INGLEWOOD, CALIF. — INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss prefers to stay in the background and let his team do his talking, which in the past meant chatting about championships and dynasties. But this season has been decidedly different, to say the least.
It was an emotional Buss who sat at the podium last Nov. 7 when Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the Lakers because he was infected with the AIDS virus. He watched starters Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins go down with injuries; witnessed his team make the playoffs on the last day of the season; saw them have to move a "home" playoff game to Las Vegas because of the rioting in Los Angeles; and on Tuesday he saw his head coach, Mike Dunleavy, leave his employ to take a job with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Speaking at length to the media for the first time since before the season, Buss talked with the Daily News on Thursday about the season, his reaction to Johnson's announcement and on the future of the Lakers.
Question: What has this year been like for you?
Answer: (chuckling) A nightmare.
Q: Have you ever been associated with anything approaching the events of this season?
A: I don't know that we've ever had this much bad luck in one shot, but at the same time there's been a lot of really bright spots. The way the team performed under this kind of extreme adversity was really inspirational.
Q: There has been a lot of speculation regarding your future, whether this season has taken the fun out of ownership, whether you have entertained thoughts of selling the team. As if to underscore the situation, GM Jerry West looked shaken on Tuesday at the press conference to announce the departure of coach Mike Dunleavy. What are your thoughts?
A: No, I'm not discouraged at all. I was a little surprised Jerry had that reaction. Jerry and I had always talked about how we were going to put the team together again after the Magic days. I mean, it wasn't any secret that sooner or later -- certainly about this time -- that we were going to have to start over. So this doesn't come as any huge surprise, it just comes a year of two earlier than we had thought.
Q: How do you see the future? How do you rebuild after Magic Johnson's departure?
A: It's going to be very difficult because the only time you can get real superstars is, generally, by getting into the lottery. Quite honestly, we don't think that that's going to happen to us. So we're just going to have to be very, very clever in the way we draft, and as far as putting something together we're relying a great deal on the draft this year. We think that if we can make the right draft [pick] that it would put this team pretty well together, as long as we don't have any injuries.
A lot depends on how Vlade [Divac] comes back [after back surgery last November], of course. If Vlade comes back and has a very strong year, then with Sam Perkins, A.C. Green, Elden Campbell and James Worthy we have maybe one of the best front lines there is. Our backcourt, with Sedale Threatt, Byron Scott and Terry Teagle looks very good. We could use some help back there, there's no doubt about that.
But we're not discouraged at all. We think we're going to have a pretty good team next year.
Q: Jerry West broached the subject of getting a so-called marquee name. Do you think that's a realistic possibility?
A: I definitely agree with Jerry, I do think we need a marquee name. I think they are very difficult to get, but nevertheless my guess is that we will in fact end up with one. Exactly what scenario is going to lead us to that, I can't tell you. But I think we will end up with one.
Q: Why is it important that the Lakers have a marquee name?
A: If for no other reasons, just historical. Starting with the beginning of the franchise [in Los Angeles] with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and finishing off with Magic, over a period of 30 years we've had a marquee name. I don't think the Lakers ever played without a marquee name, so I think it is essential for us, and I think we will get one.
Q: Magic Johnson has said he will re-evaluate his health situation after the Olympic Games and has not ruled out playing for the Lakers next season. What do you think of that?
A: Well, I think it would be lovely, providing he is healthy enough to do this without injuring himself in any way. Certainly we would love him to play again because that would give us the marquee name, and quite honestly, with him I think we'd have a real shot at the championship.
Q: You have not talked publicly about your feelings regarding Johnson's announcement that he was infected with the AIDS virus. On Nov. 7 you were on the podium along with Johnson but did not field questions from the media. Could you discuss your feelings, to whatever extent you wish to share them publicly?
A: It was such a shock. I felt that his courage was so evident that day. I just felt that I would break down, and I really didn't want to do that when he was displaying so much courage.
When you have children, and I have always looked at Magic as one of my children, it's a parent's worst nightmare for something medically to go wrong with one of your children. And when it happened, it was like that nightmare coming true. So I really wasn't in very good shape.
Q: Did his demeanor in your face-to-face talks help?
A: It really did. As a matter of fact, every time I talked to Magic, I keep having this feeling that I'm supposed to be cheering him up and giving him inspiration and courage, but it always ends up the other way. He's always taking care of me. It's just amazing, I mean that.
Q: The season began with Johnson's announcement, continued with the injuries, then the riots and now head coach Mike Dunleavy stepped down. Are there any answers you have, any philosophical approach to what's happened?
A: No. We've had our good years, and so I guess I always felt that sooner or later we would have some bad years. Maybe since we had so many good years I was prepared for the bad years better than other people might have been. I don't know, it's always come as a challenge for me, and I think it's the same for Jerry West. It's been so easy to be a great owner, it's been so easy to be a fantastic GM. Now the question is, can we perform the same way under adverse conditions?
My feeling is that we can, and I, for one, at least want that opportunity to try.
Q: Some of West's comments the other day seemed to suggest uncertainty in his mind. Do you think he is going to stay with the Lakers?
A: There's no question he's going to stay, and there's no question that he is not thinking of leaving, whatsoever.
I haven't read his quotes, but Jerry has assured me time and time and time and time and time and time that as long as I would like him to be GM, that is in fact what he would like to do. And so since I want him to stay, he has given me his faithful promise that he will be here. And Jerry is probably one of the most honest human beings I have ever met, so why should I doubt him?
Q: What is the status with your plans, along with Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, to build an arena in San Diego and bring possibly an NHL and/or NBA team to the area?
A: We're forming an agreement, and I'm working that out with Ron Hahn and Sam Marasco, and as soon as that gets done I will sign it, and I will turn it over to Bruce to see if he would like to sign it. And my reaction is, he probably will. So I guess the answer is it is going a lot slower than I had wanted it to go. Yet at the same time, it is moving forward.