Calling Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss a “second father” and a “pioneer” who “changed NBA basketball,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson on Monday reflected on the man who can arguably be considered the greatest owner in sports history not just because of his 10 titles and 16 appearances in the NBA finals in 33 years, but because of the way he changed how fans watched basketball.
“There will never be another Dr. Jerry Buss,” Johnson said, noting the owner was there for his players during the highs and lows. “I love him to death.”
Buss passed away on Monday in Los Angeles after battling cancer.
“He did it his way,” Johnson said of the iconic owner in an interview with ESPN. “He went out his way.”
Johnson, who won five titles as a player and another five as a co-owner of the Lakers, said he was grateful to have visited Buss recently in the hospital, where the two reminisced about their relationship and building the Laker franchise that became synonymous with Hollywood and “Showtime.”
“Dr. Buss loved the Lakers, he loved to play poker, he loved his women, I gotta say that … and he loved winning for the fans of L.A,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t for him. It was for the fans of L.A.
“He would do anything to win championships for the people of L.A. The city should really pay a lot of respects to Dr. Jerry Buss.”
When Buss was in discussions to buy the Lakers in 1979 from then-owner Jack Kent Cooke, Buss said the Lakers had to draft the 19-year-old sensation out of Michigan State for him to seal the deal on the purchase.
The Lakers drafted Johnson, Buss soon finalized the deal to purchase the team, and both, as rookies, would work side-by-side to change the city and a sport that many thought could go out of existence at time.
Consider the 1979-1980 finals in which Johnson played all five positions — including replacing the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center — against the Philadelphia 76ers. It was Buss’s and Johnson’s first title, but hardly anyone saw it, as most NBA finals broadcasts then were tape-delayed.
Buss, with his business and marketing savvy, and Johnson, with his level of play and out-of-this-world charisma and smile, would change that. In the 1980s, the Lakers and the Celtics battled in NBA championship battles that riveted the nation on both coasts, growing the game, and eventually laying the foundation for Michael Jordan to to take to stratospheric heights in the 1990s.
“He wanted to win championships and he wanted to win them now,” Johnson said, of Buss.
After “crying all morning,” Johnson said Buss wan an “intelligent” and “fun-loving” man who “studied history” was the “most competitive” person he had ever been around.
“He helped the NBA go to another level,” Johnson said, noting that when Buss thought of putting cheerleaders on the court or installing courtside seats, many thought it was not “cool” and “proper” to do so.
Johnson, with relish, noted how quickly Buss’s doubters changed their minds after they saw the product Buss was selling. Johnson said Buss knew basketball had to also be about “entertainment,” and he made it into an event where fans – and players – could have fun.
Calling Buss a “visionary” and a “trailblazer” who also was, in his own right, an “A-list celebrity” who “loved beautiful women,” eating Italian food at the same restaurant, family, and playing pool past and cards past midnight, Johnson spoke movingly about the father-son relationship the two had.
“I hope to see him again in the next life,” Johnson said. “He will always live through me. I am going to carry his spirit and legacy, and I will carry it on until I am dead.”
When Johnson first arrived in Los Angeles as a 19-year-old kid from the Midwest, he said Buss knew he liked the USC Trojans (USC was a powerhouse football team in the 1970s and Johnson saw them play in Rose Bowl telecasts when he was living in Michigan) and took him to USC football games every Saturday. Buss received a Masters and Ph.D in chemistry from USC when he was 24 years old.
Johnson said Buss “took him through the books” for him and also taught him the business of basketball. Buss later encouraged Johnson to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, would call him to let him know how proud he was of him whenever he heard about a scholarship Johnson created for inner city kids.
And when Buss called him to congratulate him on purchasing the Dodgers, Johnson thought Buss had bought the team because he was so happy. He said Buss was as happy as a father would be for his son.
During Johnson’s first years in the league, he publicly criticized Lakers coach Paul Westhead. After Buss fired the coach, Johnson was booed at the Great Western Forum, and many blamed him for selfishly running the coach out of town.
Johnson, on Monday, revealed that Buss took him away for a weekend, and Johnson cried on his shoulder. Johnson said Buss told him that if he ever had problems with somebody in the organization, all he had to do was tell Buss and did not have to go public. Johnson said it was a valuable lesson that he learned but also knew Buss had full confidence in him.
The legendary point guard also said the first time he ever saw Buss cry was when he told him that he was diagnosed with having the HIV virus in November of 1991. Buss, like a father, unwaveringly stood by Johnson’s sign – along with former Lakers coach Pat Riley – at a time when even some of Johnson’s teammates did not want to touch him. Johnson said it meant so much to see how much Buss cared about his well-being and told him he would provide him with anything he needed to help fight the virus.