By T.J. Simers
I watched some of “Winning Time,” the Lakers’ opus on HBO earlier this year, and if you’re into sports fiction it was entertaining. Never fully appreciated until now what a great actor John C. Reilly is.
But I saw no resemblance to the Jerry Buss or Jerry West that I knew, in real life, and if I were Jerry West, I’d be asking for the numbers of some of the lawyers I know.
I sat across from Buss a couple of times while playing poker, and I know you might find this unbelievable; I think I got on his nerves. He was very polite each time he knocked me out of the game.
I liked the guy. But I could not imagine going through life without a father.
Most of the Lakers’ fans probably know the Lakers story better than they know their own family’s background, so there weren’t many surprises other than the buffoon portrait they painted of Pat Riley.
Now we’ve got “Legacy: The true story of the LA Lakers” on Hulu . We are to believe it’s true because Buss’ adoring children say so.
I watched the first two episodes of Legacy, a tribute to the Buss children’s father and the charisma of Magic Johnson. But between the lines it is more of an homage to a mother who had to raise four children alone because her husband was trying to date every girl under the age of 23 in the greater Los Angeles area.
We learn from Jeanie in Legacy that Buss kept a book of glossy photos to “memorialize his dates,” while his children wondered where he might be.
“I remember asking a lot where’s dad?” said his daughter, Janie. “Where’s our dad?”
Son Jim said, “He didn’t go to the sporting events,” oldest son John adding “Not once, not once for the baseball, not once for the basketball, not once for Boy Scouts.”
And not for “my high school graduation,” said Janie, “and you know, my fourth-grade recital.”
A beaming Jeanie laughed his absences off and thought of him as Superman because he would just drop in every once in a while when something was happening.
Jeanie said her mom wanted her dad to be home all the time and could not play the role of trophy wife. But her mom told the kids, “Always love your father.”
It sounds like a devil’s swap: I’ll take your father for your childhood years in exchange for the grandest toy of them all—the Lakers.
Buss had two other children by a girlfriend— all six of his kids working for the Lakers according to published reports when he died. How could they complain.
A number of years ago I interviewed Jennifer Allen, daughter of the great football coach George Allen. She had just written a book, “Fifth Quarter: The scrimmage of a football coach’s daughter,” about what it was like to have George as her father.
She wrote about the attention she didn’t get from her father, and then at the book signing in L.A., a number of former Redskins came to talk about George, each saying George knew them better than his own kids. Thanks for the memories.
It raises one of those philosophical questions: If you want to be successful but it will force you to miss out on the lives of your children, is it worth it?
Claire Rothman, former GM of the Forum, said Buss chucked aside his own family to become a millionaire but then worked hard to be a father to his children once they could go to work for him.
I understand we live in the age of divorce, but it’s unclear in Legacy when that happened. Some of the kids had no idea it was coming, the Internet saying it happened in 1972, but the kids talking like it didn’t happen until 1979 or 1980.
Is there any reason, though, why it should keep a father away from his daughter’s high school graduation?
“He started to think about a legacy, what he could do for his children that he hadn’t done in the past because he hadn’t spent a lot of time with them in their growing up years,” said Rothman.
She said he made the Forum a “family business,” often referring to the Lakers as a family, the Legacy true story taking a promotional turn when Jeanie said, “He wanted the Lakers to be great for the city of Los Angeles that took him in and gave him the family that he had wanted so much.”
From what is shown on Legacy, he had a family, wearing his pajamas to the Playboy Mansion and hugging all the Playmates like they were his own daughters. Magic found a certain appeal in that, Buss wearing blue jeans when others were wearing suits
Legacy makes it appear as if Buss was closer to Magic than any of his sons, Magic calling him a second father. But John Buss disagrees, saying it wasn’t like he was a son because John is Jerry Buss’ son, and he knew what that was like.
Beyond the family dynamics, and there is a mention of a power struggle internally, the rest of Legacy is pretty much like a well-done ESPN retrospective with slam dunks. Maybe it will become more inciteful in upcoming episodes.
It towers over Winning Time, though, and it features my former Times’ colleague, Steve Springer. I had no idea Springer was writing about the Lakers for the Orange County Register back in the day. He’s still looking good for an old man, and it’s a great reminder how valuable witnesses to sports history can be.
But I leave the first two episodes of Legacy a little saddened by what it took to make the Lakers so beloved.
Would I trade all those championships and dunks, golden trophies and big paydays for missing out on my child’s basketball games? Legacy makes that a question to ponder, the answer coming easy here: No.
Who wouldn’t want an absentee father if it meant getting a job to be around the Lakers.
Mom and dad divorced around the time the Lakers were winning their first championship under Buss