Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers (
Director: Antoine Fuqua )
Starring: Dr. Jerry Buss, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jeanie Buss, Jim Buss
In the Vin Scully obit I wrote a few weeks ago, I mentioned that you were lucky if you grew up in LA while Vin was calling Dodgers games. To add to that, you were extra lucky if you grew up in LA during the Showtime-era Lakers run; a 22-year span that lasted roughly from 1979 to 1991. And when the Dodgers and Lakers winning streaks overlapped, the city was alive and exciting – LA had something to unite about. For the most part, it was a spectacular time to live in Los Angeles. Now, not so much, but that’s another article for another time.
That said, the Showtme Lakers are what make the first five or so episodes of Legacy worth watching. The 10-part docuseries opens with the self-made Dr. Jerry Buss buying the Los Angeles Kings, the Lakers, the Forum, and a 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a mere $67.5 million. A few months later, Buss backed into drafting Magic Johnson on a coin-flip decision and the Lakers went from an average team (being dutifully carried by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s best athlete at the time and still in the all-time top three) to serious contenders.
The pairing of Jabbar and Johnson was the flashpoint of what Dr. Buss would refer to as ‘Showtime.’ Buss used the word in interviews and marketing campaigns to describe his new team’s style of play. Showtime was all wraparound no-look passes and alley-oops punctuated by high-arching sky hooks and tomahawk dunks back then.
Suddenly, the ‘79-’80 Lakers looked different from every other team in the NBA. The league had never seen anything like a four-touch Lakers fastbreak. The Sixers may have had Julius Erving who was showing early signs of a faster game, but he alone couldn’t compete with the one-two knockout punch of Kareem and Magic, which they proved that season by beating Philadelphia for the title.
But Showtime was just one of Dr. Buss’ successful marketing ideas, and Legacy shines when it focuses on how good he was at selling out every home game. Holding free courtside seats for celebrities to use as chum for Hollywood appeal, the Laker Girls, creating a Lakers cable channel, building a nightclub in the arena, selling the corporate naming rights of the Forum – these were all hustles that Dr. Buss figured out on his own. It would take the rest of the league years to adapt to the playbook he created on the fly.
When Dr. Buss was in the trenches during that first decade of ownership, every decision he made within the Lakers organization seemed to go off without a hitch. And when something did go wrong, the team would win a string of games in some unbelievable fashion and the ship seemed to self correct.
But by episode six, the Showtime era is over, and Legacy ushers in what they called The Lake Show. This was around the time that Dr. Buss eased up on handling the day-to-day affairs of the Lakers and the Forum. Instead, he began doling out more responsibilities to his children: Jim, Jeanie, and Johnny.
And that’s Legacy’s core from the very beginning: When Dr. Buss bought the struggling Lakers, his intent was to build the organization into something successful that could then be handed off to his children. Their legacy, get it?
The problem is, Dr. Buss gave control of the Lakers to his son Jim, and as we learn in Legacy, Jim is a flake with only a cold statistical sense of the game. Jim didn’t have a background in basketball, even as a kid. He was more interested in the Los Angeles social scene that parted for him when he dropped his surname to nightclub bouncers. As for Jim’s business acumen, he had none. The perfect example of a soft rich kid born on third base.
Nevertheless, Dr. Buss put Jim in charge of the Los Angeles Lazers professional indoor soccer team from 1985 to 1989 in hopes of grooming him for Lakers upper management, but that experiment fizzled out. Jim then quit the family business and left to lick his wounds while he trained horses for nine years. When horse racing didn’t work out, Dr. Buss gave Jim another chance and put him on the payroll as the Lakers assistant general manager.
So instead of putting his daughter Jeanie in charge (who always seemed a little more hungry and business oriented than Jim), Dr. Buss appointed the favorite son to run the Lakers. And this is where Legacy really starts to drag. But it isn’t only Jim who drags Legacy down; the arrival of Kobe Bryant plays a huge part in that as well.
Bryant was a good player, but he wasn’t great – not as great as he thought he was. He certainly couldn’t carry a team, his record and lack of leadership proves that. For example, when Bryant’s ego proved too fragile to share the court with Shaquille O’Neal and his coach (the god-like Phil Jackson) after winning three consecutive NBA championships, he forced management to clean house. Bryant wanted to win it all on his own.
The following season, when key Lakers personnel was either fired or left and he was alone, Bryant famously choked. He was competitive, but with a barren Lakers roster and no one to help, his weaknesses were evident. Lakers management eventually had to sign Pao Gasol and plead Jackson to return in order to win again. In short, Kobe Bryant killed the spirit of the Lakers and deflated this documentary.
The big takeaway from Legacy is that, from day one of Showtime, the success of the Lakers was built on teamwork: Magic making the extra pass to an open man instead of trying to force a drive to the bucket, Norm Nixon feeding Michael Cooper high lobs for easy alley-oop dunks, Kareem posting up and pulling defenders away from his teammates – unselfish gameplay. (Kobe may have racked up a bunch of 50-point games, but how many of those games did the Lakers win?)
At one point in Legacy’s first episode, Magic stresses that he knew his place in the Lakers pecking order. “This is Kareem’s team,” Magic reminded a reporter. “I’m just here to help him win.” Magic even referred to Kareem as “Cap,” calling him a mentor. Kobe would never defer to anyone, and that’s the mindset that crushed the Lakers and turned what could’ve been a great documentary into a pissing match.
Photos: youtube screengrab