I was eight years old when my brother John and cousin Paul brainwashed me into becoming a Laker fan. I resisted at first, but it turns out I liked my face. Thus a convert was born. We got off to a rocky start, the Lakers and me; the first year I called them "mine", they missed the playoffs. The Lakers never miss the playoffs. Well, except maybe this seas…wait, where were we? Ah yes, 1975. To make matters worse, the team I crossed over from – the Golden State Warriors – decided to win their first NBA Championship that season. Rumor has it I switched back over to the Warriors just in time to celebrate, but the truth is I was just happy for my dad. No, really. Plus I was eight years old. Let’s move on.
This was long before it was chic to be a Laker fan in Northern California, and boy would I pay for that distinction later on in life. I can say it has been well worth it.
The following season the Lakers sent four players to Milwaukee for the services of some guy named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was enough for me. No matter how many more titles my dad’s team would win, I was a Laker fan for life. (Luckily, my vow has never been tested. Also, LOL Warriors.)
But while Kareem was his usual sky-hooky awesome 7-foot self, he couldn’t find the team success he enjoyed in Milwaukee. He needed a sidekick, a la the Big O with the Bucks. And I needed someone to emulate on the court whose shot I could actually make once out of a hundred tries.
On the evening of March 26, 1979, I was pretending to do homework in my room when my brother John barged in and kindly demanded that I follow him into the garage, which he had turned into his sleeping quarters. He pointed to the 13" TV screen, and I watched with my jaw on the floor as sophomore Earvin "Magic" Johnson led Michigan State past Larry Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA final. "That guy", gushed my older brother as Magic juked four opposing players out of their sneakers, "is coming to the Lakers next year."
A little more than a year later, and a month past my 13th birthday, Magic took over for an injured Kareem, and led the Lakers to the NBA title. As we watched the celebration at my cousin Paul’s house, a handsome young man caught my eye (I say "young" now because in two years I will be that age). John and Paul saluted the man as if he were a king, and now I know that he was.
The man was Jerry Buss.
My dad would break my nose if he heard me say this, but Jerry Buss actually looked like a wider-faced version of my father; in fact the two men were born almost exactly a year apart. But they both had smiles that would light up a room. Too bad Dad hardly uses his these days.
The improbable run to the 1980 title started an amazing 30-year stretch, in which Buss’ Lakers won a third of the NBA Championships in that span. It also began a tradition for the small circle of Laker fans in my family – all ten titles were celebrated the same way: with champagne that we had purchased at halftime of the clinching game.
Being a Laker fan in those days, in this area, did not come easy. I’ll never forget the long and lonely walk through the lobby of my high school after the Lakers lost a gut-wrenching seven-game series to Boston in 1984. I have suffered with my other sports teams through the years, but that one may have been the most painful.
What other team has a league-wide used hate song? I bet most of you don’t even know how old "Beat LA" is. ‘Twas born in 1982 when the Celtics fans urged Philadelphia to topple the Lakers in that year's Finals. (They didn’t).
For more than 30 years, in arenas across the country, opposing crowds have chanted "Beat LA", only to see their team become the beaten.
And through it all – from Kareem, Magic, and Riley to Shaq, Kobe, and Phil – the one constant was Jerry Buss.
After the horror of ’84, the Lakers got another crack at the Celtics the following season, my senior year in high school. The Lakers lost Game 1, 148-114, in what is widely known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Again, I had to endure the walk through the lobby to a chorus of laughter and jeers. But the Lakers won four of the next five contests, including Game 6 on the parquet to exorcise the demons of eight previous Finals against the Celtics.
I walked very, very slowly through the school lobby the next day with a smile that matched the one worn by Jerry Buss and his NBA Champions.
A quarter-century later Kobe Bryant chased down the ball in the waning seconds of a second straight title, another one at the hands of the previously unbeatable Boston Celtics.
It was the tenth NBA Championship under the reign of Jerry Buss, creating a perfect bookend that saw rookie Magic Johnson win the first of five titles, and veteran Kobe Bryant win the last of five. (Well it’s the last so far).
My Dad turned 81 last month, thirteen days before Jerry Buss reached his 80th birthday. I have long felt that once you hit 80, you've lived a good life. To reduce the legacy of Jerry Buss to merely "living a good life" is equivalent to saying I "kinda" like Cheez-Its.
I always credit John and Paul for converting me into a Laker fan (and for not messing up my face). But I am eternally grateful to Dr. Jerry Buss for making the ride so damn enjoyable.