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Buss says he'll ante up to keep Lakers in chips

November 10, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Bresnahan is a Times staff writer

Jerry Buss sat back in a supple leather chair, not far from an oil painting of James Worthy grabbing an alley-oop pass from Magic Johnson in a long-ago NBA Finals game against Boston, a symbolic backdrop these days for the owner of the Lakers.

In the latest offering of the difference a year makes, Buss, 75, was relaxed and humorous Sunday in an interview, revealing with a glint in his eye how badly he wanted a Finals rematch with Boston while also saying how much he wanted to keep Kobe Bryant if the 10-time All-Star became an unrestricted free agent next July.

Along those lines, Buss said he would continue to pay luxury taxes on an annual basis "if that's what it takes to win."

He also envisioned Coach Phil Jackson staying beyond the expiration of his contract after next season because "this team looks like a delight."

The mini-riot Buss touched off last year by saying he would entertain trade offers for Bryant seemed to have taken place a century ago as he recounted more recent dealings with Bryant, including a key phone call after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in February.

"I think Kobe very definitely understands how hard I made the effort to get sufficient talent to win," Buss said. "I was talking to him on the phone right as the Pau Gasol [trade] came through, and he said, 'Wow, I can go win with this now.' I think Kobe and I get along pretty well."

Well enough to open the vault again if Bryant leaves $47.8 million on the table and rips up his contract after this season?

"We really don't address those issues until they come up because we don't know what the environment is, but we can't afford to lose Kobe," Buss said.

In the 25-minute interview, Buss alluded numerous times to the sagging economy and the possibility of its trickling down to the NBA. Buss would probably have to sign off on a five-year contract worth $135 million if Bryant opted out next summer.

Buss said he could probably eliminate at least one competitor, taking a whack at a persistent rumor by saying he could not picture Bryant playing overseas.

"They have fewer games, smaller arenas and cheaper tickets and very little television," Buss said. "I can't see it, but there are people who are wealthy enough in the world that could make astronomical offers, and I certainly couldn't compete with that. But quite honestly, I just don't think that's a real threat."

Buss has presided over eight championships in his 29 previous years of ownership. He has also seen the Lakers advance to more than a dozen NBA Finals, though he would be dejected if they made it only that far this season.

"God willing for everybody staying healthy and that type of thing, then I feel that a championship is what we want," he said. "If we win the West this year, we've won it 15 times out of the last 30 years. Although that's pleasant, it's not our objective. Our objective is to be world champion."

Especially if it comes against the Celtics, who embarrassed the Lakers with a Finals-clinching 131-92 victory in Game 6 last season.

"I sincerely want to play them," Buss said shortly after revealing why he transitioned from real estate to team owner in the first place.

"One of the biggest reasons I bought the Lakers was to beat the Celtics," said Buss, who purchased the Lakers, the Forum, the NHL's Kings and a 13,000-acre Kern County ranch for $67.5 million in 1979. "If you were a Laker fan prior to my ownership, and you sat there and watched the Celtics whip us so many times, and how close we came -- one shot in one particular series -- you just got it into your soul that you couldn't stand the Celtics anymore."

Befitting the owner of a team favored in many circles to win another championship, Buss had compliments for many people in the organization.

On General Manager Mitch Kupchak: "I've always been pleased with everything Mitch has done. It may seem that there are ups and downs, but our relationship has never been up and down. Everything that we've tried to do, we've pretty much accomplished. . . ."

On Gasol: "When we got him, that was a dream come true. He's a different kind of player in a lot of ways. Sometimes I can't understand even how he gets 14 or 15 rebounds. He's been very pleasant and we couldn't be happier to have him."

On the four-year, $57.4-million contract extension he gave Andrew Bynum: "I have to feel it was really fair to both sides . . . especially since we have him now. He could be one of the great ones."

Buss also expected Jackson, 63, to remain beyond a two-year, $23-million contract that would end after next season.

"With this team, he may grow very old and still be the coach. I don't see him going anywhere," Buss said. "I know he has some medical difficulties, but this team looks like a delight and I just can't see anybody walking away from it."

There are some things Buss doesn't expect. Despite the high expectations placed on the Lakers, he wouldn't predict a run at Chicago's record-setting 72-10 season in 1995-96.

"I think the West has improved so much that something like that would be very difficult," Buss said. "I thought that we could come close to 60 wins."

Then he paused a beat.

"I'd be happy with 73, though," he said, smiling.

Buss is currently on pace to pay about $10 million in luxury taxes this season and might pay a similar dollar-for-dollar penalty with a commitment of already more than $75 million toward only nine players on next season's payroll.

He shrugged when presented the financial facts on Sunday.

"We have to do what we have to do," he said. "I certainly don't like to pay the luxury tax, but if that's what it takes to win, then we're going to pay it."

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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