LOS ANGELES -- Before the season began, Lakers owner Jerry Buss looked over his team's roster and told reporters that this year's Lakers team might be the best they've ever had. It was quite a statement coming from an owner who has won 10 championships since buying the Lakers in 1979. Halfway through the season, many are now wondering if the Lakers will even make it back to the NBA Finals.
Not Buss. He still thinks the Lakers have all the pieces in place to win their third straight title even if they don't always play like champions. After going to three straight Finals, Buss said it is unrealistic to think the Lakers wouldn't struggle at times during the regular season.
"I think we've had such a long run," Buss said on 710 ESPN's "Lunch with a Legend" Wednesday. "We've been to the Finals three consecutive years and all those extra games and playing until the middle of June. You know, if you quit in April, it's not hard to imagine with all that time off you are ready to go in October but when we play until the middle of June, October comes around too quick. I think the more times you go to the Finals the more difficult it [becomes] to be prepared for the Finals.
"I think right about now everybody senses that we have to get busy. This is going to be our time. The pride begins to set in, not the fatigue. The fatigue begins to float away and now they say, 'Wait a minute. This is our championship; you're going to have to take it away from us before you can call yourselves champions.'"
Buss made a surprise appearance at Lakers practice earlier this month in the midst of the team's losing three of four games. His presence wasn't meant to strike fear in the players, he said, but to show them he's still supporting them despite what they may see or read in the media.
"The sense I try to give them is I'm behind them 100 percent, win, lose or draw," Buss said. "It's not them and me yelling at them. It's us. We're all together. Whatever happens to you is going to happen to me and whatever happens to me is going to happen to you. So my presence there is intended to calm them down, get it reorganized and try and win."
Buss made it a point to go to every Lakers player after practice and chat with them for a bit and maybe ease their tension with some small talk.
"I walk over to Ron Artest and say, 'We haven't had lunch for three weeks, you should call me,'" he said. "I walk over to [Devin] Ebanks and say, 'There's a very beautiful model called Ebanks [Selita Ebanks], is she related to you?' I went over to Matt Barnes and asked, 'Are you going to be back in time to do us some good?'"
When Buss was asked what he said to Kobe Bryant, he smiled. He's known Bryant since he was a 17-year-old kid signing with the Lakers out of high school and has had his share of high and low points with his superstar guard. At this point in their relationship, Buss and Bryant are past the point of small talk. The turning point in their relationship took place during the summer of 2007 when Bryant said he wanted to be traded because the Lakers weren't doing enough to build a championship team around him.
"He was at my house and a couple other people were there and I remember he was saying, 'Don't blame me, all I'm out here for is to win,'" Buss recalled. "And I looked at him and our eyes met and I said, 'You're not the only one, Kobe. You know I want to win, maybe even more than you do.' From that time on Kobe and I have been, I think, on the same wavelength. I think everybody knows on that team that I want to win just like the 'Black Mamba.'"
Buss' talks with Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who said he plans on retiring after this season, are different from his talks with any other member of the organization for obvious reasons.
"Phil and I have a different kind of relationship," Buss said. "Well, he dates my daughter, Jeanie. I tell him he has to call me Dad once in a while. He likes to read. Phil is a very well-read person. You could talk to him about any topic at any time and he has something to say about it. I read a lot; it's one of my real passions so we compare books. Sometimes when I'm talking to Phil I'll say, 'What's the last thing you read?'"
Buss still expects the Lakers' up-and-down season to end with a big up come June. Then again, that's always his feeling, even during seasons that haven't ended with a title.
"When things go bad and newspapers start in, television starts in, radio starts in, and begin to say this is wrong with the Lakers, that's wrong with the Lakers, the Lakers are too old, they're too this, they're too that, etc., they overdo it," Buss said. "Things are not really that bad. If things were really that bad I would be there [at practice] every day. I try to give them a sense that things are not so bad. You're OK. We're OK."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.