NBA loses a man of integrity in Buss
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George Andrews knows better than most around here what kind of man the NBA lost Monday.
"Integrity" is the word he used to describe Jerry Buss, who died in Los Angeles at age 80.
Buss and Andrews became involved in the NBA about the same time during the late 1970s, the former as Lakers owner and the latter as Magic Johnson's representative.
Andrews, who grew up in Elmhurst and lives there now, was one of basketball's hottest sports attorneys at the time. Two years after Johnson signed up with him so did Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas, the top two picks in the 1981 draft,
Buss and Andrews were responsible for one of sport's most famous deals: Twenty-five years, $25 million for Johnson. Those were the numbers reported, but they require some explaining.
First, though, the conditions under which the contract came about.
Larry Bird received more money when he and Johnson entered the league in 1979. After Magic was voted MVP of the NBA Finals during his rookie season, he and Buss were riding in the back of a limo.
"Have George call me," Buss said.
He wanted to extend Johnson's contract, though at one time Magic thought he would play out his five years with the Lakers and move on to the Pistons or the Bulls as a free agent.
However, Johnson came to like Los Angeles and told Andrews he wanted to be with the Lakers for life.
The two sides worked on a deal but — uh-oh — before it could be completed Johnson blew out his knee during his second NBA season.
Finally the terms were agreed upon and the contract was ready to go. That just happened to be the day Johnson's knee was operated on.
"(What owner) would even negotiate a contract, let alone finalize it, when the player was in the recovery room?" Andrews said Monday.
The contract was announced as 25 years, $25 million because Buss couldn't let it be known he was paying a player more than he was paying Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The terms included money for playing 10 years in addition to the four left on his rookie contract. Then there were five years as a consultant.
Essentially, Johnson was to make $2.5 million annually for actual playing years, which was a vast sum of money in the NBA at the time.
"(Buss) was the first of the owners to see basketball as entertainment," Andrews said.
The league was shaky when Buss bought the Lakers and Andrews began representing players. Competition between the NBA and rival ABA for talent had hurt economically. The players' image was unpopular and stunted the league's growth.
Companies were reluctant to have players endorse their products, but Andrews managed to hook up Johnson with the likes of Converse sneakers, Spalding basketballs, Buick and 7-up.
Oh, yeah, back to Buss' integrity. Andrews calls him and Bulls/White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf the two best owners he dealt with.
Coincidentally, Buss inherited Johnson when he bought the Lakers and Reinsdorf inherited Michael Jordan when he bought the Bulls. As Andrews said, "Two of the best players of all time."
He notes that Buss and Reinsdorf had different ownership styles, but "the consistency between the two was they are honorable men."
One characterization is that a handshake deal with Buss or Reinsdorf is worth more than a signed contract with a lot of other owners.
George Andrews would know.
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