Jerry Buss Rumors
He used to be close to Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. They’d meet for lunches at California Pizza Kitchen or this Italian restaurant in Marina Del Rey. Before Buss passed away in 2013, he told Kobe he hoped he’d be a Laker for life. I ask what it meant to him that Buss chose him over Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. “Shaq demanded the trade first,” he says. “Right, but he actually traded him. He wouldn’t trade you.” “I look at it from a business perspective,” he says. “I would have made the same call. If you’re going to bet, you got to bet on the horse that you know is obsessive about what they do, day in and day out, and is going to be hell bent on trying to win a championship. If you’re going to bet on a horse, you always bet on the one that eats, sleeps and breathes the craft.”
Things started going wrong when Jerry died in 2013. The team got old. David Stern rejected Kupchak’s 2011 trade for Chris Paul in a classic conflict of interest, acting as New Orleans owner with the league, then operating the franchise as well as serving as NBA commissioner. Dwight Howard came and went in one season. Bryant tore an Achilles tendon in 2013 and was never the same. The last major decision of Jerry Buss was the 2012 hire of coach Mike D’Antoni, passing over Jackson, who by then had left the team and who was the fans’ choice and, of course, Jeanie’s.
D’Antoni, an outsider who gained fame at division rival Phoenix, was scorned by fans who chanted “Phil Jackson” almost from the day he showed up. Jeanie blamed Jim for jilting Jackson, saying in her memoir she felt as if she had been “stabbed in the back.” Everyone else says Jerry Buss, not Jim, made the decision. Given Jerry’s preference for D’Antoni’s open-court style over Jackson’s triangle, Jerry, Jim and Kupchak agreed on D’Antoni. That move turned out to be a colossal disaster, and D’Antoni was fired after two seasons and only 67 wins.
As West describes it, Buss regularly needed to be talked out of personnel moves that would have destroyed his team. “You don’t know some of the things that he wanted to do,” West said. He described one potential trade that Buss agreed to make: Worthy, the future Hall of Famer, to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley, who each had a reputation for being easily distracted. West found that idea so objectionable that he vowed to quit if Buss didn’t renege. “I went home to my wife and said, ‘I’m probably going to lose my job, but I can’t have this happen,’ ” he says. In the end, West says, he was able to persuade Buss.
“We’ve had changes. We have Dr. Buss passing away, have Jeannie and Jim, you have Phil coming and going. You have all these things going on and so as a result system changing as well. So there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here which is phenomenal, probably compared to the Patriots, is had so much consistency from top to bottom.”
The other one that was very similar was when I traded Norm Nixon. He and Magic Johnson both needed the ball to be successful. Jerry Buss and I talked about them and I said, “I don’t call Magic Johnson ‘Magic Johnson.’ I always call him Earvin Johnson, but he was Magic Johnson when he had the basketball in his hands. When he played and he didn’t have the ball in his hands, he was Earvin Johnson.” I think our fans got to expect Magic Johnson instead of Earvin Johnson. He and Norm were too similar in the way they played the game. They both needed the ball. Those were horrible days for me and I will never forget that Jack Nicholson, who was an incredible Lakers fan, wore black to our games for a solid month. He and I finally had to have a talk about that.
I know there were some communications breakdowns between you and Jerry Buss near the end, but how difficult was it for you, after all those years in the organization, to actually decide to leave the Lakers? It was probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life, Larry. Really? Oh yeah. I am very realistic about things. Most people don’t realize that we have a shelf life at one place. My shelf life was up there.