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Jerry Buss passed away on Feb. 18, 2013, leaving behind a glorious legacy as the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. During his time as owner, Buss entwined the team, Laker brand and game of basketball into the glitzy culture that was the city of Los Angeles.
Prior to Buss’ passing, the team was decimated with injuries to its roster, which led to a dismal mid-season record. The Lakers were blown out in their last game prior Buss’ death, a 125-101 throttling at the Staples Center at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers. For much of Buss’ tenure as owner, the Lakers dominated their cross-town rivals; an outcome of this magnitude was so unusual and shocking that even the greatest Lakers fans had become unnerved by the team’s chances of succeeding.
With the news making the rounds that Buss had passed away, the city of Los Angeles began to mourn its sports patriarch. If Kobe Bryant and the Lakers used the annual NBA All-Star break to rethink things initially, then now they had to make sure they regained their composure in time for a looming matchup with their arch nemesis, the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers provided a touching tribute to Buss prior to the game, and the team matched that tribute with one of their own on the court. Bryant gave a moving speech to honor the great Dr. Buss, as he recalled special moments from their relationship. The tribute concluded with a shining light being placed on Buss’ chair within his owner’s suite. Buss was gone, but his absence brought with it the spark to motivate the Lakers’ play. The anger behind the Lakers’ play was spearheaded by Bryant, which started with an impressive victory over the Celtics that night.
The following day, the city of Los Angeles paid its respects to Buss’ legacy, as a memorial was held in his honor. The ceremony featured a mesmerizing list of stars, from Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, two of the greatest coaches in franchise history, to historical greats such as Jerry West, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson, as well as including recents like Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol and Bryant.
Bryant would dedicate the remainder of the season to Buss, refusing to fail his former boss, who also was his friend and most of all, his mentor. Instead of letting sadness and the loss of his friend dictate his mindset, Bryant would respond the one way he knew how — turning grief into motivation.
Using the death as a springboard to not let Dr. Buss down, Bryant would directly shoulder the team’s outcome over the rest of the season. If he had to play every minute of every game, score on every possession of the fourth quarter, play through severe ankle sprains or guard the the opposing team’s best player, Bryant was going to do so without regard for what anyone else thought.
Coach Mike D’Antoni would be pressed to sit his star for stretches to keep him respectively durable, but Bryant was not going to listen, or let anyone get in the way of him making good on his promise to honor Dr. Buss’ legacy. Bryant’s wrath guided the Lakers out of the darkness, helping the team tremendously in the short-term, but the long-term ramifications would not be revealed until it was too late.
The anger would dissipate and the grief would return — this time for an entirely different reason.