BY Art Thiel 04:52PM 02/18/2013

Thiel: Buss-owned Lakers also owned Sonics

For all the theatrics and histrionics, Lakers owner Jerry Buss changed the NBA like no other owner. And his teams were always there to thwart the Sonics.

Longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss was one of the great innovators in pro sports. / NBA.com

Three sports developments happened in 1979 that changed the Seattle pro sports landscape for a good long while, plus another incidental one that was equally unforgettable for me, and helped explain a bit of the first three. Last item first.

Covering a playoff series in Los Angeles between the Lakers and Sonics, I foot-slalomed my way through the limos lining up outside the (then) Fabulous Forum and into the media entrance. Upon entry, a swoopy-haired guy with his shirt opened nearly to his waist, exposing copious hairs and necklaces, shook my hand.

I didn’t catch his name because I was staring at his date, a striking woman whose dress revealed cleavage that could only be measured in furlongs per fortnight. The evident achievement in human and structural engineering was beyond my feeble imagination.

The guy? Jerry Buss. Turns out he was even more a majestic piece of work.

His death from cancer Monday at 80 has spawned many salutes across pro basketball, none greater than the fact that his Lakers teams went to 13 NBA Finals, winning 10. He was the architect of the Lakers’ fabled “Showtime,” a blend of sports and Hollywood that forever altered the NBA and sports marketing. Cheer or cringe as you will, he was a literal game-changer.

“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” he once said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I think we’ve been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.”

The Lakers were so Hollywood, so hip and so exciting that LA has lived quite happily without the NFL. As with most everything else in LA, football is on TV. But the Lakers . . . well, you hadda be there. Never know what wonders you may observe around a man who had a Ph.D in physical chemistry.

In fact, it was Buss’s Lakers who made the NBA, which up until then had been more or less an outfit run out of the trunk of a Buick Bulgemobile, relevant and cool. The Laker Girls, courtside celebrities, sleek, intimidating players and and an epic brand of basketball, including a rivalry with the Boston Celtics that elevated pro hoops in the 1980s to an apex it has never since reached.

Back to 1979. The dominant teams were the Sonics and Washington Bullets, two very good outfits sufficiently lacking in star power that CBS was quite happy to broadcast the NBA Finals on tape-delay at 11:30 p.m., where even Johnny Carson could post them up.

After the Bullets won the title in 1978, the Sonics took the championship rematch in 1979. In that year’s playoff run, the Sonics opened with a 4-1, opening-round wipe-out of the Lakers in which Gus Williams averaged a wizardly 30.2 points over the five games. That’s right, kidlets — he was a 6-foot-2 Kevin Durant, almost as dynamic as Buss’s lady pal in the Forum lobby.

The Sonics title was the first development, bringing the inital — and as you know well, only — major pro sports championship to Seattle since the 1917 Metropolitans won the NHL Stanley Cup. The second development was Buss’s purchase from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million the Lakers, the NHL Kings, the Forum and Cooke’s ranch in the Sierra Nevada. The third development was Buss’s choice of Earvin Johnson of Michigan State with the draft’s first pick. An easy choice, but pivotal.

From a Seattle viewpoint, the last two developments rendered moot the first one.

The Sonics in 1980 reached the Western Conference finals for the third year in a row, where they ran into the rookie buzzsaw nicknamed Magic. Not since Oscar Robertson had a backcourt player been so dominant. For the playoffs that year, Johnson averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 9.4 assists and 3.1 steals a game.

The Lakers reversed the Seattle playoff outcome from a year earlier, beating the Sonics 4-1. Broadly speaking, things were never quite the same for the Seattle franchise.

They finished last the following season, didn’t return to the Western finals until 1987 and didn’t return to the Finals until 1996, never again winning a championship, then moving to Oklahoma City. It’s a big stretch to blame the decline and fall of the Seattle franchise on Dr. Jerry, but on the occasion of his passing, his contributions are worth noting and, well,  admiring in an impartial sort of way. He at least held open the door to the basement.

While the factors that thwarted the Sonics were many over three decades, there is this fact as indisputable as it is amazing: Starting with the 1980 series,  the teams met five times in the playoffs and the Lakers won all — by a combined game count of 19-3.

That is dominance with a capital Buss. From 1980 to 1998, the Sonics franchise knew it had a nearly unbeatable nemesis in the division. Even in the George Karl years when Seattle rode high in the West, the 48-win Lakers in 1995 ousted in the first round the 57-win Sonics three games to one.

That year was one of two that Michael Jordan did not play for the Chicago Bulls, mistakenly thinking he was a major league baseball player. Some will argue that 1994 and 1995, when Hakeem Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to consecutive titles, was when the Sonics’ chances were best for a championship.

You may have read that, in 1996, Jordan came back.

Ah, well.

Throughout his tenure as owner, the Lakers were seemingly always in some sort of tumult, from Kareem vs. Magic to Shaq vs. Kobe to Kobe vs. Dwight to Riley vs. Jerry to Phil vs. Jerry. They were also frequently at the top of the NBA and the TV ratings. The Lakers operation was a rollicking soap opera until Big Game James Worthy shushed the gossipers, swooping in from low earth orbit with a dunk so hard and so fast that he sucked the sunglasses off every Botoxed face in the joint. Coolness suddenly was out, madness in.

Even if Sonics fans were on the wrong end of 19-3, there was no more intensely felt expression in Seattle sports than, “Beat LA! Beat LA!”

It’s a little late now, but upon nearing the return of the NBA to Seattle, I’ll offer it anyway: “Pleasure to have met you, Jerry.” Her, too.


YourThoughts

  • PokeyPuffy

    nicely done Sonics-oriented tribute ARt. The irony may also be that the current day (Seattle)/OKC franchise has replaced LA as the cutting edge. Don’t ask me how it works, but darn if that small market team doesn’t dominate nowadays. NBA=Durant/Lebron, with Lebron fading …..
    As for the 90′s, the Rockets earned them titles fair and square regardless of what Seattle fans might like to believe. The second in ’95 came entirely as a road team (5th seed i believe!).

    • RadioGuy

      Good Lord. LeBron is “fading?” Seriously? He’s won three of the last four MVP trophies and is the best player on a defending championship team currently running roughshod over opponents. And he won’t even turn 30 until late next year.

      • art thiel

        Who said LBJ was fading? I believe you’re confusing him with the pope.

        • RadioGuy

          Read PokeyPuffy’s first paragraph.

          • PokeyPuffy

            Yes please do. Arts piece if i may paraphrase was about LA and the media based dynasty that Buss created. My point: OKC and Miami have somewhat similar thing going, but when I say Lebron is “fading” i mean that regardless of his ball skills he looks like a 52 year old man. That has increasingly marginal appeal / relevance in the marketplace, whereas Durant with his boyish charm, hip threads and general charisma is a bottomless bucket of marketing appeal.

            Again, don’t ask me how a small market in a red state can get such coverage…it must be the genius of Clay Bennett and his crafty lot.

          • RadioGuy

            So you were talking about marketing? You didn’t say a word about that, so we were left to consider that a guy averaging 27 points on 56% shooting, 8 rebounds and 7 assists is “fading.”
            Marketability? That’s a little different. The way LeBron left Cleveland left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, whereas Durant does indeed have a great image and likes playing in Oklahoma City.
            What’s ironic about LeBron is that rumors are floating in Miami that he may opt out of his contract next year and return to play with the Cavs and Kyrie Irving. We’ll see.

          • art thiel

            Uh, no on the return to Cleveland, unless it’s a Griffey-like farewell at 42.

          • eric killian

            They just got lucky and Durant fell into their laps with the number 2 pick. Talent like that is a once a decade thing at most and there is a lot of luck involved with being a small market team and having a top pick at the right time. Big market teams can build via Free Agency, but the Utahs, San Antonio’s and so on need to get lucky in the draft. Think of all the small market teams that have had top picks in weak drafts (like Sacramento for example stuck with a head case lie Cousins)

            The real test of whther OKC is a sustainable market is what happens when his career is done. They drew well the first year even with losing because it was the new thing.

          • art thiel

            The threat in OKC is that there is a thin class of ultra rich, a small middle class and a lot of people who can’t afford NBA tickets but once a year. Whenever the next oil-and-gas bust hits, you’ll hear the screams from here.

          • art thiel

            I don’t see 52 when I see LBJ.

            OKC works for the same reason it works in Portland, Salt Lake and San Antonio. Only pro team in town. The owners command a lot of resources in the community.

    • art thiel

      OKC was helped by an ownership-ordered teardown and contract dump while in Seattle, because Bennett didn’t care about losing interest of Seattle fans. That created a lot of runway to the success now.

      As far as the Rockets, they certainly rarned their titles, but my point was that the Sonics matched up well with them. In the Finals, the Sonics would have beaten any Eastern team.

      • eric killian

        Yeah, if I remember correctly the Sonics owned the Rockets during that stretch winning something like 10 out of 12 games over 3 years. Those two titles were the Sonics if Karl could have figured out how to change strategy in the playoffs two years sooner than he finally did

        • art thiel

          Sonics-Rockets the the mid-90s were some of the best ball in 41 years. Olajuwon was was of the great warriors in NBA history without ever attempting to be a badass.

  • jafabian

    As much as I love chanting “Beat LA” my hat goes off to Dr. Buss and his legacy. How he rebuilt the Lakers into Showtime and then rebooted them into the Kobe/Shaq era and then retooling them again with Pau Gasol shows how he constantly strives to succeed and did so without getting into the histronics that other pro sport owners like George Steinbrenner, Al Davis and Jerry Jones have among others. Jack Kent Cooke tried hard but usually finished #2 to the Celtics and later the Sixers and Knicks. Dr. Buss got the franchise past that speed bump.

    If the Sonics didn’t have such a hard time with the Bucks in the semi-finals they might have had more in the tank for the Lakers but Showtime recognized that and ran them ragged. If the Sonics were more prepared for the draft (Come on, taking James Bailey when Calvin Natt was on the board?) and maybe kept Johnny Moore instead of cutting him then maybe the Sonics could have kept pace with the Lakers for a few more years.

    • mckoosa

      WE Won Game #1 of the West Conf Final IN THE FORUM,as the Defending World Champions on one days rest after Sunday afternoon’s Game #7 Win over the Bucks….WE played close in Game #2 and the lAKERS WERE AS INTIMIDATED BY US AS WE WERE BY kAREEM AND ROOKIE MAGIC…WE then came home tied 1-1, but played Fridat night at Hec Ed, and lost a close one and were BLOWING the Lakers out on Easter Sunday, when it all ENDED for the Seattle SuperSonics vis a vis the L.A. Lakers….Sam wouldn’t pay Gus and he sat out a year….Lenny traded DJ for Westphal and this was FATAL, obviously….We had Vinnie johnson and JBaiey wasn;t half bad as a rookie, but Natt would have been better…Westphal breaks his foot, never regains First team all NBA form and never plays a single game with fellow all star Guard Gus Williams….Lonnie Shelton misses all but the first 10 games the next season,,3/5 of the starting World Champions are gone and Paul Silas retired….The Lakers Get James Worthy in the NBA Draft a few weeks after winning the ’82 title, their 2nd in 3 years….They install Pat Riley as head coach…sign MCAdoo,and Blow past the SuperSonics in the express lane like we had been standing still….The HEX continued into the next generation….BUt if we had held on in that Sunday aft, Hec Ed Game, NOT traded DJ, Resigned Gus and added Free agents like Alex English or Bernard King, things may have been different…we could have beaten the ROckets, as the Celtics did in th e’81 Finals had we kept the Champioship team intact….I KNOW we would have beaten the 76ers in the ’80 Finals as the Lakers did….( Gus,DJ and Fred Brown against Bibby,an aged and injured Hollins and a still raw pre-all star Mo Cheeks…Jack Sikma against D Dawkins or Caldwell Jones….Lonnie Shelton vs. the other?…. Jammin’ James Bailey and VJ coming off the bench along with Tommy LaGarde….DR.J. was a problem mismatch vs. JJ, but we still win I say)…anyways…the Epic Milwaukee 7 game series wore us out and the Lakers were waiting for a week for us after beating PHX in 5….Not playing on our home court,but at a college arena was bad mojo….Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes were undefeated at Hec Ed as UCLAn’s…..What could have been…We nearly won 3 NBA Titles in a row….(105-99,in Seattle in Game #7 on June 7,1978…a game we were favored to win by the odds makers in Las Vegas! -)…That First Game win at The Forum in the ’80 Finals was an AMAZING Game…Freddie had 36 and shot the lights out…..Ditto for Gus….I have that game and all the others on DVD…It’s amazing how competetive we were with the Embryonic “Showtime” Lakers….BUT…Once they beat us, they KNEW they had us , and we were never the same again…in any and all ways….Norm Nixon,Magic,Kareem,Wilkes, Cooper, Chones, Haywood, Landsberger……and later James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Byron Scott, Kupchak before the knee injury, Rambis, Swen Nater….The Lakers ran absolutely WILD thru the Western Conference in the ’80′s….Had we kept our Sonics together we could have kept pace, and we were better than the ’81 and ’84 Celtics and probably the ’87 version too…No one beats the ’83 Sixers or the ’86 Celts however….West,Riley,Sharman, Bertka,Pfund,…Hell, even ex Sonics Trainer Jack Curran was the Laker’s Trainer in ’80…..Rest In Peace Dr.Jerry Buss….Say Hello to Sam Schulman and DJ for me!

      • art thiel

        McKoosa, that was the best one paragraph essay on Sonics history I’ve read. Well done.

    • art thiel

      It’s a lot of sustained excellence under Buss. And he knew the controversy always kept the Lakers in the forefront in Hollywood.

      Bailey and Moore? Wow, that’s digging deep, J.

      • jafabian

        This is all predicated of course with the Soncis keeping DJ. I knew that was a bad deal then but I understand that he was becoming something of a handful, so to speak. At the time though I wanted Sidney Moncrief and a draft pick instead of Westphal. But if we kept DJ? Oh, I need to start teasing myself…

  • RadioGuy

    Great piece.

    “I was staring at his date, a striking woman whose dress revealed cleavage that could only be measured in furlongs per fortnight.” I love turning phrases myself, Art, but I can’t imagine topping that one. Maybe Dr. Buss was performing a post-doctoral Physical Chemistry study. Think I’ll check that link out when I’m done posting this.

    Buss did change the way games are staged in the NBA (and pro sports in general), although I think he may have been working off the old ABA Miami Floridians ballgirls’ blueprint in creating the Laker Girls. Of the owners in the league at that time, only Buss understood that pro sports at that level is an entertainment business and built his product accordingly. He deserves his slot in Springfield for that alone.

    However, while Buss deserves all the credit for turning Lakers games into “events,” it was Jerry West who built TWO dynasties on the court. As great a player as he was (and I’d rate him as one of the five best guards of all-time), West may have been even a better GM.

    • eric killian

      Well Buss is the guy who hired West and gave him the freedom and resources to do what it took.

      I think the best evidence for how good an owner he was is to contrast The Lakers and The Knicks over the last 30 years, both teams have the big market advantages but what a difference in results.

      • RadioGuy

        Who else was he going to hire? Buss had to realize he had one of the greatest basketball minds ever already in-house. But, yes, you’re right in that he gave West the resources to do what he wanted. That certainly doesn’t always happen. Ask any GM who worked under George Argyros.

        I do need to backtrack on something, however: West coached the team from 1976 through 1979, then was a scout and assistant GM for three years before becoming GM in 1982, replacing Bill Sharman (who had a pretty decent feel for the game himself). I mean, we’re not talking Bob Whitsitt types here. So while West WAS deeply involved in the franchise for years, he didn’t necessarily have the final say in drafts and trades until 1982.