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Even in a personality-plus town like L.A., there has never been anyone quite like Jerry Buss, whose deep pockets and canny business sense turned the Lakers into one of the model franchises in all sports, one valued last month at $1 billion by Forbes. Buss, who had a Ph.D in both physical chemistry and Living Life Large, brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, as well as celebrity coaches Pat Riley and Jackson, to L.A., and the franchise earned 10 of its 16 titles under his watch.
The 80-year-old Buss died at Cedars-Sinai hospital on Monday morning (page 20) following a monthslong battle with cancer. Until the end, he was at the head of a strange architecture that formed the Lakers' hierarchy: Son Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball operation and sister Jeanie runs the business side, along with being, not incidentally, Jackson's fiancée. Dr. Buss, who made his fortune in real estate, had been sick for a while, but he reportedly played a part in the major off-season decisions to trade for center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, and he also favored hiring D'Antoni over his (presumably) future son-in-law, with whom he has won five championships.
And what now? What will happen without Jerry's guiding hand?
The Buss family has said in the past that it will not sell. But things change, and it will be hard not to read every Lakers misfortune through the prism of the patriarch's absence.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
Imagine it's 1970. You're at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and the announcer walks onstage to tell you that, contrary to billing, the Grateful Dead will not be playing tonight—but please put your hands together for Weather Report!
It would not have gone over well, and that's what it was like for D'Antoni, who walked into the Staples Center with "We Want Phil" still echoing off the walls, the chant that had greeted interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff after he took over for Brown. Meanwhile, in Twitter Land, Magic Johnson and others criticized the D'Antoni hiring, expressing disbelief that the franchise would pass on Jackson. "Everyone thought Phil was coming back," says Bryant. "That's not a knock on Mike. It's just a fact."
But some portion of the brain trust had tired of Jackson's triangle offense and saw D'Antoni as the coach who'd restore a semblance of the glorious run-and-gun Showtime style of Magic.
Inside the team, however, no one expected that the Lakers could replicate the caffeinated, seven-seconds-or-less Suns who, under D'Antoni, had energized the NBA during the mid-2000s—not even D'Antoni. The presence alone of Bryant, who will enter the Hall of Fame on the basis of his relentless one-on-one style, assured that.
Nash on what he expected under D'Antoni: "I saw us as a hybrid of Mike's offense with maybe a more conservative approach. But we'd definitely want movement. Transition drags. More pick-and-rolls. Picking. Driving."