What had been softly whispered for months, almost as if saying it aloud might make a terrible thing come true, became sad and public knowledge Thursday.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss, not seen this season around his beloved team and for nearly a year removed from the limelight, was reported to be in the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for treatment of an undisclosed form of cancer. The news, which broke hours before the Lakers' 125-101 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center, wasn't a shock, but it was a reminder of the power of one man to transform a sports franchise and bring a unique and genuine sparkle to a city awash in contrived glamour.
"From our vantage point it has been a unique relationship. I got to learn from someone who I consider the smartest guy that's ever been around sports," said Tim Leiweke of AEG, which owns Staples Center and 30% of the Lakers.
"And his gut instincts are always right," said Leiweke, AEG's chief executive. "It's amazing, but he's always been able to see things others couldn't. He revolutionized the way teams do business, from coming up with the idea of Senate seats, seeing the value of floor seats and the whole Showtime concept.
"He and Jerry West built the most competitive, dynamic brand in the NBA. He just has a way about him. He's the best poker player at sports that I've ever seen."
Buss, 79, has battled various health issues for several years. The son he has entrusted with the operation of the franchise, Jim, told The Times on Thursday his father is "doing fine," but others who are familiar with the situation but didn't want to be identified out of respect for the Buss family indicated the situation is grave.
"He's been a good, kind, generous friend. We feel for him as a partner and friend and we're praying for him," Leiweke said.
Without Jerry Buss' vision, without his drive to acquire the best players and build the best team and his ability to achieve that in three distinct eras no matter the cost, how many world champion banners would be bathed in the glow of spotlights above the south basket at Staples Center?
"He's what a great owner should be," said Bruce McNall, who bought the NHL Kings from Buss in the 1980s and still counts Buss among his friends.
"I tried to be the model he set, to a fault in my case. It's really amazing what he's done for the city. Nothing less than amazing."
But will the Lakers add any banners to the 16 already up on the wall?
That would, of course, be the best way they could honor the man who set a remarkably high standard while turning the franchise into an elite, $1-billion property.
But the Lakers' championship prospects look dimmer by the day, beyond the reach of even the purest form of motivation. They can't even be reasonably sure they'll get a playoff spot, and their fits-and-spurts performance on Thursday left them 31/2 games out of eighth place in the West.
The Clippers were young, athletic, deep — everything the Lakers have not been, even though the Lakers' second unit mustered an unusually strong effort to make the game close in the second quarter. The expression of utter bafflement that has crossed the face of Coach Mike D'Antoni so often this season was a constant sight on Thursday as his team fell to the Clippers for the third time in three meetings this season.
As for the Lakers' playoff hopes, D'Antoni said after Thursday's loss, "We can do it, but we have to play better."
Jerry Buss was said to have been involved in the decision to acquire Dwight Howard and, later, to fire Mike Brown and replace Brown with D'Antoni. It's difficult to imagine that he wouldn't do something to inspire his players and fix this mess if he were able to be actively involved on a daily basis.
Before the season began, General Manager Mitch Kupchak said all would be business as usual.
"My feeling is that we'll continue to pursue the top players in the league," Kupchak said. "There will always be an emphasis on having the franchise be able to survive and prosper."
The Lakers are not prospering without Jerry Buss' strong and wise hand at the helm. After all he has done for this franchise and for these players, they owe him better than this.