Sports Opinion & Analysis

Publicly Working Out How I Feel About The Death Of A Sports-Related Stranger

In NBA on February 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

By Jeff Weyant

Jerry Buss’s death is like the tree, and now everyone else is going to have to deal with it. The real question though, is if that tree falls, and nobody hears about it because of the Lakers record, does it really make a sound? 

I spend a lot of time thinking about why I watch sports. This is because part of me thinks they’re a huge waste of time, that on some level obsessing over something I have no control over is unhealthy, and that they’re keeping me from becoming the kind of generous, prepared, and confident individual who finishes novels and cleans up around the house and in general practices good hygiene and goes to the gym three times a week. Another part of me, of course, thinks sports are awesome, terrifying, entertaining, artistically significant, pornographic (metaphorically but occasionally literally), and more or less one of the best things human beings have ever created alongside the final montage in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup, the collected poetry of John Keats, and the velociraptor I drew in fifth grade and which subsequently won first prize in the Maricopa County Boys and Girls Club art contest.

Me thinking about me thinking about me thinking about sports is often most severe when something happens in the sports world that has nothing to do with sports yet requires that everyone have an opinion. In this case, Jerry Buss, longtime owner of the unbelievably successful Los Angeles Lakers franchise, succumbed to kidney failure earlier this week (the result of, what else, cancer), ending a long and illustrious career as either the greatest villain or the most important innovator (or both?) in the history of modern sports. So basically we’re all supposed to say something and let everyone else know about it and so on and so forth until a week passes and something else distracts us.

Personally I’m confused. I’m a Lakers fan and a Jerry Buss fan (assuming I understand even a little bit about what he actually did to evolve or devolve the sport in any meaningful way) but his passing inspired two things in me: first, a meta-reflexive notion about how I’m supposed to be inspired to feel something at all, and second, sadness and sorrow, because someone is dead.

A fitting image given the 16 Finals appearances and 10 championships during Buss’ 33-year ownership.

But more than anything, Buss’ passing made me think about fans and owners, a relationship with a strange dynamic. Because fans only talk about owners when they fuck up or when they die. Such is the life of millionaires, I suppose. But it’s true: owners of sports teams are those nebulous entities that exist to be reviled or eulogized, usually the former while alive and the latter afterwards. Think of the late George Steinbrenner: while alive, he was vilified by everyone as being the most absurdly awful asshole this side of the Atlantic but the moment he kicked the bucket he was suddenly a kind and loving soul sent from heaven to guide us towards the light.

What I’m getting at here is that if I suffer lots of mental anguish at obsessing over strangers I pay attention to basically every day (players, coaches, media members – the last of whom are essentially playing their own sport), I’m uncertain as to how I feel about owners, whom I don’t think about all that often and when I do it’s because someone I know reflexively blamed the one that owns their favorite team because that favorite team has a shitty win-loss record or because they traded a universally-praised top five lottery pick for a guy who already hit his ceiling as a decent rotation player.

So then maybe it boils down to a tribal thing: if Kobe Bryant or John Hollinger died, I’d grieve as if it were a friend of a friend whom I saw frequently over the years and  I’d feel sad in my gut and sort of think about mortality and stuff but I probably wouldn’t cry because after all I didn’t really know the guy all that well and the only conversation of consequence I can remember involved our mutual interest in the films of Terrence Malick; but when Jerry Buss dies, it’s like he’s that neighbor next door I talked to maybe twice in ten years and with whom I exchanged masculine head nods maybe five times when we were both getting into our cars in the morning. Which is to say: when he dies I think about mortality and stuff but in an ephemeral, forgetful way. Jerry Buss, then, might as well be Michael Jackson or Mindy McCready or that guy I lived next to who killed himself in the late 90’s, the kind of person about whom I heard a lot over the years but whom I never knew in any meaningful way.

And now we’re into weird territory because this implies that I feel like I know Kobe Bryant or John Hollinger in some sort of meaningful way. But then Twitter is much like a public diary, conveying an intimacy that cultural critics are still puzzling over. And I never followed Jerry Buss on Twitter (partly because he didn’t have an account and partly because I probably wouldn’t have found it all that engrossing even if he did).

Words here are sort of useless, for obvious reasons.

All this seems to have been confirmed last night when various individuals paid homage to his passing on ESPN before, during, and after the night’s slate of games. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant in particular talked about Buss in reverential, mournful tones and it occurred to me that these people knew Jerry Buss as more than a neighbor you saw rarely and talked to even less frequently, but instead as a mentor and a friend. The complication up to this point, I think, was that Jerry Buss as an owner always seemed remote, detached, off limits, in the way the CEO of a large, multinational corporation must seem remote and distant (physically and psychologically) to the guy temping in the mail room. He was a machine or an alien rather than a human being.

I think most people see owners this way, as Mr. Moneybags, the man responsible for a franchise’s problems, the guy the cameras show up in some private box chatting with another stolid figure in a blue business suit. But at some point I think it’s nice (and I mean “nice” in every untrendy sense of the word) to remember that owners, even hideous ones, are people, and not (exclusively) monsters or titans. We spend enough time making sure everyone knows athletes are errant humans like the rest of us but little time making sure everyone knows their bosses are as well.

So finally then, after all that hand-wringing, I’m prepared to offer my two cents about the late Jerry Buss: He was a dude and like many other dudes I didn’t know him at all. He seemed like he had a good time while alive and without doing an investigative piece for Nightline I can say that he did some good stuff and also some bad stuff. In the end, he’s dead and I’m not, which you can take however you want (morbidly, offensively, logically, mystically, none, all, other). He’ll be missed by those closest to him and I hope their anguish fades at least momentarily into fond reverie.

January 27, 1933 – February 18, 2013

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