LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers’ magic was in the air again, and it was electric.
For more than six hours Thursday, three men who love the Lakers huddled, bonded and believed that this historically glorious franchise could be restored to its most brilliantly gold sheen if an idealistic, imaginative and charismatic young man took over as its head coach.
Luke Walton wowed Lakers head of basketball operations Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak in that interview—making clear not just how much he wanted the job but how much he has learned about the craft of teaching team basketball since he last played for the Lakers in 2012. So Walton was hired Friday night, the Lakers cutting short a search they’d announced would be extensive, and Walton blowing off four scheduled interviews to be the head coach of NBA teams that didn’t move him emotionally.
It was downright romantic how connected Walton, Buss and Kupchak felt over what Walton could bring to the Lakers—or bring back to the Lakers. All of them believe in the power of the brand, and Lakers management is well aware of how Walton’s faith can validate that feeling in the team's frustrated fans…and perhaps also some skeptical free-agent talents.
Worth noting also is that Walton’s hiring might well serve as solid footing for Phil Jackson to stretch a long leg back toward the West next year. Walton adores his former coach, but the love is probably even stronger the other way—from Jackson toward Walton.
How that hierarchy would work remains to be seen, with Jackson wanting to run a front office, and this one currently led by Buss and Kupchak.
Lakers president Jeanie Buss, Jackson’s fiancee and Jim’s sister, did not make this decision on Walton, according to team sources. Jim Buss, once leading that radical movement to distance the Lakers from all things Phil, was all for this communal movement appreciating what Walton learned from Jackson. Jim Buss is under pressure to produce a winner as immediately as next season based on the timeline he promised to Jeanie. Thing is, he actually believes he can do so.
So his motivation for bringing Walton in is that he believes the new lead man can work some of that magic immediately, no matter how it might pave the way for Jackson to come home to take Buss’ job. And if the Lakers don’t soar to the second round of the playoffs by next year, perhaps whatever progress Walton makes with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson earns Buss more time…or even a seat at the table to stay on during the Phil era.
Walton is high on the Lakers’ young talent, which made it easier for him to leave his cushy job as Steve Kerr’s top assistant for the championship-caliber Golden State Warriors.
Walton’s conversation with Buss and Kupchak wasn’t just reminiscing how Kobe Bryant evaluated the Lakers roster before Los Angeles' two championships in 2009-10 by saying it can’t just be “me and Luke” with work ethic. It didn’t dwell on grins and laughs over Shaquille O’Neal wanting Walton to trick out the old Cadillac convertible he brought to the Lakers as a rookie in 2003.
It was Walton’s vision for the future of Lakers basketball that sold Buss and Kupchak, especially after their struggles to get Byron Scott to embrace new-school NBA styles of play. Walton has seen the benefits of the Warriors’ open-mindedness both on the court with their generous passing and in a uniquely democratic locker room.
Jackson has always been a believer in Walton’s basketball acumen, formed in part by watching his father, Bill, in the NBA. But Walton also shared with Buss and Kupchak how his coaching philosophy was shaped by his University of Arizona coach, Lute Olson, to whom he also remains close.
Walton, 36, has a way with people as old as Olson, 81, and even more so with those as young as Russell, 20. Walton’s skill in relating to all types of people and conveying meaningful messages in all sorts of ways is his gift.
And as much as that might be ascribed to Jackson’s team-building teachings, it goes deeper: Walton’s mother, Susie—who has been a bigger influence on his life than his famous father—is a parenting educator renowned for her expertise in strengthening relationships.
The Lakers are down so deep that no one man or moment can change their fortunes. Walton, though, isn’t so egocentric to believe that’s the way it works anyway.
He wants to be a leader in finding the solutions, and the Lakers have every reason to believe he will be.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.