These Lakers made it through every moment that could have broken them

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

THE OTHER DAY Jeanie Buss sent a text to Phil Jackson, the previous coach to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a title. This was not an unusual occurrence. The two have remained friends and talk often. But the reason for this text was extraordinary.

Buss’ team was on the verge of winning its first NBA title since she assumed control of the team from her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, and since Jackson had retired following the 2011 season. She’d been through championship runs before, but this one was entirely different, and connecting with the coach who has won the most titles in NBA history (11) seemed like a good idea.

“We’ve been going back and forth a little bit about the last game,” Jackson said. “And how to not get over the edge of your skis and stay balanced.”

Jackson had been following the Lakers all season, and felt it was important Buss knew that her steady hand and leadership had been essential to the team’s success. All she had to do now was stay true to that.

And on the 356th day of the 74th NBA season, the Lakers franchise claimed its 17th championship in a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat.

There was confetti and champagne Sunday in the mostly empty arena in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where the NBA sought refuge from the deadly pandemic that interrupted its season and society as we know it. As the clock ticked to 0.0 in Game 6, the Lakers’ bench circled LeBron James, joyously hugging him on the court. And Anthony Davis sat down on the scorers table, bending his head forward as the emotions rushed over him.

Before presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Buss, NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about everything his league and its players had endured just to make it to this finish line.

“We found a way to play through a pandemic, keep everyone safe and put a spotlight on these critically important [social justice] issues,” Silver said. “For that, every team deserves to be celebrated.”

Buss wore a burgundy blazer and a crisp white shirt, but the collar was open wide enough to see the gold chain she wore around her neck, with the signature of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss.

And then she did what her father taught her to do: cede the spotlight to the players by letting them grab hold of it first.

“We’ve all been challenged so much in 2020,” Buss said before the win. “It really takes your breath away.”

And so it is fitting that the NBA champions of 2020 are the team that held it all together the tightest.

“That is what families do for each other,” Buss said. “Lift each other up when they feel like they can’t go on.”

From the tumult of last offseason, to the death of franchise icon Kobe Bryant in January, to the pandemic, to the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, to the creation of a virus-free bubble where the NBA could resume its season, to the near-cancellation of the season following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, this season has tested and humbled everyone.

“No matter what,” Buss said. “The proof is in the work. That’s where we found our comfort and our mission.”

The Lakers were able to consistently steady themselves in the moments that could have broken them.

“You start to reflect back on the challenges,” Buss said. “To be here in the NBA Finals is at one time so uplifting, but also heartbreaking because of all the loss that we have gone through, and that we’re not together as Laker fans living these moments that this team is providing us.”

She paused as she delivered these words. The sentiment jogged an old story Jackson used to tell people about his mentor, Tex Winter.

“A lot of Tex’s quirks were from the fact he lived through the Depression, and that he didn’t have food on the table,” she said. When the Chicago Bulls or Lakers would go out to eat at a nice restaurant or hotel buffet, Winter would always wrap up and save everything on his plate.

“It drove Phil crazy,” she said. “Phil’s like, ‘You can’t possibly take this with you, we’re in a hotel.’

“But I guess now we’re all people who can say we’ve lived through this pandemic, through this heartbreak, through these challenging times.”

MORE: Everything that happened in the NBA bubble

BUSS HAD LEARNED how to run a basketball franchise at her father’s side for decades, and he’d chosen her out of his six children to be the one to run the Lakers after his death.

“I like to say he had his children, but the Lakers were his baby,” Buss said. “And he put me in charge of the baby because he knew that I would do whatever it took to protect the baby.”

Recruiting James was a great step in restoring the Lakers’ brand, but the job wasn’t finished until she put a championship roster around him, and that took time. James was patient, but the Lakers’ fan base was not.

Buss and her inner circle came under heavy fire when Kawhi Leonard, a native Southern Californian, chose to sign with the rival Clippers in free agency as sort of a package deal with Paul George, who was acquired via trade from Oklahoma City.

Friends and colleagues urged her to consider replacing general manager Rob Pelinka with a more established executive. She called Jackson at times to ask for advice, but he always pushed her back toward trusting her gut.

“I never lost faith in the people that I was working with, so that part was easy,” she said. “What was difficult was not to defend myself, or to defend the people that I care about like Rob and like Linda [Rambis].

“But I was advised, ‘This will be the hardest time of your life, but the only thing that will stop it is to do the work.’ That became our mission was just to do the work.”

She watched as Pelinka built a relationship of trust with James and Davis, much the way he had with his former client Bryant. How he consulted with them on personnel moves and empowered them as co-architects of the team, without it bruising his own ego.

She took note of how quickly he moved to fill the roster after Leonard kept them waiting until July 5, while other free-agent targets signed elsewhere.

Replacing Pelinka with a seasoned executive from another franchise would’ve won the initial news conference. But she’d given up on trying to win news conferences.

“As I’ve learned though, with social media, very often the point is to weaponize it or to manipulate opinion,” Buss said. “But you can’t manipulate opinion when you’re winning and you’re in the NBA Finals. No matter what, the proof is in the work, and that’s where we found our comfort and our mission. The hardest part though was having to take the arrows and the mud and the ridicule and not fight back.”

Those were the times she’d call Jackson or Bryant.

“Kobe was always like, ‘Don’t listen to that,'” she said. “That was easy for him to shut it out. He was great at that. Phil was great at that.”

She’d later find out that James was great at that, too.

JAMES MADE A pledge to Buss when they met at the Beverly Hills hotspot Wally’s for dinner in March 2019.

“We’re committed to you, and we’ll come out of this on top,” recalled James’ agent, Rich Paul, who attended the dinner along with Rambis. “We’ll come out of this different than what the world sees. Let the people who talk, talk. We just gotta do the work.”

It was the precursor to the organizational mantra Buss would set for the franchise over that summer. Which was not a coincidence.

James was noticeably quiet over the summer, but he saw it all. He watched every minute of the playoffs, letting his motivation rise as other teams and players took starring turns.

For a man who’d been to seven straight Finals, it was odd to watch Leonard seize the spotlight as the Finals MVP for the Toronto Raptors and enter the discussion as the game’s best player.

But he channeled all that into proving he was still the best player in the NBA, often waking up at 4 a.m. so he could work out for a few hours on the set of “Space Jam 2” before the long days of filming commenced.

It was a summer much like Michael Jordan had in 1995, when he filmed the original “Space Jam” following an early exit from the playoffs. And something Jackson, watching from afar, took note of.

“It looks like LeBron’s taken a little bit of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant, ‘We’ll show them who we really are by our strength and our temperament,'” Jackson said. “That’s always a resource to incentivize you, so he’s done a good job of that. I think his leadership has been good, and that’s something that I questioned last year with that group of young men that were playing at the time. But here he feels very tuned in. And that’s wonderful.”

THE LEGACY THESE Lakers leave is not only that they lived through and became champions, but also how they responded to each new challenge.

If the championship in Cleveland made good on LeBron James’ promise to his hometown, this championship made good on the promise of his basketball journey. When he was 16 years old, James was assigned the moniker “The Chosen One.” There were campaigns built around being a witness to his career. In his 17th season, at the age of 35, it was James’ longevity of excellence that drew a captive audience.

“It means a lot to rep this franchise,” James said from the championship podium. “I told Jeanie when I came here that I was going to put this franchise back in a position where it belongs. Her late, great father did it for so many years, and she just took it on after that, and for me to be a part of such a historical franchise is an unbelievable feeling.”

The 2020 NBA Finals marked James’ fourth Finals MVP for his third different team. It was the sixth time in James’ career that he averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in the NBA Finals. The other five players to accomplish that did it only once (Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). James’ 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist Game 6 triple-double was his 11th, the most in Finals history.

And yet upon his arrival to Los Angeles, James suggested there wasn’t much else for him to prove in the final chapters of his career. That looks silly now, after seeing how much he proved in this longest of seasons. That he did it against the Miami Heat, the team where he learned so much of his discipline and focus is even more meaningful.

Call it full circle, or just a man in full, James’ journey to this title and Finals MVP was a culmination of everything he’d learned and accomplished along the way.

“We just want our respect,” James continued from the podium. “Rob wants his respect, Coach Vogel wants his respect. The organization wants their respect, Laker Nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect too.”

There was a moment in Game 5 on Friday when it looked as if James might have to go the last leg of this championship journey alone. Davis had landed awkwardly on his right heel, limping, then falling to the ground in pain, like a man who had just burst his Achilles tendon.

The entire Lakers team ran over to check on Davis as he grabbed his right foot. Cameras captured James’ face as he processed the thought of Davis sustaining a serious injury. His face said everything.

All season, James and Davis had pushed each other. To play at their top level, through injury and adversity. To block out the noise and the doubters. To keep, in one of James’ favorite sayings, the main thing, the main thing.

It’s rare in the annals of NBA history for a superstar duo to find such success in their first season playing together, without egos crowding the lane.

But James and Davis recognized their common purpose early on, having both paid a reputational price for the trade that brought Davis to Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. They spent time together, they trained together and, perhaps most important, they needed each other.

“I had seven years my first stint in Cleveland I felt like I couldn’t get over the hump, I felt like I needed some help, I felt like I needed someone to push me,” James said at the championship podium. “And that’s when I was able to go to Miami and get pushed by D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] and [Chris] Bosh and that franchise.

“So to be able to get [Davis], and we push him and let him know how great he is by just making him see better basketball and be a part of something that’s special, that’s what it’s all about. So to be able to put him where he is today, that means so much to me and the fact that he trusts me means even more.”

For James, Davis was his best, perhaps last shot, at making his golden years in L.A. actually golden. For Davis, James was the mentor he’d always sought.

“He was a great player before, but to get to play with LeBron, he can teach you this is what it’s all about,” Anthony Davis Sr. said. “For him to learn from LeBron and them to come together so quick, it’s just like, ‘Wow.'”

Davis’ bruised right heel was killing him. But they’d come too far together for it to end that way. Davis got up, paced along the sideline then waived every trainer away who dared come near him. He played the rest of Game 5, and was a defensive menace in the series-clinching win in Game 6.

“What people don’t understand about Anthony,” his father said, “if they go back and watch the championship game he played at Kentucky, he had a horrible game. I think he scored five points total, but he had like 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“He was like, ‘I don’t have it tonight, but I’m going to block and defend everything coming to the rim.’ He has that mentality still. He doesn’t have to score. All he cares about is winning. That’s the mentality he’s had since Kentucky.”

SO MUCH HAS happened since Bryant was killed along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others on Jan. 26, we couldn’t imagine it was only the first punch to our collective guts in 2020.

“It’s still raw,” Buss said. “I think it’s going to be something I’m never going to get over.”

She says she finds strength in knowing he will always be remembered, and will continue to inspire. But it’s not the same as having him here, especially in a year like this.

“It’s such a tough loss,” she said. “But to know that everybody felt that same loss makes it feel like we’re not so alone.”

Those first few weeks after Bryant was killed are something of a blur now. There was the initial period of shock and deep sadness. There was the grief of his family, then the incredible strength of Vanessa Bryant at the celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna on Feb. 24.

And then there was the basketball season, which stopped for a day, as the Lakers and Clippers postponed their game on Jan. 28, a game that had seemed so meaningful just days earlier, as the two city rivals and championship contenders were set to square off for the third time, now felt meaningless.

Coach Frank Vogel brought the team back for a practice after a few days, just so they would all be together again. Vogel spent the first part of practice outdoors, under the California sun, hoping the fresh air and vitamin D would do them some good.

“That is one of the luxuries of living in Los Angeles,” Vogel said.

A few days later, the Lakers were supposed to play a game again. James knew the moment called for his voice.

“Now, I’ve got something written down,” he started. “But Laker Nation, man I would be selling y’all short if I read off this s— so I’m going to go straight from the heart.

“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving, we’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken and when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.

“Now, I’ve heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is and that is absolutely what I’ve seen this week,” James continued. “Not only from the players, the coaching staff and the organization, but from everybody. Everybody that’s here, this is truly, truly a family.”

EVERYTHING IS BIGGER when you do it as a Laker. Championships, statements, moments, your voice.

Like Bryant, James is a historian of the game. He knows which franchises are keepers of the flame with legacies that transcend great players and eras. He’d done a lot in his career before coming to Los Angeles, but if he won here, the impact would be great.

After George Floyd’s death, James called his longtime advisers Adam Mendelsohn and Maverick Carter. He wanted to say something, but he also wanted to do something.

Mendelsohn and Carter told him about a project they’d been working on called More Than a Vote, in anticipation of the election this November. James was all-in, and immediately started organizing video calls and meetings with other athletes so they could join forces and amplify their message.

When the Milwaukee Bucks staged an impromptu walkout of their game against the Orlando Magic in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, James again spoke with friends and advisers late into the night. He supported the Bucks and the cause, but the lack of planning and strategy was frustrating. Those close to him say now that James was very close to walking away from the season that night.

What changed everything was when he and Paul got on the phone with former President Barack Obama. Before he was president or a senator, Obama was a community organizer. His words late that night drew on that experience: Get something for this. Push the NBA, push the owners, push society to do more.

The next morning James, Paul and the Heat’s Andre Iguodala went about getting firm commitments from the league and owners on three initiatives: establishing a social justice coalition, using arenas as voting locations and including advertising spots in each playoff game to create greater civic engagement in national and local elections.

Then James and the Lakers resumed their season.

AS MUCH AS she appreciates the return to glory James has delivered to the Lakers franchise, it is his strength and conviction that Buss says she admires most.

“He is not afraid to use his platform to speak out about things that are important without worrying about backlash or public opinion,” Buss said. “He stands for what he believes in, and it’s made me stronger in being outspoken for things that I have now come to realize, speaking out for things that are right.”

She wrote and spoke on social justice issues throughout the season more than she ever had before, and did not worry about any backlash.

Perhaps it was just trust in her own counsel, as Jackson put it. Perhaps it was surviving the criticism from a summer before, and seeing her faith in Pelinka and the team restored by its performance.

Said one senior Lakers executive: “While some of our so-called rivals spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win media cycles, we kept our heads down and focused on basketball — because the only thing we’ve ever cared about winning is championships.”

But Buss had grown throughout this longest of seasons, too.

While her father was in charge, Buss was popular with Lakers fans. She sat in the second row at Staples Center. She was accessible to them.

“That’s one of the things that’s always amazed me about her and her father,” Jackson said. “They felt like the team was the city’s, the Lakers belong to L.A.”

It was initially hard to tell if James had miscalculated the way he’d be received by Lakers fans. Or if he was simply taking some time to warm up to his new city.

Fans bristled when they thought he announced an appearance at a Blaze Pizza and didn’t show. They painted murals around L.A. asserting Kobe Bryant was still the Lakers’ king, not King James. He might never live down the walk into Staples Center when cameras caught James, who was injured at the time, sipping a glass of wine.

“Well, one, what I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before,” James said Thursday. “They don’t care about your résumé at all until you become a Laker. Then you’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you. I’ve learned that.”

Like Buss, James got here by staying focused on the work. Each day, each challenge, was something to get through. His sense of purpose never wavered.

“I didn’t like the way our season ended for us last year, especially myself with the injury and with our ballclub,” James said on Sept. 17. “My mom told me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ So I didn’t talk much. Just go out and do your job.”

ALL THE HARD times tend to wash away when the championship champagne starts flowing. The shining moments rush to the front of your thoughts, the challenges recede.

Davis yelling “Kobe” after hitting a winning 3-pointer from one of Bryant’s favorite spots in the Western Conference finals. The confetti falling after the Western Conference finals and again at the end, right before they raised the championship trophy.

But those moments were sweeter because of the other moments that nearly broke them, and the way they responded.

“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me,” James said when he addressed the Staples Center crowd before the first game they played after Bryant’s death. “To continue his legacy not only for this year but as long as we can play the game we love.”

Buss got chills when Davis hit that 3-pointer and yelled out Bryant’s name.

“It was like, OK, he’s here,” she said. “People were like, ‘It’s planned, you guys are forcing this.’ And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is completely organic. It comes from people’s hearts, it doesn’t come from a moment that can be planned.'”

One of the gifts of being so isolated in the NBA bubble for so long was that it provided plenty of time to think and reflect.

Buss arrived last week and stayed in the outer tier throughout the Finals. So close to the team that came together to win this title, and yet so far away, up in a balcony, behind a mask, cheering alongside one of her best friends of the past four decades, Lakers executive Linda Rambis.

Once the team won and the mission was complete, she was finally allowed down onto the floor to accept the trophy and fulfill her birthright.

“I am so proud of you both on and off the court,” she said to the team. “You’ve done Los Angeles proud with your hard work, your professionalism and your dedication. You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history.

“To Laker Nation. We have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and Gianna. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.

“When it’s safe, I look forward to celebrating with you. Until then, I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles, where it belongs.”

Pelinka stood with the team he put together. His heart was still heavy, from the loss of Bryant, his longtime client and friend. But enough time has passed that he can appreciate what he still has, and what they all did together.

“When the deepest trial of life hit, we relied on the strength of each other,” Pelinka said. “And our own individual faiths, to find a path forward. We continued to believe that all things can somehow be worked together, to somehow, some way, find a good.”

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