Kobe Bryant simmered, but Jerry Buss stayed patient.
The short-term struggles the Lakers experienced during the post-Shaq era disturbed Bryant so much that he demanded a trade. But Buss refused.
The frustration on the organization’s direction bothered Bryant so much that he even once called Buss an “idiot.” But the late Lakers owner took no offense.
As he reflected on Buss’ passing Monday from an unspecified form of cancer that affected his kidneys, Bryant’s appreciation for the late Lakers owner went beyond him bringing the Lakers 10 of their 16 championships since purchasing the team in 1979.
Buss also played a large part in convincing Bryant to rethink the trade demands he made in 2007 and ultimately stay with the Lakers.
“I had to make a choice and decision in believing in him,” Bryant recalled. “That wasn’t hard to do once I took a step back and looked at everything that he’s accomplished and had a chance to sit down with him. He talked to me about what his vision was and the vision for rebuilding this team quickly. It was easy for me. I was a Laker fan growing up. I saw how many championships he was able to win and how many times he was able to rebuild. That was a pretty easy call for me.”
Still, there was a reason why Bryant wondered about the franchise’s direction.
After the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, the Lakers missed the playoffs the following season for only the second time in the organization’s history. The Lakers then experienced two consecutive first-round exits to the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, Bryant became a one-man show while playing with the likes of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
Bryant initially believed the Lakers seemed more interested in cutting salary and milking Bryant’s entertaining skillset than actually competing for championships. But Bryant’s conversation with Buss showed him otherwise.
“He went into a little bit of the salary cap, players, free agents and all this other stuff,” Bryant said. “His memory was pretty remarkable with what he was able to remember and the space he had available, who was available and how he would put it all together. When somebody has that kind of detail, it’s pretty easy to roll with.”
That next season, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the rights to Pau’s brother Marc, who the Lakers drafted with a second-round pick in 2007. That move resulted in the Lakers appearing in three consecutive NBA Finals and winning two NBA championships.
Clearly, Buss’ patience paid off.
“There was timing to be appropriately concerned about Kobe’s wishes and listen to what they were, entertain them and then negotiate from the position where Dr. Buss could negotiate from,” former Lakers coach Phil Jackson recalled during 2010 training camp. “That was that ‘There was nothing that we could possibly have in a trade situation could possibly replicate what you bring to this team.’ I think he used the term, ‘You’re like a ten-karat diamond and people are offering us opuls, not rubies and emeralds, but opuls, ivory and garnetts.”
Jackson then let out his whimsical smile.
“And not Kevin Garnett.”
There was also a message Buss said he delivered to Bryant when the two met at the team owner’s residence. Consider the conversation Buss recalled during a “Lunch with a Legend” appearance in 2010 with 710 ESPN at Morton’s Steakhouse.
“I remember him saying, ‘Don’t blame me. All I’m out here for is to win,’” Buss said about Bryant. “I looked at him and our eyes met and I said, “’You’re not the only one Kobe. You know I want to win, maybe even more than you do.’ From that time on, Kobe and I have been on I think on the same wavelength. I think it’s true. I think that everybody knows on that team that I want to win just like the Black Mamba.”
Buss has proven that.
The Lakers appeared in 16 NBA Finals under his watch. After the Lakers lost seven consecutive times to the Celtics in the NBA championship series, the Lakers went 3-2 against Boston under Buss. He willingly spent money despite going over the luxury tax. This year’s team boasts a $100 million payroll and an additional $30 million in luxury taxes partly because of the Lakers’ lucrative 20-year deal with Time Warner Cable.
That’s why it eats at Bryant the Lakers are currently in 10th place in the Western Conference and hoping just to squeak into the playoffs. Bryant also conceded he hoped to win a title this year in hopes that Buss could’ve lived long enough to see it.
“It was part of the reason why I drive so hard,” Bryant said. “We talked about getting another championships and trying to put the Celtics in the rearview mirror. That’s something that was driving him and something that continues to drive me.”
The Lakers plan to honor Buss before tonight’s game against the Celtics at Staples Center with an unspecified pre-game tribute. The Lakers will also host Buss’ memorial Thursday afternoon at Nokia Theatre, an event that’s closed to the public but will be televised on Time Warner Cable SportsNet. The Lakers also will wear commemorative “JB” patches on their jerseys in honor of the team’s late owner.
“A lot of the guys here never had a chance to meet him or really know him,” Bryant said of Buss. “Some of them are too young to understand the impact and significance he’s had. Hopefully now this is a chance to give somewhat of a history lesson and get them to understand what this franchise really is and what this thing means and where it comes from. Hopefully we can carry that out.”
Bryant said he’s “very confident” the Lakers can maintain the same success headed by Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and Lakers vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss.
“It’s like following the greatest owner in sports,” Bryant said. “To match that or equal that is an impossible task. But I think, in their own way, they’ll have success.”
Bryant clearly saw how the elder Buss ensured that path for the Lakers.
“To be patient and not rush decisions. When you believe in something, you act despite what public opinion may be,” Bryant said. “Public pressure can sometimes persuade people into making choices that are not necessarily the best in the long run. He never did that. He always stuck to his guns and made decisions he thought were the best for the organization.
“You have to have strong conviction in what you believe in and know what you want. You have to have the vision. Then you have to go after it. He never made decisions based off of fear of criticism or anything like that. He made sound decisions based on what he felt was right for the team.”
One of those decisions included Buss’ encouragement for the Lakers to trade Vlade Divac in 1996 for the Charlotte Hornets’ 13th pick to secure Bryant as a 17-year–old rookie. Another decision included Buss’ adamant refusal to trade Bryant. That patience eventually convinced Bryant to stay.
“He obviously believed in me from day one being a 17 year old kid to where I am now. His competitive spirit and vision is what this organization should be,” Bryant said. “He obviously had a profound impact on my career to say the least.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org