Lakers owner Jerry Buss honors the streak
Without a doubt, life is smiling at Jerry Buss these days.
“Like all gamblers, we feel like we’re on a run,” the Lakers owner said while reclining in a black leather chair near his luxury suite Sunday at Staples Center.
The Lakers are five months removed from an NBA championship and favored to win another, leaving Buss in an upbeat mood as one day turns to another.
In a wide-ranging 30-minute interview, Buss revealed why he was willing to spend a league-high $112.7 million to satisfy the Lakers’ soaring player payroll demands. Hint: The Boston Celtics might be part of it.
Although he acknowledged being somewhat uncomfortable about shelling out such a sum, Buss also touched on his desire to keep Kobe Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson in the fold for years to come. He also discussed the reasons for his absence last June at the title-clinching game in Orlando, Fla., not to mention the celebratory downtown parade a few days later.
First, the money.
The Lakers will spend $91.3 million in player salary this season and an additional $21.4 million in luxury taxes if their roster is still the same on the final day of the regular season, assuming they make no trades or minor free-agent acquisitions between now and then.
Buss, 76, said he thought the team had spent wisely, though the lump sum is undeniably large.
“It doesn’t thrill me,” he said. “I don’t like to be singled out for that particular purpose, but I feel in this situation it was necessary. When it’s necessary, we’re going to do that.”
And why is that? Why cut greatly into profit margins that, in Buss’ words, came close to $30 million or $40 million last season when the Lakers won the championship with a total payroll of $86 million, including luxury taxes?
Apparently, the man likes to win.
“We want to win as many championships as we possibly can,” Buss said. “We’re still a few shy of our rival and our intention is to catch them. . . . My son Joey, when he picked up the trophy, he announced our clear-cut rival, and it’s kind of obvious our whole family feels that way.”
The Lakers have 15 championships, the Celtics have 17, a fact Joey Buss pointed out while accepting the championship trophy after the Lakers’ clinching victory over Orlando in the Finals.
If Buss is seeking another dynasty, he probably wants to keep Bryant and Jackson in the mix.
Bryant, 31, is under contract through next season but has yet to sign a three-year extension for up to $91 million that would keep him with the team through 2013-14.
When asked whether Bryant was an integral part of the Lakers’ future, Buss answered definitively.
“We certainly hope so,” he said. “We don’t want to comment on specific negotiations. He’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want that discussed. We’ll respect that.”
Jackson, meanwhile, is in the final year of a contract that pays him $12 million this season. Will he be back?
“He likes to wait until he sees physically how he is at the end of the season, so he doesn’t know and I don’t know whether he will or not,” Buss said. “He is welcome, though. He did and has always done a marvelous job.”
And if Jackson, 64, doesn’t return?
“There is a group of people that I have a special fondness for, and for obvious reasons I’ll leave it unsaid,” Buss said. “Jimmy and I talk that over quite often, actually.”
Buss conducted the interview while sitting next to his son Jim, the team’s executive vice president of player personnel, who has picked up more and more of his father’s personal day-to-day decision-making duties. Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, oversees the business side of the Lakers.
“Jeanie’s had the business responsibility for some time now,” Buss said. “Jimmy, I would say started at about 10% or 20% many years ago [on the personnel side] and has gained about 10% a year. I think he’s up around 90-something now.”
Father and son agreed that nothing short of a championship would be acceptable this season.
“I think we’re a better team than we were last year,” Jim Buss said. “So if we won it last year, I guess that goes without saying that we should win it this year.”
Both Busses lauded General Manager Mitch Kupchak after supporting him during several lean seasons in the wake of the Shaquille O'Neal trade.
“Mitch is a superb general manager and we work very well together,” Jerry Buss said. “We stand behind him and will continue to do so.”
Throughout the interview, Buss seemed relaxed as he wore a colorful “Team Pacquiao” jacket over a mango-colored shirt and blue jeans that had a hole near the left knee and were shredded at the bottom.
In fact, he made fun of his attire at one point while referring to the Lakers’ immense player payroll.
“I’d rather take the $30 million or $40 million and put it in my pocket,” he said of a dwindling profit margin compared with last season. “Look at my jeans. Do you think I don’t have a big payroll?”
Buss also provided a reason why he wasn’t at the last game of the NBA Finals, which ended in Orlando.
“I’m getting a little older and I guess during something like that I become very animated and use sometimes questionable language,” Buss said. “In this particular case, I thought it was going to be a very tough tussle and I wanted to be kind of free to jump up and down and scream and kick things.
“I talked Jimmy into staying with me, and I had Jeanie with me. It became kind of a family affair in our room where we could all shout and holler without making a spectacle of ourselves. We didn’t pop a [champagne] cork, but we sure danced around and held hands.”
What about skipping the victory parade? Buss was photographed while sitting at a poker table in a casino, the parade being shown on a large TV in the background.
“I’ve been to a bunch of parades and the problem is you only see the part you’re in,” Buss said. “If you watch it on TV, you can see the whole thing, and it’s really kind of fun. I watched the parade, as somebody can prove because they showed the TV in the picture of me playing poker.”