"A BID ADIEU TO BUSS"
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 20:02
At 5:55 am last Monday morning, 80-year-old Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss lost his yearlong battle with cancer, one of very few obstacles that were able to defeat Buss during his lifetime. His 10 NBA championships will forever vault his name among the most influential owners in the history of American team sports.
However, Buss’ death far transcends the profound effect he had on the Lakers and the landscape of the entire NBA over the last 34 years. His death signifies the end of an era, during which owners cared more about winning championships than profit margins. An era in which owners were fans first and businessmen second.
There’s nothing wrong with the desire to make money, especially in the multi-billion dollar sports industry. Owners of professional sports franchises certainly did not advance to their prominent, highly sought after positions through sentimentalism and catering to the masses. It takes a business-savvy and creative mind to build an iconic sports franchise capable of defining a city.
More than that, it requires a burning desire to compete and win at the highest level, a desire that if unfulfilled, results in monumental organizational shifts. Regardless of the circumstances, Buss never hesitated to give his teams every opportunity to win championships.
Buss was fortunate to have Earvin “Magic” Johnson fall into his lap in 1979, the very year he bought the Lakers. He was just as fortunate to have a general manager in Jerry West to bring in Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to create some of the most talented basketball teams in NBA history.
To characterize Buss’ success as a stroke of luck and good fortune would be ludicrous.
In 1982, after winning an NBA title and making the playoffs in his first two seasons as head coach, Paul Westhead was fired by Buss because his half-court offense did not fit in an evolving NBA. Buss promoted an unknown, unheralded assistant in Pat Riley to head coach. Riley coached the likes of Johnson, Abdul-Jabar and Worthy to four NBA Finals victories in the 1980s.
In 2004, after a highly publicized feud between superstars O’Neal and Bryant, Buss shipped O’Neal off to Miami and won two more titles just a few years later.
Buss, along with George Steinbrenner, Al Davis, Branch Rickey, Conn Smythe, George Halas, Lamar Hunt and Wellington Mara had vision, ambition and determination that goes unrivaled in sports as we know them today.
Today, fans watch as teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates remain one of the most profitable organizations in baseball, despite the fact the team has not made the playoffs since 1992. They watch the New York Islanders spend just over the salary cap floor in order to remain in compliance with NHL rules. They watch Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria trade $160 million of recently acquired player salaries in order to maximize his profit margins, while others plead with the Maloof brothers to keep the Sacramento Kings in the California state capital.
That’s without even mentioning the likes of Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder, James Dolan and Fred Wilpon, each of whom terrorize their respective fan bases with consistently poor decision-making.
In an industry that turns millionaires into billionaires and transforms underprivileged athletes into some of society’s most prominent figures, it may be too much to ask to make winning the paramount goal of any career in professional sports. As fans, we do not get to make that decision. We haven’t earned that right. If the primary goal of a professional sports league, franchise, coach or player is to make as much money as possible, then there is not a whole lot fans can do about it.
The only thing fans can control is who they place their faith and admiration in. They control who they will respect and honor as an influential figure in any given sport and there is a short list of people who truly deserve that attention.
Regardless of rooting interest, Jerry Buss should be on that list for any fan. He did win a lot of basketball games during his lifetime. However, his respect for the game of basketball and the fans who made the game what it is today is what separates him from the vast majority of figures in sports. Buss was never about the money or the media attention. He just loved winning.
So while Buss rests eternally, fans will wait for the next transcendent owner to come along and revolutionize sports as we know them. It may turn out to be Mark Cuban, or it may be someone yet to step into the spotlight. But until then, fans will continue to cope with the heartache of watching money hungry individuals tarnish the professional sports leagues we glue our eyes to on a daily basis.
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