Lakers' success a testament to best owner in sports history

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No one ever believes this, because of the steep payroll and courtside glitz, but the Lakers are the closest thing in major professional sports to a mom-and-pop store.

They operate out of the back of a skating rink, below an elevated train, and their executive offices are no more deluxe than an insurance agent's. When former coach Mike Brown first saw his new digs, he asked: "This is it?" Center Dwight Howard asked: "This is the Lakers?" They weren't disappointed, just surprised.

"We don't have all the bells and whistles," longtime athletic trainer Gary Vitti said. "We don't have all the neon lights."

General manager Mitch Kupchak recently hung two flat-screen televisions on his wall, hooked up to a computer, but only because the retail price had dropped.

"Ten or 15 years ago, they probably would have been $8,000 each," Kupchak said. "It was ridiculous. You wouldn't consider that. Now you can go into a Best Buy and get one for $700."

Outsiders might laugh at the head of franchise valued at $1 billion fretting over the cost of a TV, but Kupchak does not understand why.

"Maybe there's a corporate environment out there where it doesn't matter," he said. "But we are a family business."

The corporatization of sports is widespread. Practice facilities look like Fortune 500 campuses. Public relations reps wear secret-service-style earpieces. Assistant coaches are muzzled. Chairmen give way to CEOs who give way to presidents. The Lakers, under Jerry Buss, went the other way. His son, Jim, works on one end of the facility and runs basketball operations. His daughter, Jeanie, works on the other end and runs the business side. A second son, Joey, oversees the Development League affiliate.

There are a lot of reasons why the Lakers remain the most popular team in the NBA, even when they're four games under .500, and most of them have to do with championships and Hall of Famers and celebrity fans. But part of their appeal, especially in Los Angeles, is the connection they've maintained with their consumers.

The last time I saw Jerry Buss, up close, was a couple years ago in Terminal 1 at LAX. He was getting off a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix. He was wearing a Lakers warm-up jacket that appeared to be bought in 1982. Fellow passengers stared at him, amused, and he nodded back. The message was unmistakable. He didn't care about private planes and three-piece suits. He cared about his basketball team.

[Photo Gallery: Jerry Buss through the years]

Buss died at 5:55 a.m. PT Monday at 80, after an 18-month battle with cancer, making the most disappointing period in Lakers history exponentially more painful. They were coming off a loss to the Clippers, the team Buss always dominated, and getting ready for a game against the Celtics, the team Buss always hated. It will crush Kobe Bryant that he could not deliver a 17th trophy to the Lakers' patriarch, matching the Celtics, but in a backward way this wretched season is another testament to arguably the greatest owner in sports history.

Over the past year, Buss finalized a $3 billion local television contract, spit in the face of a putative new luxury tax and hiked the payroll over $100 million with the additions of Howard and Steve Nash. These Lakers have obviously fallen on their face, yet still they have driven TV ratings, Web clicks and water-cooler conversations in a way no other team could. Showtime exists in different forms. Sometimes, it's a soap opera.

Buss built the Lakers to win, of course, but he also wanted them to entertain. He fashioned them as a mirror of the city he discovered as a 9-year-old boy from Wyoming, sunny and glamorous and at times over-the-top. He signed Magic Johnson to a 25-year-contract, found the Laker Girls and filled the front row at The Forum with more A-list actors than The Shrine. He partied at the Playboy Mansion and surrounded himself with as many college-aged women as 7-foot centers. Friends and I were once sitting at a table in a Las Vegas lounge with a few girls when they all stood up and shouted, "Bussy!" because he had walked in the door. We never saw them again. He was probably 70 at the time.

Buss was simultaneously a member of the elite and a man of the people. In the mid-1980s, he launched a local sports channel called Prime Ticket that allowed fans to watch home games on their basic cable package, while most other teams were charging extra for the privilege. The Lakers became the bridge from Compton to Bel Air, a common thread linking a sprawling and stratified metropolis.

Nuggets coach George Karl likes to compare Lakers games to Broadway shows, with all the lights dimmed except the ones over the court, and the conspicuous absence of anybody shooting T-shirts at your face. Dozens of venues are more raucous, but not one is more cool, and that won't change even if the Clippers win the next three championships. The Staples Center atmosphere is a manifestation of the Jerry Buss vision.

[NBA world reacts to Buss' death]

The more you study sports, the more you realize that owners mean everything. The right coach and player can carry a team for five or 10 years. But it takes a truly committed owner to carry that team for, let's say, 30 years. Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, at the dawn of Showtime, and when they were slipping in the mid-'90s, he signed Shaquille O'Neal and drafted Bryant. When they were slipping again in the mid-2000s, he traded for Pau Gasol. He always had the answer. He always cut the check.

The Lakers were quick to release a statement from the Buss family Monday saying it would honor its father's wishes and keep the franchise. Jim and Jeanie will be expected to guide the club as effectively as their dad, though that may be impossible.

This year, Lakers games have been broadcast on a new local channel called Time Warner Cable SportsNet, and at the outset of the season there was still no agreement to air the games on DirecTV. Such standoffs have become common across the country and fans have gone months, even years, without being able to watch their favorite teams at home. I don't know what role Jerry Buss played, if any, but no one in L.A. had to wait months or years.

The dispute was resolved in two weeks.