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Buss memorial sparks Stewart memories

Editor’s note: Longtime Arcadia resident Larry Stewart and occasional blogger writes about attending the memorial for Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who died of cancer Feb. 18 after a yearlong battle with cancer. Stewart was a sportswriter for Los Angeles’ two major papers for nearly 40 years – the old Herald Examiner for nine years, the Times for more than 30.

Larry Stewart

Larry Stewart

My wife Norma and I were among the some 3,500 people invited to attend the memorial service for Jerry Buss on Feb. 21 at the Nokia Theater in LA Live downtown and among a couple of hundred invited to a private reception that followed at the adjacent J.W. Marriott Hotel. It was a memorial like none other I had ever attended, with distinguished speakers and performances by Randy Newman, Davis Gaines and members of the USC band. It was indeed a memorable memorial. A highlight for my wife at the reception was getting to meet Gaines, a former “Phantom of the Opera” star, and spending time talking with him. His rendition of “Music of the Night” during the memorial had people throughout the Nokia Theater wiping away tears, and his lengthy conversation with my wife at the reception almost had her in tears of joy.

Larry Stewart (l) with wife Norma and singer Davis Gaines at Jerry Buss memorial

Larry Stewart (l) with wife Norma and actor Davis Gaines at Jerry Buss memorial

Buss was a huge “Phantom of the Opera” fan. He saw it, literally, about 100 times. A highlight for me during the reception was talking with former Lakers coach Pat Riley, one of the speakers at the memorial. We rehashed one of my all-time favorite stories. I call it the “Pat Riley Shoeshine Story.” Here it is…

In the spring of 1973, I was a young sportswriter for the Herald Examiner, covering high school sports and USC basketball. My boss, sports editor Bud Furillo, decided to reward me with a trip with the Lakers for a playoff game in Chicago. At the time, this was a big deal. I had to work a morning office shift before catching the Lakers’ afternoon flight to Chicago on a commercial airline. I bought some new clothes for the trip but my shoes were a mess. I asked a security guard if he knew of a nearby shoeshine stand. He sent me from the Herald Examiner building at 11th and Broadway over to a shoeshine stand on San Pedro Avenue. It was a two-seater, and while I was getting my shoes shined, Pat Riley, the player with the Fu Manchu beard, walked up and sat next to me. I introduced myself and said I’d be on the trip with the team that afternoon. Riley seemed unmoved and didn’t say a word. Now fast forward to 1985, thirteen years later, and seven years after I had moved onto the Times, where my main beat was sports broadcasting. The Lakers were in the midst of the NBA Finals against the dreaded Boston Celtics. The Lakers won that series, four games to two, but lost Game 4 by a score of 107-105, when the Celtics’ Dennis Johnson hit a shot as time expired. I was in the Press Lounge at the Forum well after the end of Game 4 when Riley came into a nearly empty room. I was talking with Bob Steiner, Buss’ longtime head of public relations, and Susan Stratton, the former executive producer of Lakers telecasts on Channel 9. Riley walked over and joined our little group, and Steiner said, “Pat, you know Larry Stewart from the Times?” Riley’s response blew me way. “Yeah, sure, but I don’t think we’ve seen each other since we got our shoes shined together.” I got to know Riley later on, particularly after he joined NBC as a commentator for a year in 1990 after leaving the Lakers. I often wrote about him in my Times TV-Radio sports column and also did a major freelance piece on him for Sport magazine. We talked about the shoeshine story on a number of occasions and I eventually asked him what he was doing in the garment district of Los Angeles that day. He said he was there to pick up a couple of tailored suits. Even back then, he was into fashion. The “Pat Riley Shoeshine Story” was just one of the many fond memories I enjoyed while attending the Jerry Buss memorial and ensuing reception.

I think the first time I met Jerry Buss was in 1980 shortly after he had purchased the Pickfair Mansion, the former home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Buss paid about $5.4 million for the home. He sold it 5½ years later, listing it for $11.5 million. I was among a few sportswriter invited there by Steiner, the best PR man I’ve ever known who is now semi-retired and serves as the spokesman for the Buss family. That visit to Pickfair was memorable for several reasons. For one thing, I got to see the place. For another, giving us a tour was Buss’ daughter Jeanie, then a teenager. It was the start of a long relationship with the Buss family, which came about mainly because of my friendship with Steiner.

I was never a full-time Lakers beat writer, but covering sports television did bring me closer to Jerry Buss. A big story came in 1985 when Buss and Bill Daniels, regarded as the father of cable television, started Prime Ticket. Buss had the foresight to put home games on cable. It was revolutionary at the time; common practice everywhere today. During the 2001 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, I teamed up with colleague Steve Springer to write a major profile of Buss in the Times. One thing about that story sticks out with me, and that was interviewing Hugh Hefner. He told me he wasn’t a fan of basketball, but he considered Buss a close personal friend. “We have one thing in common,” Hefner said. “We both like young women.” I have since written blogs for about Jeanie Buss and Arcadia’s Si “Lam” Huynh, the owner of Prince Jewelers on Huntington Drive, a relationship I cultivated. Those blogs were posted Nov. 18, 2009 and Dec. 27, 2011.

It’s been fun riding the Buss bus for so many years. I will miss the late-night, off-the-record conversations with Jerry Buss after so many Lakers games. And it goes without saying, all of Los Angeles and basketball fans everywhere will miss Jerry Buss.

— By Larry Stewart


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