It's hard to say why we save the things we save when someone dies. Why a particular shirt feels meaningful or why it's hard to delete certain voicemails. The list of things a loved one leaves in a will might be long. It's often what they didn't have to include in the will that sticks with you.
Among other things, Jim Buss saved a voicemail from his father from Jan. 20, less than a month before the Lakers' Hall of Fame owner, Jerry Buss, died after an 18-month battle with cancer. He has replayed it so many times he knows it by heart.
" 'Hey Jim, it's your dad,' " Buss says, mimicking his father's squeaky voice. " 'What an incredible waste of talent. Oh well. The experiment didn't work.' "
Buss had missed the call. His dad had wanted to talk to him about the Los Angeles Lakers' disappointing season. Run though all the decisions they'd made together that hadn't turned out the way they'd hoped. The offseason trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard that were supposed to make the $100 million Lakers title contenders, but ended up turning into an injury-riddled flop. The early-season firing of coach Mike Brown and surprising hire of Mike D'Antoni (over Phil Jackson) that could have made them look like savvy geniuses but instead came off as misguided and hurried. They had discussed those things backward and forward a thousand times already, and all roads came back to the same place.
"My dad was disappointed, just as all Laker fans should be disappointed that we didn't get to realize the dream of four Hall of Famers on the same team," Buss said in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. "But hey, we went for it. What the hell. ...
"You fix it, and you move forward. You don't dwell on the past. You fix it, and you move on.
"We could've sat there and cried and said, 'Boy, oh boy, we just lost this kind of money.' We could've done this or that. But we were all on board. Every decision was made as a team. And we went down as a team. We'll live in the future the same way."
If ever there was a perfect articulation of Jerry Buss' philosophy, that might be it. Dr. Buss ran his basketball team like he had a big stack of chips in front of him at a high-stakes poker table. Every move was calculated risk and he was usually in the mood to gamble.
But when Jim Buss says something like that, Lakers fans get nervous. Actually, when Jim Buss says anything, Lakers fans get nervous.
That was always going to be Jim Buss' destiny, until he did enough on his own to change it. His father made that clear to him from the start of the extended apprenticeship he's served in the family business, preparing him to lead the club's basketball operations once his father was gone.
"He always said, 'You have to have a shell and be able to repel water because you're going to get pelted," Buss said. "And I said, 'Dad, I have no problem with that as long as I believe that you believe in me and we believe in this philosophy.' "
Like everything in Lakerland for the past 35 years, Jerry Buss' judgment gave everyone comfort. He'd won enough big bets in his life that if he said something was a good risk, people tended to trust in it. In his last 10 years of life, and in his final will and testament, Jerry Buss trusted his son Jim to make the basketball decisions for the Lakers.
"If he didn't think I was capable of doing this, I guarantee he wouldn't have put me here," Buss said. "He would have arranged something else.
"But over years of dealing with him on every level and every contract and every negotiation and every thought of building a philosophy to win championships ... My dad trusted me. I know for a fact that if he didn't believe in what I was doing, he would not have just said, 'Well you're my son. Here you go.'
"No. That's not how I got this job."
Jim is not an extrovert. He's shy in most social situations, preferring to stay in the background with a baseball cap on and observe from a distance. He doesn't seek the spotlight. He avoids it. He stayed in the owner's suite at Staples Center after the Lakers won the 2010 NBA title. He watched the 2009 NBA Finals from Los Angeles, with his father. He has never participated in an on-court public ceremony for the Lakers. But he knows he must come out of the shadows now and let people get to know him. He knows he needs to talk about himself and his life, and the way he'll help run the franchise his father built into one of the most valuable and popular in all of sports.
"Change scares everybody," Buss said. "I understand that.
"We lost a great person, a great Laker fan, and by far and away, to me, the best owner in sports. But the stability and the passion with which we do our work is still there 100 percent."
Buss says that like he means it. And he does. He had plenty of opportunities to turn back from this life over the past two decades and didn't. Buss didn't grow up wanting to run the basketball operations for the Lakers; he wanted to be a math teacher. Jerry didn't even own the franchise until two years after Jim had graduated Palisades High in 1977.
But in 1981, a tragedy would change his life forever. His best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident during a vacation in Hawaii. Jim was devastated and lost. He turned away from the small businesses he and his friend had invested in together and let them wither. "You don't get over it," he said, more than 30 years later. "It just gets a little easier to think about as time goes on. ... I did every single thing with him. So when he was gone, it was like I'd lost half my personality."
Eventually, Jim eased back into work, selling tickets at the Great Western Forum in the same office as his sister, Jeanie, who was running the LA Strings franchise of World Team Tennis. It was never officially stated that Jerry was evaluating his children at the same time he was training them, but it was understood.
"It was just who he felt was making right decisions," Buss said. "Or who had the drive or the feel for it. I don't think it was planned from when I was a kid or after he bought the Lakers he said 'Jim's this guy. He's my buddy.' It was never planned like that. Jeanie worked her way up, too."
After a while, it was time to go out on his own, earn his own paycheck and make his own way. Jim left his father's business at the Forum and got into horse racing.
"I approached horse racing as I approach everything," he said. "I learn from observations and talk and ask questions, a lot of questions.
"I'm not afraid to ask simple questions . And I think people appreciate that because I'm not trying to know it all before I even know it."
Jim spent a decade learning the basketball business from his father and general managers Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak before he was entrusted with real power within the Lakers' organization. Gradually, his father gave him more and more responsibility. The last four or five years, he has been the primary day-to-day decision-maker. But until probably the last month of his life, the final word always rested with Dr. Buss.
"He'd say, 'Jim, you have the final hammer.' " the younger Buss said. "I said, 'No, I don't. My final hammer is to say you are the final hammer.'
"He liked that one."
Jerry was hospitalized for the final seven months of his life. Jim went to see his father almost every day.
"He was involved in every decision," Jim said. "He wasn't going anywhere and I was spending from the mornings to night sitting at the hospital.
"We might not have gotten five straight hours [of work in], but we got five hours over 12 hours. He enjoyed it. He just didn't have the energy that he would have loved to put into it. But he would fight to do his business. That was what was amazing. I felt bad, I said 'Dad are you sure you want to do this?'
"And he said it's not business when you enjoy it."
What type of business?
"Basketball business," Jim Buss said. "Mike Brown. That was a decision that was made over the course of about a month. And on those decisions he was right on top of his game.
"He felt that Mike Brown lost the players."
How could he know that from his hospital room?
"Just losing preseason games, comments made by some of the players, the body language, the intelligence that Mitch and I gave him. If you heard and saw all the things we saw, it was a pretty simple conclusion.
"There was something wrong there. Something wasn't clicking, so you have to address that."
That was a Thursday morning. By Sunday night, the Lakers had hired D'Antoni, stunning the NBA by passing on a third go-round with Jackson.
"We did the coaching search and interviews and fed him all the information," Buss said. "And he said, 'This is who I want. D'Antoni's the man.' Knowing that in the future we had to rebuild, he felt that Phil was not a guy to rebuild. It's not fair to him. It was actually more of a respectful thought towards Phil."
Jim said he and Kupchak had come to the conclusion that Jackson simply wasn't sure if he wanted to return to the sidelines after their interview with him, and if he was reluctant, so were they. He noted that Kupchak and Jackson also had lunched over the summer and Jackson told Kupchak then that he had no intention of ever coaching again. Still, Buss said they wanted to reach out to gauge Jackson's interest again after firing Brown because "he's the best basketball coach of all time."
When they reported back to Dr. Buss after all of the interviews had concluded (Mike Dunleavy had also interviewed for the job), he assessed the situation quickly and made a decision.
"My dad said, 'You know what? D'Antoni's the guy. I've always liked him. Showtime. I think it will be fun basketball as we make the transition [from the Kobe Bryant era],' " Jim said.
He said his father also told them to hire D'Antoni quickly.
"He said, 'Do it by Sunday night,' " Buss said. "He wanted to get it done before the weekend was over."
The fallout was incredible. Kupchak called Jackson around midnight so he'd at least hear it from him first. Lakers fans were stunned and angry. Jackson released a statement through his agent slamming the organization for the way he'd been treated and disrespected. Jeanie Buss was understandably devastated and hurt.
"Jeanie being my sister, I felt compassion for her," Buss said. "I felt compassionate. I wish I could do something about that, but on a business level, this was a business decision made by our father."
There is something he could do to prove that: invite Jackson back into the organization in a front office or consultant role. Mine all that basketball knowledge. Use him as a recruiter for free agents. Make him an asset for the Lakers again, instead of a giant shadow hovering over the franchise.
Buss says he's willing.
"I consider Phil family. That's how I look at him," he said. "If he wants to work with me on a consultant basis, I'm all for it."
Buss knows the next question. It's not the first time someone has asked what it's like to live a life where your family dynamics grab headlines and are a daily topic of discussion on sports talk radio.
"Yes, it feels like a soap opera," Buss said. "I'm learning to accept it. Jeanie's been a lot more in the public eye than I have been."
He says he wasn't in a hurry to be the final hammer on big decisions. He was glad he could still ask questions of his father and Kupchak because he valued their opinions and experience.
Now that his father is gone, he'll need to adapt. Kupchak can consult, but Buss will have to own the final decision. All the consequences and responsibilities are his.
"I'm looked upon as that decision-maker even though it's a team effort," he said. "I think people want to have that. They want the new decision-making process to be out in the forefront as opposed to keeping the legacy of Dr. Buss in the forefront.
"It's hard to say that, because I'm still not 100 percent sure that's true. But I get a sense from people that, 'We don't want to hear about you feeling bad [Dr. Buss] is gone and that you miss your connection with him. We need you to lead.'
"I understand that. But I felt that people should basically get the feel that he's still making decisions."
Jim has been working for his father since he was a teenager. He and a friend were taught how to grade the rare coins his father collected, and they'd spend hours studying the wear on the edges or how high a date was raised. Jerry would buy huge quantities of wheatback pennies for one cent apiece, have his son grade them, save the very finest of the very fine pennies, hold on to them for a few years, and watch them grow in value.
"He bought them for one cent and in a few years they'd be worth 12 or 13 cents," Buss explained.
It was a hobby, but Buss says he couldn't help but learn something from the experience: There's a vast difference between very fine and the finest. A difference worth paying for. And for 35 years, that's how Dr. Buss ran his basketball team.
"He had a sense of accomplishment and pride [at the end of his life] that I don't know if he was able to feel all the way when he was working on a daily basis," Buss said.
"I got to see how much pride and accomplishment he felt from all that hard work."
It is a vision he'll carry with him for a long time. A keepsake along with the voicemail and favorite shirts he's keeping to remember him.
It's also an enormous legacy to live up to.
Jerry Buss believed his son could handle it. We're about to find out if he made a good bet.