Jerry Buss’ death at age 80 generated the usual stream of encomiums to the Los Angeles Lakers owner for deeds real and extended, for his love of the game and his team, for his general Buss-ness.
And well, why not? It’s the generous thing to do, and who wants to be the guy who dismisses any part of a man’s life only hours after his death?
But there is a question that we should probably start grappling with at some point, and that is, “Just how much credit should an owner get, as opposed to how much he or she has actually earned?”
This is very much meant as an open question rather than a discussion of Jerry Buss’ 33 years running the Lakers. Those closest to the team both by nature of employment nor physical proximity have the best sense for his importance, or should.
But how much credit should he get for, say, Magic Johnson? Or Pat Riley? Or Kobe Bryant? Or Shaquille O’Neal? Or Phil Jackson? Or the other players and coaches who actually had their hands in the work up to their shoulders? What exactly does a good owner do?
[RELATED: West, Warriors issue statement on Buss' passing]
Frankly, three things. One, he hires well. Two, he makes sure the players are well taken care off while under his employ. And three, he makes sure the checks required for two always clear. One requires intellect measured with modesty and an ability to listen. The other is just a matter of will, or will mixed with ego.
Buss did hire well. And he was not an aggressive meddler in the operation of the team, despite being omnipresent. Full points for that.
But he had the advantage of the Lakers brand, and the team’s location. The Lakers were a going concern before he got there, and it is not unreasonable to think that another owner could have done as he did. Plus it is easier to spend money when one is making far more money, and Buss was a powerful cog in a league that has precious few marquee teams.
So he bought power when he bought the team, delegated enough authority and covered any and all financial obligations. Is that enough?
In truth, that is all there needs to be. He did everything an owner should do.
But how much credit should that get you? Evaluating an owner isn’t just looking at the win-loss record and calling it a day. There are greater matters. Bill Veeck was probably the best owner in the history of baseball, but he won only one championship, in 1948, and was more often than not short-stacked and under-talented.
Moreover, it is hard to know what Buss did that, say, Eddie DeBartolo did not do for the San Francisco 49ers. DeBartolo hired well (Bill Walsh), he lavished money and trinkets upon his players when they performed up to spec, and he covered all debts, private and public. He made sure his team had the best while Walsh was making sure it was the best.
So who gets credit for that, DeBartolo, or Walsh?
And therein lies the question for Buss as well. Did other people do the real lifting on his behalf, and if so, what is his share of the stage?
It is, frankly, impossible to quantify. How much commanding did he place upon Riley, or Jerry West, or more recently, Mitch Kupchak? How much was it merely his installing them and saying, “Just tell me when it’s time to cover your promises”? Everybody has a story, and everybody has an ox to gore, and there is no greater mythmaking engine than the one that chugs into motion at a person’s passing.
Oh, one can make a handy list of the owners who cared about the product on the floor less than Buss. It’s a long list of mostly forgotten men who bought a team, fiddled with it, and then sold it for more than he paid for it. In relative terms, Buss was a superb owner.
We’re just wondering if, against a more absolute template, he gets all the honor due him, or whether an owner by nature gets credit for things he did not actually do. We’re just wondering what the payout ought to be for being a good facilitator.
And we don’t know, any more than we know whether DeBartolo was a great owner. Nobody defines it very well until well after a man’s death, and typically the current owner looks way worse than the former owner.
We do know this: Jerry Buss did all the things an owner ought to do, and that so few actually do. Whether that means 10 percent credit, 30 percent credit or 73 percent credit is a matter to each individual conscience.
In other words, if you own something yourself, you think he’s the best guy ever. If you work for others, you’re not quite so sure. And the eulogies of the next few days are unlikely to elucidate the true nature of Jerry Buss’ ownership to your satisfaction.