Lakers Owner Jerry Buss Remembered as 'Iconic,' 'Father Figure' at Memorial Service

Magic Johnson Jerry Buss Memorial - H 2013
Earvin Johnson

A slew of sports luminaries -- from Kobe Bryant to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- were among those paying tribute to Buss at Thursday's service.

Before Thursday's memorial service at Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre for Dr. Jerry Buss, Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber said the Lakers owner would be remembered as “an iconic owner and a good person.” In a nutshell, that was repeated by the dozen speakers on the program.

The memorial was emceed by KCBS-TV sportscaster Jim Hill, who addressed the crowd of roughly 2,500 just after 3 p.m. VIPS, almost all wearing black, were in the lower seats; the back of the theater saw more fans, with a few in purple and gold Lakers jackets. All needed tickets to attend. Hill stood on a stage with three-dozen large floral bouquets, a black Steinway grand piano and Lakers NBA championship trophies. It was flanked by theater-size monitors. Visually, the setting bore a surprising similarity to a Christian television service.

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It was not a star-studded crowd. In fact, there’d be more famous names courtside at a Lakers game. However, there were dozens of current and former players on hand. Buss’ friend Greg Tomlinson spoke first, then the Lakers’ owners son Johnny, who noted that his father "hung on just past Valentine’s Day – that meant a lot to him" and said his father "loved Los Angeles, and Los Angeles loved him, too."

After remarks by Buss’ longtime business partner Frank Mariani, NBA commissioner David Stern spoke of the Lakers owner’s "graciousness and patience" and said he’d been a "transformational force in the history of sports." He was followed by Randy Newman, who sang "You've Got a Friend in Me" while playing on the Steinway.

Ex-Laker Jerry West started to choke up when he called Buss "the most humble, unique man I’ve ever been around." He spoke of the Lakers owner’s legendary work (and partying) habits, then said, "People say he was always the first at work. Hell, he never went to bed." West ended with: "Boy, oh boy, he left a large shadow over the sports world."

Former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke of how Buss "loved life," and then former coach (and Buss son-in-law) Phil Jackson told a story from 2008 when Kobe Bryant was upset with the team’s state and wanted to be traded. Jackson said the owner told Bryant he was like a five-carat diamond that he’d be getting five one-carat diamonds for in return. "We’d never get what you’re worth," said Buss, and a trade deal never happened.

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After the USC marching band played a rendition of "Amazing Grace," ex-Laker Shaquille O'Neal got the afternoon’s first real laugh. He talked about how Buss had given him everything he wanted. When he asked for a contract extension, the owner gave it to him. "And when I wanted a second one, he gave it to me," said Shaq. "And when I wanted a third one, he traded me."

Laker Pau Gasol, who walked on and off stage without crutches but was using them when he returned to his seat, gave his remarks in Spanish, because Buss "was all about his fans and he’d appreciate me speaking to his Spanish fans."

Former Lakers coach Pat Riley began by saying, "I feel like I’m back home," which got a strong round of applause. "He had a great pride to win and do it the way no one had done before," said the Miami Heat president. "Jerry dreamt it, we went after it, and it became a reality."

Riley went metaphysical at the end about Buss being in heaven and said: "I have been notified by him. He’s OK."

After Davis Grimes sang Phantom of the Opera’s "Music of the Night," Bryant said he sometimes isn’t "the most patient individual," but when he started as a 17-year-old on Buss’ team, "he gave me the trust that made me want to go an extra mile for him ... He had the ability to convince you to follow him."

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Bryant ended by saying, "This has been an up-and-down season. What we all have in common is we all believe in Dr. Jerry Buss. We’ll be playing for the memory of a great man, Dr. Jerry Buss."

The final speaker was Magic Johnson, who called Buss "a father figure" with whom he shared a passion "to beat the Celtics." That got strong applause.

"He didn’t like it sad or down," said Johnson. "Make the Lakers sign with your hand and give some applause. This is a celebration of his life."

And that got the strongest applause of the afternoon.