Magic Johnson considered himself to be the adopted son of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Shaquille O'Neal hailed Buss for his foresight, while Kobe Bryant cited Buss' ability to convince people to believe in him. Jerry West remembered a party-loving Buss who never went to bed, making it easy to be the first one at work in the morning.
They were among the basketball greats gathered Thursday at an invitation-only memorial service to salute the life and legacy of Buss, who died this week at 80 after an 18-month struggle with cancer.
The stage at the Nokia Theatre across from Staples Center was bedecked with all 10 of the NBA championship trophies won by the Lakers under Buss and more than 30 floral arrangements. Photos of Buss throughout his life flashed on a video screen.
Johnson punctuated the 1 1/2-hour service by getting the audience on its feet, clapping and cheering for Buss. "He didn't like it sad, he wanted it to be fun,'' Johnson said.
O'Neal recalled Buss bringing him on the floor at the Forum in Inglewood and telling him to look up at the championship banners in the rafters.
"He told me, `Son, we expect big things out of you and some 18-year-old kid we just signed, Kobe Bryant,''' O'Neal told the audience, which filled about half of the 7,000-seat venue.
O'Neal and Bryant certainly delivered, teaming to win three titles despite their personal discord.
"He gave me everything I wanted,'' O'Neal said of Buss. "I wanted one extension, he gave it to me. I wanted a second extension, he gave it to me. I wanted a third extension, he traded me.''
Johnson told of arriving in Los Angeles and not knowing anyone as a 19-year-old drafted by the Lakers out of Michigan State.
"God knew I needed a father figure,'' he said, explaining how Buss quickly filled the role by taking Johnson to his first boxing match in Las Vegas, his first tennis match, and his first horse race at Hollywood Park across from the Forum.
"I said, `Dr. Buss, I'm a black man from Lansing, Michigan. We don't know anything about horse racing,''' Johnson said, drawing laughs. "I went and enjoyed myself.''
After the Los Angeles Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky in a blockbuster deal in 1988, Johnson reluctantly attended his first hockey game, telling Buss, "Brothers don't skate.''
Buss replied, "The way you play basketball that man plays hockey. I want you to see the Magic man of hockey.''
But it wasn't until Johnson's 1992 public admission that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, did he realize how Buss really felt about him.
"As we cried for hours, him not knowing I would be here 22 years later, he picked up the phone and started calling hospitals to make sure I had the best health care possible and the best doctors,'' Johnson said. "That's when I knew this man cared for me outside of basketball, outside of making no-look passes.''
Among the other speakers were NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol (who spoke in Spanish) and Pat Riley.
Jackson, now engaged to Buss' daughter Jeanie, recalled the summer of 2008 when a fed-up Bryant went public with his trade demand.
"Jerry listened to the demands of Kobe and his agent,'' Jackson said. "He said, `There's no equal value we can get for you.' He prevailed and we won two more championships.''
When it was Bryant's turn at the mic, he said the biggest summer for him was 2006 when Buss asked what he thought of Jackson returning for a second stint coaching the Lakers. Bryant was hesitant.
"He just looked at me and said, `Trust me,' and I did and that took us to another level winning two championships,'' he said. "He had this ability to convince you to follow him.''
West first met Buss in 1979, having already worked for two previous owners of the Lakers, including Jack Kent Cooke, who sold the team to Buss. West had to get used to Buss' lust for life that included hard work and heartier partying.
He recalled one celebration in which Buss had forgotten his credit card and asked West to pick up a tab that included $8,000 for champagne alone. Another time he was out with Buss and work ethic was being discussed.
"He never went to bed so how the hell could he not be the first one to work?'' West said.
Johnny Buss, the oldest of the six Buss children, spoke on behalf of the family. He mentioned his father's penchant for wearing jeans cut off at the bottom.
"They would fringe and I caught him one time combing the bottom of the fringe,'' he said, suggesting that on every Jan. 27 - his father's birthday - people don jeans with the bottom cut off in Jerry's honor.
The younger Buss provided insight into life with his father, who loved travel, wine, poker, books, classical music and movies. He called him "a man who would take us on an incredible journey that no one could ever imagine.''
"Not everything went right but because he was always thinking ahead, everything became right,'' Johnny Buss said. "He never had to step on anyone to get ahead. He surrounded himself with good people. He loved L.A. and as we can see L.A. loved him, too.''
The audience included the current Lakers team, Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Bill Walton, former Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich, former Lakers Byron Scott, A.C. Green and Cedric Ceballos, retired Los Angeles Sparks star Lisa Leslie, former Southern California athletic director Mike Garrett, longtime Lakers fan Dyan Cannon, and Los Angeles Kings broadcasters Bob Miller and Jim Fox.
The speeches were interspersed with performances, including nine members of the USC band playing "Amazing Grace.'' Randy Newman, whose iconic "I Love LA'' anthem is played at every Lakers game, sang his hit "You've Got a Friend in Me'' from the movie "Toy Story.'' Davis Gaines sang a number from "Phantom of the Opera.''
Johnson ended the memorial with a plea to Buss' six children who control a majority stake in the team.
"Please Buss family, do not ever sell the Lakers, and win more championships,'' said Johnson, who owns a share of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Buss is to be buried Friday in a private service.