis would fill that job,” Buss says. “And since I was much closer to him than anybody else, I just kind of took it on my own shoulders to see if we could get him. And I went out and talked him into coming with the Lakers.”

Laughing, he added: “In retrospect, I guess there wasn’t the consensus that I thought there was. . . .

“I think Dennis has changed somewhat. Dennis is getting older and is partying more and I didn’t realize he was that much different than he was when he was in Chicago. I knew him when he was with Chicago, I knew him when he was with San Antonio. I knew he was a flamboyant character. There are several of those in the league, but if they contribute, they contribute. I thought we’d be able to get through the year pretty well with Dennis, and obviously I was wrong.”

It’s his team, his risk, his face the egg splattered on and his lesson to learn. The ‘90s haven’t turned out to be as easy as the ‘80s and the next decade doesn’t look as if it’ll be a pushover, either.

Laker officials depict Buss as the proprietor of a mom-and-pop grocery in a supermarket age, like former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley, and you know how that one turned out.

Buss says he’ll believe any projections about windfall profits when they materialize, instead projecting an extra $10 million in profit--offset by the additional $10 million he used to make from the Forum, which he sold.

Nevertheless, he’s still pushing hard. It was Buss who steered the search away from Rambis last spring--though Rambis was close to his family--and toward Jackson, when no one else in the organization thought they’d ever pay a coach $30 million.

It’s different with Buss too. In his 60s, he involves his children in the business, although, he notes, “It’s more that they’re becoming older, than I’m becoming older. I think they’re becoming more and more serious and perhaps looking to the time when control of the Lakers is passed on to the children. Obviously, I feel older than I did 15 years ago, but I don’t plan to retire.”

Nor, he insists, as he has for years, does he plan to sell, ever.

“Now, he’s just your average multimillionaire,” says Stern, who practically grew up as a commissioner alongside Buss, laughing. “Although that doesn’t invoke any sympathy.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do with the new bargaining agreement is create a system in which mere multimillionaires can succeed, as well as multibillionaires. With the probability that Shaq and Kobe will be longtime Lakers, there’s no reason for sympathy. Now it’s about good management and Jerry Buss and his family and Jerry West have been a good management team.”

The best. Now to see how long their run lasts.


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