The Jerry Buss memorial service Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles was so, so ... Lakers. That’s the only way to describe it.
There were NBA legends, some random guy, fascinating stories, slight verbal jabs ... all playing out in front of a backdrop that featured 10 championship trophies.
NBA Commissioner David Stern called Buss, the Lakers owner who died at age 80 on Monday, “nothing less than a transformational force in the history of sports.”
Jerry West said Buss “has left a shadow over the entire sports world.”
Coming from the mouths of the league’s biggest names, it didn’t sound like hyperbole. And yet, mixed among the Hall of Famers such as West, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, plus future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, was an ordinary, previously unknown man named Greg Tomlinson. His name wasn’t even in the program; he was a late-minute addition requested by Buss heir Jim Buss.
Tomlinson spoke -- extensively -- for the common fan, unable to provide much insight into Buss other than the fact that Buss remembered him and his kids the second time they met. Guess any service that lasts more than 90 minutes will find room for all sides.
Memorial tributes can reveal as much about the speaker as the person being remembered. You heard the poignancy of Kareem, the intensity of Riley, the competitiveness of Kobe, the inclusiveness of Magic (who asked every current and former Laker to stand up and receive a round of applause). You even heard echoes of the rivalry between West and Jackson.
After West’s emotional speech, Jackson recalled the time West drove him from his introductory news conference in L.A. to Buss’ house for his first meeting with the owner, noting that on that day West “didn’t talk as long as he just did now.”
Jackson also brought up the time Bryant wanted to be traded, recalling the analogy Buss used to explain why he resisted: “If I had a diamond of great value, four or five carats, would I give up that diamond for four diamonds of one carat? No. There’s no equal value that we could get for you. A trade would not bring equal value to this team.”
It was telling that four people with whom Buss had parted ways during his ownership tenure – Riley, West, Jackson and O’Neal -- felt compelled to come back and pay homage to him. O’Neal’s presence was the most fascinating, since his breakup was the most acrimonious, with some derisive comments made by O’Neal in the media.
“There was never a problem between me and Buss,” O’Neal said before entering the Nokia Theatre for the service. “As you know, I do whatever it takes to get ratings up for the game. He’s a businessman, I’m a businessman. The day after I got traded, Dr. Buss was the first to call me to say, ‘I miss you. If you ever need me, talk to me.’ Everything I did was for marketing purposes.”
O’Neal made a positive step back into the fold when he showed up for the Jerry West statue unveiling during the 2011 All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. Buss was there, and he and O’Neal had a positive exchange that likely paved the way toward the upcoming retirement of O’Neal’s Laker jersey. Thursday, in a sign of the absence of hard feelings, O’Neal drew the biggest laugh of the day at his own expense.
“[Buss] gave me everything I wanted,” O’Neal said. “I wanted one [contract] extension. He gave it to me. I wanted a second extension. He gave it to me. I wanted a third extension. He traded me.”
Bryant felt compelled to remind Jackson of the time he was asked for input on bringing him back, as if to say it would not have happened without him signing off. Bryant imitated his initial reaction by grimacing and swaying back and forth like Stevie Wonder at the piano.
Bryant said Buss looked at him and said, “Trust me.”
“And I did,” Bryant said. “And that has taken us to a whole another level and winning another two championships.”
Bryant stepped down from the stage as Magic Johnson made his way up. They stopped and embraced. As one observer noted, all 10 of the championships won by Buss were represented in that hug.
Johnson brought the service to a rousing crescendo, urging everyone to stand and cheer.
“This is a celebration of life,” Johnson said. “This is a celebration of success. We shouldn’t be sad.”
“Please, Buss family, do not ever sell the Lakers,” he implored. “And win more championships.”
The character of this memorial was uniquely Jerry Buss, from the star power to the subtle machinations playing out beneath the surface. It spoke to his ability to draw people together, even in the afterlife.