- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
He sat on an island off the coast of Venice, Italy, six years ago.
While Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss sipped on glasses of red wine, his empire thousands of miles away was crumbling.
Buss had recently traded away the most dominant player in basketball, Shaquille O'Neal, and let go of the most dominant coach in basketball, Phil Jackson. Three days removed from being three wins away from winning his fourth NBA title in five years, Buss had blown up the nucleus of his dynasty and was now celebrating the occasion by sipping on some vino and partying with the beautiful women of Venezia.
Looking back on it now, Buss knew something we didn't.
Buss denies he jettisoned O'Neal and Jackson to appease Kobe Bryant, who he would later re-sign to a seven-year, $136 million deal. However, it was clear to observers he took a wrecking ball to his championship team to ensure that Bryant -- who no longer wanted to play with O'Neal or be coached by Jackson -- remained with the Lakers after opting out of his contract.
It would turn out to be one of the best decisions in the history of the franchise.
Going to pieces
"Black Friday" traditionally falls on the day after Thanksgiving, but on a warm summer night in Los Angeles, it was the day the rest of the NBA gave thanks that the Lakers' five-year run of championship-quality basketball on the court -- and reality-television quality drama off the court -- came to an end.
Friday, June 18, 2004, was supposed to be a day of rejoicing for the Lakers. They were supposed to be celebrating their fourth championship in five years. The purple and gold should have been parading down Figueroa Street, as they have done so many times before, after disposing of the Detroit Pistons. Instead it was the day the Lakers, who were embarrassed by the Pistons in a "five-game sweep," were dismantled.
The day began with a meeting between Buss and Jackson which ended with Jackson and the team parting ways. Soon afterward, O'Neal demanded to be traded and Bryant opted out of his contract to become a free agent.
Before Jackson could get on his motorcycle and drive off into the sunset of "retirement" in Montana, O'Neal, who had already publicly criticized Buss and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, put his $7.5 million home in Beverly Hills for sale. O'Neal told anyone who would listen he had played his last game for the Lakers. His problems with the organization had grown beyond a simple contract extension. He felt the team disrespected him by letting go of Jackson without letting him know and felt chided when Kupchak publicly admitted Bryant was untradable while O'Neal was, well, negotiable.
"Usually when something happens, like the firing of a coach, I would know about it," O'Neal said after he was traded. "But I woke up and Phil Jackson was fired as Lakers coach. So I called the offices and hear it's true. Nobody told me Phil was going to be fired. When they got rid of Phil, I was very upset. I knew they were going to make changes, changes that I didn't want to be a part of."
Instead of trying to soothe O'Neal's hurt ego, the Lakers did everything to grant his trade demands, going so far as to send him to the Miami Heat, his dream destination, for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant (three forwards who had never been All-Stars) and a future draft pick. In Buss' eyes the trade was a necessity, not an option. See how Lamar Odom came to the Lakers »
"If you have a dynasty, it begins to age. If you don't make some effort to rejuvenate the team, then you sometimes go to the bottom," Buss said at the time. "That's a very scary, miserable, depressing thought to me."
He later added, "Maybe I'm trading him too soon, maybe I'm trading him too late, I don't know. I really think there comes a time you have to make a trade to stay on top."
In a way, the Lakers did go to the bottom after the trade. That's what happens when you replace O'Neal with Vlade Divac, who would play only 15 games before succumbing to back problems, and Jackson with Rudy Tomjanovich, who would coach only 43 games before retiring due to health issues. The Lakers would go 34-48 in the first season after the trade and missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history, which dates back to 1949.
The Lakers' lowly season and the unexpected losses of Divac and Tomjanovich would put in motion a whole new set of dominos which would amazingly, inexplicably have the Lakers contending for a championship within three years.
Bits and pieces
Almost exactly a year after he left, Jackson was hired back by the team that had shed him and was once again coaching Bryant, who he had called "uncoachable" in his book, "The Last Season," which was published after he left the team.
A couple of months later, needing a big man since Divac was set to retire, the Lakers traded Butler and Chucky Atkins to the Washington Wizards for Kwame Brown and Laron Profit. The Lakers had selected 17-year-old center Andrew Bynum with the 10th pick in the 2005 draft, hoping the lottery pick they got from the terrible season they had following the O'Neal trade would one day net them the next O'Neal. They knew, however, that Bynum would be a two- to three-year project.
The Lakers were eliminated by the Suns in the first round of the playoffs the next two years, a humbling experience that would lead to Bryant's demanding a trade, much like O'Neal had done three years prior. But this time Buss and Kupchak weren't as accommodating. Bryant wanted to be part of a contender and didn't believe the Lakers were making the moves necessary to make it happen. Bryant's frustration with the team was highlighted in a viral video recorded by inquisitive fans. The fans ran into Bryant in front of the Newport Coast Shopping Center in the offseason after the Lakers had squashed a potential Bynum for Jason Kidd trade.
"Andrew Bynum? What the f---?" Bryant said in disgust. "Are you kidding me? Andrew Bynum? F---ing ship his ass out. Are you kidding me? We're talking about Jason Kidd. But they didn't even want to do that. Now we're here in this f---ed up position."
On May 31, 2007, Bryant went on a confusing radio tour, saying he wanted to be traded and later saying he wanted to be a Laker for the rest of his career within a three-hour time span. "Promises made to make this team better have not been kept," said Bryant at the time. "So where does that leave me?" See how Andrew Bynum came to the Lakers »
Piece by piece
The Lakers wouldn't do much to revamp their roster in the offseason heading into the 2007-08 season. In fact, their only major signing basically fell in their lap when they brought back Derek Fisher, their steady point guard who had left the team in 2004 along with O'Neal, Jackson and most everyone else. Fisher asked the Utah Jazz to release him from his contract so he could relocate to a city that would have the "right combination" of specialists that could help fight his daughter's retinoblastoma (a tumor of the eye). The Jazz obliged and Fisher took an $8 million pay cut to return to Los Angeles two weeks later.
The previous year, the Lakers had used Miami's first-round pick from the O'Neal trade to draft Jordan Farmar, and after releasing Grant in 2005 and saving nearly $30 million in luxury-tax penalties, they signed Vladimir Radmanovic, who got a five-year, $31 million contract. See how Jordan Farmar came to the Lakers »
In the 2007 draft, they took Javaris Crittenton in the first round and Marc Gasol, who was scheduled to remain in Spain for at least the next year, in the second round. Those two players would be part of the trade that would reshape the Lakers and once again make them a championship contender.
On Feb. 1, 2008, the Lakers shipped Kwame Brown, Crittenton, the draft rights to Gasol and their first-round picks in 2008 and 2010 to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. (Aaron McKie was momentarily brought out of retirement by the Lakers and sent to Memphis for a cup of coffee to make the trade work.) Four years after dismantling the squad that had won three straight championships and went to four NBA Finals in five years, the new-look, Kobe-led Lakers were back in the Finals -- although they would lose the Boston Celtics in six games. See how Pau Gasol came to the Lakers »
A year later, they would trade Radmanovic to the Charlotte Bobcats for Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison. The Lakers once again returned to the NBA Finals, this time beating the Orlando Magic to win the NBA championship. See how Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison came to the Lakers »
Built to last
Much like a college recruiting class or a young draft pick, it may have taken four years to realize the worth of the O'Neal trade, but it's clear now that the Lakers made the right move as they sit one win away from returning to their third consecutive NBA Finals and five wins from the franchise's 16th championship.
O'Neal, 38, will be watching the NBA Finals at home for the fourth consecutive year, but nearly half the Lakers' current roster can be traced in some way to the O'Neal trade. From Odom, who was actually part of the trade, to Gasol, who came to the Lakers after being traded for Brown who was traded for Butler.
Most fans and critics called the trade a colossal failure for three years after it was made. O'Neal and Dwyane Wade led the Heat to the NBA championship in 2006 while Bryant failed to lead the Lakers out of the first round. But imagine what the Lakers would be today if they had tried to keep that 2004 team intact for as long as possible instead of making the incredibly unpopular decision to move forward. Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Stanislav Medvedenko, Bryon Russell, Horace Grant and Rick Fox have been out of the league for years. O'Neal is on his way out.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have locked up Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Bynum and Ron Artest for at least the next three years.
That's at least three more years that the Lakers can enjoy being a contender and Buss doesn't have to worry about realizing the "very scary, miserable, depressing thought" of his team's being a bottom dweller.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com
12hMatt Walks, ESPN.com