LOS ANGELES — The stage was filled with flowers and gold. The audience was filled with short skirts and diamonds.
Davis Gaines elegantly sang “Music of the Night,” while, on the screen behind him, there appeared a photo of Jerry and Jimmy Buss crooning karaoke.
Several members of the USC marching band played “Amazing Grace,” but they did so while wearing their sunglasses.
The first song was from “Toy Story,” the last song was from Sinatra, and in between, the stage flashed photos of Jerry Buss hanging out with his grandchildren, his buddy Hugh Hefner, and his poker chips.
Phil Jackson threw a barb at Jerry West. Kobe Bryant popped a jab at Phil Jackson. Shaquille O’Neal took a shot at himself.
And, of course, the wonderfully quirky memorial service Thursday for the wonderfully quirky Lakers owner would not have been complete without someone who was nearly a memorial crasher.
His name was Greg Tomlinson, he is a friend of Jim Buss, and he was an extremely late addition to the program, thus surprising many of the estimated 3,500 mourners at the private Nokia Theatre event by jumping up on the stage before guys like David Stern, Bryant and Magic Johnson.
Tomlinson acknowledged he had met Jerry Buss only a handful of times, and admitted he didn’t even know the origin of the “Doctor” designation, but he said he had spoken to his buddy Jim on Wednesday night and been authorized to speak, “as a voice of the extended family of Laker fans.”
“I’m not a season-ticket holder, I’m not the guy sitting courtside, but if any of you guys have some [tickets], I’m here for you,” he said.
Nobody in the stunned audience laughed. But Jerry Buss probably would have howled.
As memorials go, this was pure Showtime, an entertaining reflection of Buss’ 80 years in all their integrity, generosity, competitiveness and craziness.
In one moment, NBA Commissioner Stern was properly describing Buss as “nothing less than a transformational force in the history of sports.”
In the next moment, Johnny Buss, looking and sounding strikingly like his father, right down to the untucked shirt and sport jacket, was calling for Lakers fans to remember him forever in blue jeans.
“As most of you know, my dad most always wore jeans, and if you notice, he liked to cut off the bottom of those jeans,” Johnny said.
“It might not be the best fashion statement, but I propose that as a tribute to Jerry Buss, that each January 27, his birthday, to cut off the bottom of a pair of jeans and wear them in his honor.”
There was much talk of Buss’ work ethic and his long hours at the office, until West stood up and clarified.
“Everyone was saying he had to be the first one to work in the morning,” said West. “He never went to bed, so how in the hell could he not be the first one there in the morning?”
Many waxed about the beauty of Buss’ loyalty, then O’Neal stood up and laughingly explained what happened when you challenged it.
“I wanted a first extension and he gave it to me. I wanted a second extension and he gave it to me. I wanted a third extension and he traded me,” said Shaq.
Jackson, in his first public appearance in a Lakers environment since he left the team two years ago, chided West for the length of his speech, then fought back tears when talking about how Buss persuaded Bryant to drop his trade demands in 2007.
“Dr. Buss said, ‘Kobe, if I had a diamond of great value, four karats, would I give up that diamond for four diamonds of one karat? No.'” recalled Jackson, adding, “[Buss] was a diamond of great value.”
Bryant then took the stage and talked about how he balked when Buss asked him to endorse Jackson’s return to the Lakers’ bench in 2005.
“[Buss] just looked at me and said, ‘Trust me,’ and I did,” Bryant said. “And that has taken us to a whole other level.”
Bryant ended his talk by challenging his current teammates who were seated in the audience.
“For our current Lakers, I encourage all of you to look around the room, look at the greatness of one man’s vision, look at the players that are here, coaches that are here; we have one thing in common, we all believe in Dr. Jerry Buss,” Bryant said. “We are playing for something bigger than ourselves, bigger than a single season, playing for the memory of a great man, Dr. Jerry Buss.”
But the biggest long-term challenge remains in a front office divided.
Although neither Jeanie nor Jim Buss spoke at the service, there was one hint of the rumored plan that Jerry Buss had put into place to help the franchise avoid a potential power struggle.
“No one can fill his shoes,” Johnny Buss said. ”We can only do our best to continue with our father’s request, guided by an intricate road map that he laid out for us for the next generation.”
After the 90-minute service ended, fans signing the giant sympathy card outside the theater were surrounded by mourners in one giant gathering of laughter and tears for the glitzy, grounded, glorious memory of Jerry Buss.
“He loved Los Angeles,” said Johnny Buss in a description that would fit nicely in marble somewhere. “And as we can see, Los Angeles loved him too.”
–Los Angeles Times