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.
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.
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.