(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE…)
Jerry Buss was a mathematician, a chemist, a savvy entrepreneur, a flamboyant showman. He also might have been my father-in-law, had his daughter, Jeanie Buss, not acted with exquisite grace 25 years ago. Let me explain.
On April 28, 1985, I attended a Sunday afternoon picnic in a park. It happened to be on a day that the Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Boston Celtics, and I, a Celtics fan from birth, found myself surrounded by rabid Lakers enthusiasts. A bet was fashioned. If the Lakers lost, my friend would write a proposal of marriage to Celtics forward Larry Bird; if the Celtics lost, I would be required to ask Jerry Buss' daughter for her hand in marriage. The Celtics lost. My wager had bounced hard off the rim and back into my own face.
I contemplated my next step. How could I broach the question? What would Jeanie Buss think of such an off-the-wall proposal? And, most important, how would my wife react to my proposing to another woman? "Big Love" was still a couple of decades from its premiere.
PHOTOS: Jerry Buss through the years
Two years passed with the wager unpaid. Two years of cruel goading from friends who had made my procrastination an issue of moral integrity. Embarrassed into action, I finally took pen in hand for a job as hard as driving the lane on Kareem.
I knew I had some explaining to do, so I plowed right in, laying out the bet and my obligation. Then I addressed what would probably be her first reaction: "Why is the question of marrying me, Jeanie Buss, the penalty for your lost wager?" I tried to explain my way out: "Winning your hand in marriage cannot and should not be painted in dark colors. You're vivacious, attractive, well-to-do. You've run a professional sports team. You've attracted the attentions of many a worthwhile suitor. After all, aren't you to blame for leaving [her then-boyfriend] Kiki Vandeweghe defenseless?"
I then came clean: "I must also point out that I'm married, happily married. With two lovely children, two adoring cats and a golden retriever."
Still, I did my best to close the deal. "I hope, Jeanie, that you now have some understanding of my plight. I'm a normally decent fellow who has allowed a gambler's arrogance to get him into a wager he wasn't prepared to lose. A Celtics fan, yes. A rascal and a ne'er-do-well, I plead not. Thus, I am led to my dutiful query: Will you, Jeanie Buss, revoke your comfortable existence for life with this newly humble though well-meaning fellow? Will you cast aside long family loyalties for betrothal to a fan of the Boston green? Will you reject the affections of men of height for a fellow 5' 9"? … Jeanie Buss, will you marry me?"
I added a postscript: "My wife, you should know, is aware of this proposal and has graciously agreed to a dissolution of our marriage should you decide to accept. As you can tell, my sweet mate has a bit of the gambling instinct in her blood also."
Two unsettling weeks passed before I received a response from Jeanie. I've somehow lost that letter, but my friends and wife remember it the same way I do. She was understanding and good-humored. She said she was charmed by my proposal but could not possibly cause harm to a loving wife who was far more understanding of me than I deserved.
She sent me packing with a gentle but determined hand, which meant I never shared the owner's box or had the right to offer strategic guidance to Phil Jackson. It also meant I never met her dad. I would have liked to. I would have told him he'd fathered a daughter with kindhearted grace and a nuanced wit — and that I was the son-in-law he never knew he didn't have.
Richard Gingras is a product development executive at Google, and will soon celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary.