Recently, the greatest female owner in sports, Ms. Jeanie Buss joined the “All The Smoke” podcast and announced her top 5 Lakers.
But, two surprising omissions from her list have come forward with their disdain for not being included, namely Jerry West and his prize recruit Shaquille O’Neal.
On the surface, the “best of 96” has a wonderful point. But, before we challenge their positions, lets see who the list actually was, for the record. The names and the justification from Ms. Busses standpoint will be mentioned.
Jeanie Buss Top 5 Lakers of All-Time List:
1. Magic Johnson– Showtime personified; he and Ms. Buss are the same age and became Lakers at age 19. Magic became Dr. Jerry Busses surrogate son, and Ms. Buss is of course the most competent businessperson among the Buss children. As the old man became terminally ill, the mandate(by all accounts) was to return the team to its 80s success. Indeed, in 2010, Dr. Buss told both to pursue LeBron James eventually; in 2007, he offered the great Kobe Bryant up for LeBron straight up, and the Cleveland Cavaliers declined. Magic, has been a Laker in one form or another since 79, and most people would not seriously challenge his position here.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar– The all time leading scorer with the most distinguished career in the history of the sport. Though he has sometimes resented his omissions, he too has more or less remained a Laker or supporter since 75; He is the only Laker for the majority of his career to faithfully be considered the GOAT.
3. Kobe Bryant– This is a no- brainer. The All time Laker scorer, he has become the greatest millennial Laker, and his untimely death has increased his already considerable popularity. Despite occasional outbursts, he remained a Laker for 20 years and he has a sphere of influence( in the form of his coach and agent) even in his earthly absence.
4. Phil Jackson- Honestly, despite those five titles, i dispute he is the greatest Laker coach. In addition, his style was detested by virtually the entire Buss family(save of course, Ms. Buss herself); Nevertheless, his connection to both Kobe and Michael Jordan(and his silent hand in the current incarnation of the Lakers) makes his inclusion far from surprising.
5. LeBron James – This is by far the most controversial one. But for Ms. Buss its perfectly justifiable. After all, the old man loved LeBron, and LeBron James’ 2010 “Decision” was in fact an ode to Showtime basketball (which Ms. Jeanie Buss has been mandated to recreate).
b.) Claire Rothman- The former secretary of the Great Western Forum, she worked for years with both Jerry West and Pat Riley. in 2010, she smiled knowingly at Riley’s obsession with LeBron, since it was a mirror of West’s summer of 96 pursuit of Shaq. It was Ms. Rothman, by the way, who memorably stated that West was the player Riley wanted to be, while Riley had been the coach West couldn’t be(which seems about right). In 2010, Riley’s pursuit of LeBron was to match West the GM(which he has come close; Riley and West have been in an NBA Final every single decade since the 70s.)
c.) Magic Johnson– In 2010, Magic worked for ABC and was still a part-owner of the Lakers. He, more than any retired superstar, thoroughly embraced LeBron( and Kareem has also been a passionate defender), and on July 2nd, 2018, he was huddled outside LBJ’s home in the memory of his former coach(Riley) and GM(West), and surrogate dad(Dr. Buss).
But then, support came in an unexpected direction. Consider:
d.) Isiah Thomas and the 2020 Finals- the legendary point guard(and Laker admirer and rival), made a unbelievable statement for one primary reason. He said after game one of the Finals, ” The Lakers right now are playing against themselves, the old Lakers against the new Lakers”. Zeke didn’t explain, but it was unbelievable because of who he said this in front of; That noted philosopher(and Laker exiled center) Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq, normally loquacious, didn’t reply. But the greatest little man ever was basically explaining why Shaq did not (in fact could not) belong on the above list, even though he did what LeBron was trying to do in reverse. The rest of this post is now an ode to a man who should have been included, and whose legacy is even now felt on the Lakers, even though he passed away in 2013. Then we can get to Zeke’s poignant but unstated point. Just WHO is this great man?
Bill Sharman: The Lakers Greatest Celtic
In 1971, William Thomas(Bill Sharman) was at a crossroads in his life. A basketball lifer, he was then 45 and his first wife Dorothy was going through a painful terminal bout with breast cancer. Basketball wise, he joined the Lakers with a illustrious career. Consider:
a.) USC- Sharman had played with the founder of the triangle offense, namely Morice Frances (Tex) Winter. Phil Jackson, another silent Sharman student, would in fact claim that Sharman’s Lakers ran a version of the triangle in the early 70s.
b.) First great backcourt- With Bob Cousy, Sharman would form the first great backcourt. They would win four titles , and Sharman for almost two generations remained the greatest shooter in NBA history.
c.) Champion- Sharman won 2 titles in two different leagues by 1971(including one working for a magnate named George Steinbrenner), but his Laker challenge was the greatest of them all. Consider:
1.) In 1971, Jerry Alan West was a brilliant but miserable superstar. He lost his older brother David in the Korean War, and he would spend nearly 55 years undiagnosed as a severe depression sufferer, Sharman, who was about David’s age, would serve as the big brother West lost. In addition, Sharman would be Laker president through 1988, and Ms. Rothman noticed a immediate deterioration in West and Riley’s relationship after his departure from the day to day affairs.
2.) On June 26th 1970, a disappointing NBA player named Patrick James Riley got married. On this day, he would get one last word of encouragement from his ailing father that would serve as the backdrop for the 1985 NBA Championship season. In Sharman, Riley would find the stable father figure he long yearned for.
3.) Wilt Chamberlain needed someone to guide but include him, and Sharman would deftly do just that while enforcing a level of preparation that allowed the 72 Lakers have the longest streak(33) that is still the standard today.
What was so amazing is that Sharman did all of this with his wife ailing and he himself losing his voice (he eventually lost all of it). It was never as bad as he thought, but it was bad enough that by the 90s he was rarely giving interviews.
As General Manager, Sharman would:
1. Trade for Kareem
2. Draft Magic (West wanted Sidney Moncrief)
3. Make the trade that landed James Worthy (West made the pick).
4. Insist that Riley be sole coach (West would follow, but Sharman thought correctly Riley would make a great coach).
So, Sharman effectively made Celtic pride acceptable to Laker Nation. He touched virtually all aspects of Laker basketball to the present day, and he is the riddle to Isiah’s proclamation to Shaq in the 2020 Finals.
So, in refutation of both Shaq and Jerry West, the real non inclusion is Mr. Sharman.
In addition, Mr. Sharman worked as a Laker until his death at 87 in 2013, a few months after Dr. Busses death and Kobe’s essentially superstar ending injury.
He deserves inclusion more than Shaq or West, both of whom left the franchise on bad terms.
Ms. Jeanie Buss top 5 Lakers list, fully aware of this, decided to mention the influences instead of the ultimate influencer.
Thus, the omissions now make perfect sense.
A passionate CBS Laker fan.
A Laker love story Part II: Ticketgate, Jeannie’s Mind and the feud that has torn apart a franchise
Ms. Buss gave her list of her top 5 Lakers of all time. Of course, a list like this will never do justice as for a franchise of illustrious heroes such as the Lakers. Inevitably, someone will be left out and state their frustration.
To recap, Ms. Jeanie Buss top 5 Lakers picked the following people.
Needless to say, these selections were controversial beyond the first three. And of course, most of the targeted disapproval had been LeBron James.
Equally expected, several past Laker greats were omitted, and two spoke out.
One, arguably the greatest general manager in NBA history, is Jerry West, and he was not shy in voicing his displeasure. This author made the case in part I that an overlooked admission had been the great coach GM Bill Sharman.
Now, we will revisit the case of the LOGO, Jerome Alan West. Recently, it was reported that West had his lifelong season Laker tickets (provided by the great owner Dr. Jerry Buss) revoked and he publicly criticized the decision. A major feud has been why West has been left out. Here’s the deal.
Authors note: Choices in life are sometimes hard to make. That’s why when they are made it can affect the path you take for quite a long time. For over a decade (really 21 years), as a Laker fan, I tried to tell myself that I could balance the “old Lakers” vs. the “new” (millennial Lakers).
After all, A Laker should be a Laker (or any team for that matter) right? Well, now (February 2022), I realize my heart will forever be A Laker fan. But my soul is as a CBS Laker fan.
For the players themselves, this has always been easy. Kobe Bean Bryant is the greatest millennial Laker, a man who literally gave his soul for 20 years to the franchise.
And yet, he will never mean more than Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to me. Nothing at all against Kobe, who deserves the adulation he gets from this generation. It’s just that I am from a different place and time; Johnson and Abdul Jabbar aren’t just great players, they were modes of imitation.
Guys I actually wanted to be like in areas unrelated to basketball. But the management, that’s another matter. It has been much harder for this writer to establish a clear pecking order.
For years, I have been aware of the animus between West and the other controversial person on this list, Phillip Douglas Jackson. I thought it possible to prefer both. But, now, I realize that one or the other must be selected.
And so, in keeping with the CBS generation, Jackson has to be regarded as a divisive outsider, and it is time to rehabilitate the most important Laker from 1960- 2000.
July 16th 1999: The prelude to Jerry West’s “Ticket Gate”
On the above day, a day that players and fans wanted to happen (including this writer), happened.
Phil Jackson, six time champion, strode to the podium as the newest coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. It seemed like a dream partnership. The Lakers already had the best big man (Shaquille O’Neal) and the emerging Kobe Bryant. Both men wanted Jackson as coach, for entirely different reasons. O’Neal had been coached by legend Dale Brown in college, and he wanted the associated coaching greatness in the NBA. He had already been denied the chance with Chuck Daly, and so he clamored for Jackson.He even told management that he would ask for a trade if Jackson were not signed, although he was clearly bluffing.
As for Bryant, the most successful “Like Mike” wanted to play for Mike’s coach, and even took the liberty to contact Tex Winter, triangle architect, for pointers.
The man who brought both to LA, though, was Jerry West. And he was in no way a Jackson fan.
As a matter of fact, when the veteran writer Roland Lazenby asked, West said “f…” Phil Jackson. Thinking he heard wrong, he asked again. This time, West again said “f…” Phil Jackson with more gusto.
As we have seen, West’s top two prized players wanted Jackson. Moreover, Dr. Buss, about to open a state of the art arena (Staples Center), decided that he had to pay any cost to bring Jackson aboard. This was both understandable and a breach of Laker history with regard to coaching hires.
West seethed but drank the poisoned cup of Jackson. He would immediately regret it. The answers go back some 60 years, from the first appearance of West as a Laker. And how the franchise (before and after Jackson) chose its coaches. The first LA Laker coach had in fact been chosen because of West himself. Let’s deal.
The Lakers go (Jerry) West: 1960
In the age before social media, it was really difficult to tell how good a player could be coming out of college.
Jerry West had been a 6-2 forward with exceedingly long arms coming out of college. He couldn’t play forward in the pros, so that meant a switch to guard. Since the Lakers were also playing their first year in Los Angeles, they also wanted to establish a distinctly LA identity. That meant their Minneapolis coaches (like John Kundla) neither had the desire nor was desired to coach the newly christened LA Lakers. Thus, the franchise took a flyer on West college coach Fred Schaus.
It was thought Schaus would know exactly how to play West, to say nothing of the respectful relationship they already had. Schaus, though, wouldn’t play along. Deciding West wasn’t NBA ready, it would not be until the second half of the season before West would start a game. West seethed, and it would be 40 years before he vented his frustrations.
But once he became a starter, the rest was history. West became the finest all around player in the game, and the Lakers were elite. The problem? They were unable to beat the Boston Celtics.
New owner Jack Kent Cooke bought the team in 1965, and by 1967 he saw enough of Schaus. He relieved him of his coaching duties, and made him the general manager. By chance, Cooke picked up an issue of Sports Illustrated, and noticed “Dollar Bill Bradley” and his college coach. Schaus, in fact, knew the coach pretty well. His name was Bill Van Breda Koff, known as “Butch”.
Cooke would then make a decision, shades of 1999. The Lakers were about to move into a new arena, and Cooke thought he needed a “splashy” coaching hire. West the player didnt think that was necessary, but Butch was hired and the Lakers returned to the NBA finals in 1968. But West took notes about what type of coach to hire.
1981: A new coaching hire
By now, West had retired and tried his hand at coaching. He would replace his mentor Bill Sharman, and while he wasn’t great, he was better than he gave himself credit for.
Part of the issue is that he as coach was more popular than any of his players (save Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and most of them (especially Norm Nixon) could not handle that.
West, also, was a better player than any of them (save Abdul Jabbar) and he thus had little patience for their mistakes. But this experience taught him two things.
1) the coach cannot be bigger than the players in stature and
2) The coach had to have patience to relate to the unique talents of his team
In 1981, with the franchise parting ways with Paul Westhead, these two qualities West looked for in a coach. He knew he didn’t have it, so he selected (along with Sharman) his old buddy Pat Riley.
The choice couldn’t have been better; The Lakers were already championship quality, and Riley was both competent and humble (this would soon change).
The Lakers would become the class of the NBA, with the best organization around. Riley would eventually become a bigger star than his players (save Magic Johnson), and then West soured on him (without Sharman around to run interference).
Riley wouldn’t be fired, he just wasn’t wanted back. You know. An era would end.
1990-99: Retiring Showtime, Nellie and then the British Empire invades Lakerland
Without Riley, the team he coached would make one more run at a title in 1991. West now apparently decided then Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson ran the greatest coaching incubator system in the NBA.
He would first hire Nellie protégé Mike Dunleavy to the top spot in 1990, and in 1994 go after Del Harris.
Harris would inherit a 33 win team and improve it each year as West grabbed O’Neal and Bryant. But his two prizes disliked Harris. O’Neal felt that Harris was apart of the “coddle Bryant” crowd, and Bryant disliked him for exiling his father to Europe.
So, with the two popular players tuning him out, West did not extend Harris’s contract in 1998, even though he thought he was a good coach.
Then, with the lockout in 1999, the Bryant-O’Neal feud was at full strength, and a 6-6 start was the result. West would reluctantly fire Harris, and bought in Showtime Laker Kurt Rambis.
A ten game winning streak would bring hope, but the Lakers fell back to earth and were swept out of the 1999 playoffs. That brought the inevitable Jackson calls, but West even then wanted to bring Rambis back.
But Dr. Buss made his choice. Jackson was hired, but no one knew then why West despised him so much. Now let’s dig in.
The animosity that lead to Jeanie Buss Top 5 Lakers
As we have seen, West doesn’t believe much in high profile coaches. But his animosity toward Jackson goes back in fact to his own coaching days.
When he coached the Lakers, one of the team scouts was Jerry Krause. Krause annoyed a lot of NBA people, but he got along really well with West. When he was displeased with Riley, he would share it with Krause.
Consequently, Krause, when he fell out with Jackson, confided in West how divisive he was as a coach. West believes an NBA franchise should be a happy family, but Jackson believed in what he called “creative tension”. This is the idea that a team plays best with a chip on their shoulder, when it is a “us against the world” mentality.
In reality, it is a sport version of the old British empire “divide and conquer” strategy. As soon as he became coach, Jackson proved West right.
Favoring O’Neal, he would motivate Bryant by stating preposterous rumors about him, and he distinctly ignored the kids’ overtures to get along with him. Finally, he would divide the team from West.
West, now feeling unwanted “retired”. In 2000, he handed the reins to his student Mitch Kupchak, and the Lakers officially became a House Divided.
It was ignored because the team West built was unstoppable on the court, if only they could stay out of each other’s way. It would prove difficult. In the meantime, West allies in the organization came to hate Jackson; Even Dr. Buss despised him despite the winning.
Once the Shaq- Kobe Lakers exhausted their hand, O’Neal would be traded (to the Miami Heat led by Riley) and Jackson was forced out.
The Aftermath: 2005-2021 Jackson’s return to ticketgate
Now that the meal ticket was Bryant, Jackson would return to a divided organization.
Now, there were many voices and factions. Some wanted the Showtime era, while others preferred the mode Jackson and his new partner Bryant was building.
Two more titles would follow, but even then West’s hidden hand was present. For Jackson/Bryant to win again, a big man was needed. West, who ran the Memphis Grizzlies, had an assistant named Chris Wallace who would literally sell (this was the crash of 2008) his prized Pau Gasol.
Gasol would be the perfect Jackson player, and the best teammate for Bryant.
The run would last for 3 years, and again Jackson left. This time, though, no one wanted him back, least of all a terminally ill Dr. Buss.
Bryant’s body would break down, and with Jackson gone, the Lakers would descend into the worst 8 year dry spell in franchise history.
Some of it would be alleviated when LeBron James joined in 2018, but his arrival brought yet another faction to the NBA glamour team.
By now, with Kupchak in Charlotte, West had no allies left in the organization, who would even part ways with his son Ryan, a very solid scout.
The proxy war: West/ Johnson vs Bryant/ Jackson
Magic Johnson, the man who wanted Kupchak as a player on his team, would replace him as team president. His GM would be former Kobe Bryant agent Rob Pelinka, and now you see the division.
As a partnership, this represented two different (and competing Laker eras). Jeanie Buss, not wanting to offend anyone, loved Magic and his era but understood the Bryant era was more popular.
In short, it was a standstill. For instance, for over a year Johnson tried to fire coach (and Jackson protégé and Kobe teammate) Luke Walton. Magic was looking for his “Riley”, while Pelinka and the rest of the crew was looking for “Phil”.
Thus, the mental moves of the great organization were frozen, and Johnson eventually threw his hands up. Trying to trade for Anthony Davis, the Lakers sent around 25 staff members, and did not speak as one voice.