The Development of Greatness

Three managers of LA Lakers championship teams overcame major life barriers.

Posted Jan 04, 2021

While the lingering effects of trauma have become a preoccupying focus of North American psychology and psychotherapy, I am more interested in how people overcome obstacles to achieve success (per my book with Zach Rhoads, Outgrowing Addiction).

Jerry West the Player

Jerry West did not have a propitious childhood. Son of an abusive coal mine electrician and a resentful mother, with a brother who died in the Korean War, West turned to basketball as his outlet. West’s isolated sessions shooting at a neighbor’s broken-down hoop are the stuff of legends. 

But here too he was thwarted. West remained quite small through high school until he grew six inches in his senior year (although he was still only 6’). From here on, however, the extremely intense West couldn’t be denied, setting all-time high school, collegiate, and professional basketball records.

But even as a perennial National Basketball Association all-star, West had much to lament. Although his Laker teams made the NBA finals 9 of his 14 seasons, his Lakers lost 8 of those series. Finally, in the 1971-1972 season, at the age of 33, surrounded by an all-star cast including Wilt Chamberlain, West won his NBA championship.

And he really wanted it. According to long-time Laker announcer Chick Hearn, West “took a loss harder than any player I’ve ever known.”

West the Person and Manager

West took team burdens on his own back and suffered for them. Personally, West was isolated. Shy since boyhood, he had a small, high-pitched voice that garnered the nickname “Tweety.”

At the same time, West was well-liked by teammates and opponents. Not being one to blame others for failures, West had an open and generous spirit. 

So it was perhaps natural for West to proceed into management, first as the Lakers’ coach, then as their general manager. As GM, West headed a great 1980s Lakers dynasty. The team won five championships, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and coached by Pat Riley. In the 1990s, he rebuilt the Lakers into another championship dynasty, this one built around Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who won three more NBA championships.

Great basketball teams often have great players. But great players don’t in themselves make great teams. The players have to integrate their skills. It’s easy to imagine a quiet, regressive personality who has great athletic skills becoming a famous basketball player. It’s another thing entirely to imagine that same human being growing into maturity as a manager and molder of people into highly successful units, as West did.

The Zen of Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson grew up in a fundamentalist religious home in Montana. Jackson rebelled against this religious training; he found it abusive. Overall, his upbringing is not the ordinary profile for a professional basketball player. Jackson was a hard-working role player rather than a superstar. Nonetheless, Jackson played 12 seasons in the NBA, winning championships with the 1970 and 1973 New York Knicks. 

Jackson paid special attention to the coaching techniques of the Knicks’ legendary coach, “Red” Holtzman. It wasn’t perhaps surprising when Jackson himself went on to coach, leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships from 1989 to 1998. These teams were built around the all-time great NBA star, Michael Jordan. But Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984 and didn’t win a championship until 1991. What took so long? See the description of molding a successful unit in the previous section.

Jackson portrayed himself as a “Zen Master,” a style that might be contrasted with “taskmaster.” Rather than running players through tough “x” and “o” drills, Jackson approached players as full human beings, entering into their ways of thinking and shaping them as team members. In his way, he created great Bulls teams built around Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Jackson then coached the Los Angeles Lakers from 1999 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2011. These teams first featured Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and then Bryant and assorted other stars. The Lakers won five league titles under his leadership. Jackson's 11 titles as a coach, and 13 as a player and a coach, are NBA records.

Jeanie Buss, Child of Privilege

It’s hard to compare Jeanie Buss to West and Jackson. She was the daughter of Dr. Jerry Buss. When her billionaire father purchased the Forum (where the Lakers play), the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings (hockey) and a ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for $68 million, Jeanie was entering her freshman year at the University of Southern California.

Buss had eight children; he wasn’t an attentive father:

“I didn’t get enough time with him when I was growing up, he was working a lot, that was his focus, building his empire, building his wealth through real estate. But when I got out of high school, I learned there was more we could do together around sports ... I never approached my place with the Lakers as ‘but I want to be the one.’ I just said to my dad, ‘I want to work in the family business. What do you want me to do?’”

That approach seemed to work. Eventually, the younger Buss took on her siblings (several of her brothers no longer speak to her) for control of the team. Before then, Ms. Buss was a beauty-pageant winner and posed for Playboy. As she became active with the team, she lived with Jackson. This is not ordinarily recommended best practice for a business owner. But let’s just say she learned from the best. 

In the meantime, Buss earned important business credibility. She negotiated a $3 billion broadcast agreement with Time Warner Cable. She is a key NBA owner, serving on the league’s crucial labor committee. The Lakers franchise was valued at $1 billion when Ms. Buss took control in 2013 (the year her father died). It is now valued at $4.4 billion.

But, most noteworthy of all for sports fans, last October Ms. Buss accepted the championship trophy the Lakers team won during a “bubble” season. These Lakers were led by superstar LeBron James, who embraced Buss with the trophy. It was the first time in the history of the NBA that a female owner had won the championship.

What Have We Learned?

Winning professional sports championships is one of the most difficult and desirable goals.

This has been the story of three people who have accomplished that goal. 

Yet all of them encountered significant emotional, family, and situational obstacles.

Perhaps there’s no other way to win a championship.