EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Before the Los Angeles Lakers could move on with the second half of the season following the All-Star break, on Tuesday they were left looking back at the life of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
"To me personally, he obviously believed in me from day one, being a 17-year-old kid to where I am now," Kobe Bryant said before practice, reflecting on Buss, who died Monday at the age of 80. "His competitive spirit, his vision of what this organization should be and how it should go beyond basketball, the global outreach that he had in his mind, we talked quite a bit about that. We talked about the old times, and he's obviously had a profound impact on my career, to say the least."
The Lakers announced that a private memorial service will be held for Buss on Thursday at 3 p.m. PT at Nokia Theatre. The service will not be open to the public; however, it will be aired live on the team's television station, Time Warner Cable SportsNet. Countless fans have already flocked to show their support for the longtime Lakers owner who presided over 10 championships in his 34 years at the helm by leaving flowers and mementos by the Lakers statues in front of Staples Center. At L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, well-wishers have been writing messages on a giant white banner that features a picture of Buss in the middle of it.
"Yesterday was an empty day," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who also expressed his gratitude that Buss brought him to Los Angeles as a player 32 years ago and kept him in the organization all this time. "I couldn't seem to find a place where I was comfortable -- a room, a place, a car, a house. A major loss, personally, for obvious reasons."
While recognizing that Buss is gone, the Lakers were left acknowledging his children that still remain with the team -- particularly vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss -- and the challenge they have to take up the torch from their father.
"I'm very confident," Bryant said when asked if he believed Buss' family could carry on his tradition of excellence. "You're following the greatest owner in sports. To try to match that or equal that, it's nearly an impossible task. But I think in their own way they'll have success, for sure."
Kupchak echoed Bryant's belief.
"Ownership will continue to carry on the brand of the organization," Kupchak said. "Nobody understands what this franchise means to Los Angeles more than Jeanie and Jimmy and the family. Nobody does. And to the extent that they'll let me [chart the Lakers' direction], after spending 32 years with Jerry, I think I have a feeling of what he wants too."
Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard shared fond memories of visiting with an ailing Buss in the hospital before the season. Gasol sadly recalled how Buss' goal to be out of the hospital in time for the Lakers' season opener in October was not met. Kupchak said there could have been a subconscious effort on Jim Buss' part to pursue the Howard and Steve Nash deals in the offseason in hopes of capturing one last championship while his father was still alive.
Bryant said winning another ring for Buss has been on his mind all season long.
"It's part of the reason why I try to drive so hard," Bryant said. "When we talked, we talked about getting another championship and trying to put the [Boston] Celtics in the rearview mirror. That's something that was driving him and that's something that continues to drive me."
The Celtics have 17 championships all time, just ahead of the Lakers' 16.
Gasol said he spent his final hospital visit with Buss watching college football and talking about the owner's beloved USC Trojans and how the college game was superior to the NFL. Kupchak shared how Buss rigged a system to be able to watch Lakers games on his iPad at the hospital while the team's local television deal was still being hammered out.
"He meant a lot to us," Gasol said. "He was a leader for our team, for this franchise, for this city, and he was a guy that you would enjoy being around. It's been a tough hit for us, even though we knew he was sick and battling hard for a while."
Kupchak said Buss was very much involved in the decision to hire Mike D'Antoni after Mike Brown was fired just five games into the season. However, the owner's health was so bad by that point that D'Antoni never met Buss in person.
"One of the main reasons that Los Angeles has had all this success is he was like a magnet to players to get deals done and to be able to have the best franchise out there," D'Antoni said. "This went on for 30 years, so it wasn't a fluke."
Before Buss is laid to rest, the Lakers just so happen to play a game against the Celtics on Wednesday -- the team that Buss battled with for those 30 years, as his Lakers met the Celtics in the Finals five times in that span, winning three times. The Lakers will debut commemorative purple-and-gold "JB" patches on their uniforms against Boston and wear them for the rest of the season in remembrance of Buss.
"Just stay focused on the moment, have a good practice today and come out [Wednesday] night ready to put on a good show in his honor," Bryant said, planning an appropriate tribute to the man responsible for Showtime.