After all the anger and angst and fury of the immediate post-Shaq era had inspired Kobe Bryant to make a trade demand, Jerry Buss finally called his superstar guard to the owner's home in the Los Angeles hills on an autumn evening in 2007.
The Los Angeles Lakers had found a trade for Bryant, but Buss warned him that it wasn't to one of his selected destinations.
"Detroit," Buss said.
The Lakers had agreed to a deal to send Bryant to the Pistons and needed Bryant's approval to waive his no-trade clause. The package included a combination of Detroit's core players and draft picks, sources say. Buss and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak needed an answer soon, because they refused to let the issue linger into training camp.
Looking back, Bryant isn't sure it would've mattered whether it was Detroit or Chicago, Dallas or New York. In that moment, in Buss' house in the hills, it washed over Bryant how much staying a Laker for life meant to him, how no matter how dire the state of the franchise seemed, that Buss had a history of restoring the Lakers to championship contention.
"It hit me that I didn't really want to walk out on Dr. Buss," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports on Monday.
Months later, Kupchak honored Buss' faith and made the trade for Pau Gasol. Soon, the Lakers were back in the NBA Finals three straight years and winning two more titles. Soon, Bryant was back to understanding the inevitable essence of Jerry Buss' prowess: In the end, the old man was a force of nature.
The Lakers change forever now with Buss' death. For all the historic talent and genius and ego melded into champions under his watch, Buss was the connection from title to title, the star of stars. From Magic to Kareem, from Riley to West, from Shaq to Kobe, Buss was the self-made icon who commanded the biggest respect in the room.
He didn't come blustering loudly, the way George Steinbrenner did with the New York Yankees. He was the ultimate California cool, a playboy with an understanding that Hollywood commanded celebrity with its stars, glitz with its winning.
Nevertheless, the substance of the man – a most American rags-to-riches tale – was forever the underlying, undeniable ethic of the Lakers. In so many ways, they never went corporate. They were a mom-and-pop store, a family business.
In the wake of Buss' death, the most pressing question centers on the ability of his children to work together, hold onto the franchise and operate it in a manner with which it will remain in the sport's elite.
In a perfect world, the Lakers would be run with the stewardship of Buss' daughter, Jeanie. She's earned the right. She inherited her father's social sensibilities and, more importantly, worked to earn the business acumen to run the organization. Nevertheless, Jerry anointed his son, Jim, to lord over the basketball operations, and, ultimately, it could be the undoing of the franchise.
Now, the Lakers understand that relying upon Bryant as the franchise player is coming to an end in the next couple of years, and Dwight Howard must be convinced to stay and be the cornerstone for the future.
Buss had been seriously ill, less connected to the franchise in the past year, but you'd have to believe at a different time in his ownership that he would've forged a relationship with Howard that would've made it impossible for him to leave. Those days are done; Jim isn't Jerry. No one will ever be Jerry Buss again.
In that meeting in the fall of 2007, near the start of training camp, Buss presented Bryant with a scenario of Bryant's own request: a trade out of Los Angeles, out of the franchise that drafted and groomed him and taught him to be a champion.
Even now, Kobe Bryant still thinks about that time in his life when he was too impatient, when he failed to give Buss' own history and greatness its proper due. Whatever the owner had told him that night about a trade – Detroit or Chicago, Dallas or wherever – it probably wouldn't have mattered
For all Bryant's impatience, there was still such an immense part of him that was comforted in the company of the Los Angeles Lakers' patriarch. True for Bryant, true for all of them.
No one walks away from the Lakers, from Buss, and does so without a deep, lingering regret. These were the Showtime Lakers, and they would be again with Bryant and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In his 17th season, Bryant's belief that he'll never wear another uniform is unwavering.
Jerry Buss gave Bryant the gift of Jerry West trading for him on draft day in '96, of Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson, of five NBA championships that perhaps wouldn't have been available anywhere else.
All these years later, Kobe Bryant is blessed to know that he never walked out on Dr. Buss, that he'll share something with the late, great owner forever: Lakers for life – and beyond.