February 19, 2013
The beloved mentor and his favorite student spent their final hours together holding hands on a hospital bed.
Jerry Buss was entering the final stage of his life after a long battle with cancer, and he wanted to spend some of it with Magic Johnson.
Buss summoned Johnson to his room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center last fall and, together, for five hours, they clutched each other and told stories and cried.
At one point, Buss summoned two nurses to the room. Johnson was worried something was wrong until Buss ordered the three to pose for a picture.
"He said, 'These two lovely ladies have taken care of me, I don't want to forget them,'" recalled Johnson, "I was like, 'Wow, Doc, you've still got it!'"
Johnson's voice thickened when telling that story Monday, just hours after Buss had died at age 80.
"I'm crying right now," said Johnson. "Without Dr. Jerry Buss, there is no Magic."
There may never be a more influential or enduring owner-player duo in sports history. Buss and Magic arrived at the Lakers at about the same time in 1979, and over the next 34 years forged a bond that set records, made millions, and forged memories that will decorate a giant city forever.
Together, they created Showtime and won five NBA championships with Johnson on the court. Together, they weathered the storm of Magic's landmark HIV announcement that led to his retirement. Together, they won five more championships with Johnson as a minority investor and team executive.
Buss gave Johnson the encouragement to become a Hall of Fame player and businessman. Johnson gave Buss the inspiration to become a Hall of Fame owner and visionary.
"Dr. Buss gave me the platform to be Magic," Johnson said. "He gave me the knowledge to be Magic."
Buss partied with Johnson when the team was winning, mourned with Johnson when the star was shunned, and showed enduring gratitude by giving Johnson perhaps the greatest going-away gift in sports history.
When Johnson attempted to come back in the fall of 1992, one year after his initial HIV retirement, Buss gave him a one-year deal worth about $14 million. He said he wanted to reimburse his former star for all the years he wasn't the NBA's highest-paid player.
Johnson played in only a handful of exhibition games that fall before pressure from fearful players led him to suddenly quit again. The contract became void upon the retirement. Yet Buss insisted on paying Johnson the entire amount anyway.
"He had such a big heart," Johnson said. "I have lost my second father. I have lost one of my best friends."
During that final visit, Johnson said he and Buss relived their path together, beginning when Buss purchased the Lakers the same year the team made Johnson the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
"We went to Palm Springs for the first training camp and we didn't know what to expect; we had something special, but we just didn't know how it could work out," Johnson said. "People thought we couldn't run and win a championship, but Dr. Buss believed in it, he believed in me."
After Johnson led the Lakers to a title in Buss' first season — two rookies stealing the show — the success began to flow, swirling the team and its town together in a roaring current that still exists today.
Many folks credit Johnson with devising the sort of basketball excitement that changed the game forever. Johnson said it was all Buss.
"The league was boring until Dr. Buss bought the Lakers and created the atmosphere that changed basketball forever," Johnson said. "Before Dr. Buss, you just showed up and watched a game and went home. But he created a scene where you didn't want to miss anything, the cheerleaders and the music and the show. He was a genius, way ahead of his time; the league owes him a lot."
During the good times, Johnson said he and his boss would hang out everywhere from dance clubs to football games, an unusual pairing of this giant slick-dressing athlete and an aging bushy-haired hipster.
"We would go to his house on Saturday morning, have breakfast and play pool, and then get on his bus to go stand on the sidelines of USC football games," Johnson recalled. "Then at night we would go to clubs and, man, he could really dance."
Then, as Johnson grew older, Buss gave him something even more important than basketball. He gave him the skills for life after basketball.
"He said, 'Earvin, let me teach you the business,'" Johnson recalled. "He brought me in, showed me the books, taught me how it all works, introduced me to people I would never have met, made me understand what it means to be in L.A."
After Johnson's retirement, Buss made the rare move of allowing someone to buy into his shares of the team, selling Magic about 4% for $10 million.
"When I played, he told me to save my money and he would make me a partner," Johnson said. "Everything Dr. Buss said he would do, he did."
The night when Johnson's Guggenheim group won the bidding for the Dodgers last year, one of his first calls was from Buss.
"He said, 'I don't mind losing you as a partner, because you just made a Magic move,'" Johnson recalled. "I started crying."
In recent years, Johnson returned Buss' inspiration by encouraging him to stop worrying so much about the team and start celebrating his success. Remember in 2007 when Buss was controversially vacationing in Italy while Kobe Bryant was melting down back home? It was Johnson who urged him to make that trip.
"I told him he needed to finally enjoy himself, and he finally did," said Johnson. "Before he went into the hospital, he said, 'Don't feel sorry for me, I've had a good run. . . . Who would have thought this guy from a little town in Wyoming could win an NBA championship?'"
Johnson is fearful of what happens to the Lakers next. There is talk of acrimony between the two Buss children who currently share the control of the team, business boss Jeanie Buss and basketball boss Jim Buss.
If the Buss family goes against its stated desire to keep the team, there is a possibility that the Guggenheim group could eventually buy the Lakers and install Johnson as team president. But Johnson said he sincerely hopes the team stays in the Buss family, and he has already cast his vote for the next chief executive.
"I hope Jeanie Buss takes over the team," Johnson said. "She was Dr. Buss' right-hand person. The two people always running with Dr. Buss were Jeanie and myself. She knows this team better than anyone. She should have all the power, she should take over the empire."
Johnson said he knows the love and respect upon which his mentor built this empire, and he hopes the children can agree that it is worth saving.
"I know what the man wanted, and I'm hoping the kids can make that happen," he said.
For now, Johnson is focused not on the uncertain future, but on his winding past, and the teacher who accompanied him on every crazy step.
"We created this incredible magic that lasted for all these years. . . . My heart is broken," Johnson said softly, haltingly, the magic momentarily gone.
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