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Dr. Jerry Buss might best be called the accidental owner of one of the greatest franchises in professional sports history.
Having grown up in the Depression-era, coal-mining badlands of Wyoming, he discovered he had a head for numbers and wanted to be a chemistry teacher.
After venturing into the Southern California aerospace industry working on the study of rocket fuel, somehow he got pulled into buying and selling apartment complexes to supplement his income.
How Buss ended up buying the Lakers in 1979 for some $16 million, watching them soar to beyond $1 billion in worth is remarkable enough.
The way he was eventually inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for combination of starting the “Showtime” era with Magic Johnson’s career and collecting 10 NBA championships in 16 trips to the final over the last 34 years is a journey few could have envisioned in a classic rags-to-riches story.
When Buss died Monday morning at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center from kidney failure after an 18-month bout with cancer at the age of 80, he left the future of the team entrusted in the hands of two of his six children, Jim and Jeanie Buss. But in reality, his personal DNA will remain as part of the franchise’s genetic code for decades to come.
“We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community,” the family said in a statement.
“(He) showed his amazing strength and will to live. It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.”
Because Buss’ passing came after an extended period, reaction all day Monday from the sports world focused on his legacy of creating one of the most undeniably successful franchises by learning the business and delegating authority, all driven by his desire to win.
Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have put it best by saying in a statement:
“When someone as celebrated and charismatic as Jerry Buss dies, we are reminded of two things. First, just how much one person with vision and strength of will can accomplish. Second, how fragile each of us is, regardless of how powerful we were.
“Those two things combine to inspire us to reach for the stars, but also to remain with our feet firmly on the ground among our loved ones. Dr. Buss embodied that compassionate entrepreneurial spirit. He strove to reach greater heights without forgetting his community roots.
During his stewardship, the Lakers exemplified his personal standards of excellence and became one of the dominant teams in the NBA and a force of good within the community. The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.”
Lakers legend Jerry West, Buss’ longtime general manager and architect of the franchise’s roster through the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, said Buss had an “incredible commitment and desire to build a championship-caliber team that could sustain success over a long period of time has been unmatched.
“With all of his achievements, Jerry was without a doubt one of the most humble men I’ve ever been around. . . . Jerry was an innovator in the sports world and many sports franchises have tried to follow his recipe for success and his vision of making NBA basketball as much about sports as entertainment . . . I was blessed to have the opportunity to work for him and I will miss him dearly.”
In a series of Twitter posts, Magic Johnson, who won five NBA championships with the Lakers as a player and owned a share of the team with Buss through five more, said Buss was like his second father.
“All Dr. Buss ever wanted to do was WIN and he did,” wrote Johnson.
The Dodgers, now part-owned by Johnson, also released a statement acknowledging that Buss “made great contributions to the sporting landscape of Los Angeles and America and was a true champion in every sense of the word.”
Gerald Hatten Buss was born Jan. 27, 1933, but never knew his father, Lydus, who left him after his first birthday. He was raised by his mother, Jesse, often waiting as a 4 year old in food lines, or as a 6 year old collecting telephone books so it could be used to burn in the fireplace to keep his home warm.
One of Buss’ first jobs as a youngster was digging ditches for Cecil Brown, who became his stepfather. Brown owned a plumbing business and Buss woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get the work done before going to school in Kemmerer, Wyo.
Buss found his independence through making his own money, whether it was shining shoes, working on the railroad, or selling stamps.
Growing up in rugged Wyoming, “tens of miles away from any kind of assistance, you learn self-reliance, and self-reliance in any environment is a virtue,” Buss once told the Casper (Wyo.) Journal.
He attended the University of Wyoming on a science scholarship, and graduated in 2 ½ years in 1953. That pursuit led to him heading to USC for a Masters and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry when he was 24 years old.
After college, he worked as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines, then came to California to work at Douglas Aircraft in the propulsion division. He also taught in USC’s chemistry department.
Eventually, he met a fellow worker and poker player, Frank Mariani. The two devised a financial plan to begin investing in real estate.
They decided they needed $1,000 to start with, so each of them put $83.33 aside each month toward that goal. This was at a time when Buss was making about $700 a month and supporting a wife, Joanne, and the first of his children.
In 1959, Buss and Mariani added two partners and put a $4,000 down payment on a 14-unit apartment building in West L.A. The cost was $105,000, and Buss would admit to being “scared” diving into such a risky business proposition. He and Mariani spent weekends doing repairs and painting to save on expenses.
When the Southern California real estate market exploded in the 1970s, it propelled Buss to new heights. He owned hotels in Palm Springs and San Diego, frequented the race track at Del Mar and bought a large luxury boat in Marina del Rey.
Yet Buss’ foray into sports was also a relatively small-game start-up.
At the height of U.S. tennis’ popularity in the 1970s, he bought into the Los Angeles Strings of the World Team Tennis league, starting at the L.A. Sports Arena. He and his attorney, Jerry Fine, put in $25,000 each for the team.
The Strings lost $200,000 in its first year, and $1 million in its second.
“This is going to be my education in sports,” Buss told everyone who asked why he wanted to stick with this red-ink proposition.
The Strings eventually moved into the Inglewood Forum, built by Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Buss, who had amassed a couple million dollars by the age of 40, had heard rumors of Cooke considering selling his sports empire. He asked him to give him a shot at buying it.
Cooke called Buss to his Las Vegas home in May, 1979 and asked him if he was ready to do a deal. Cooke’s accelerated desire to get the sale done was a pending divorce, and the future owner of the Los Angeles Daily News wanted to move to Virginia to be closer to his ownership in the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
“There were times when I felt I’d gotten in a little over my head (because Cooke) may have had the toughest will I’ve ever seen,” Buss said in Roland Lazenby’s 2006 book, “The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers.”
Even though the Lakers cost him $16 million, the $67.5 million deal included the addition of Cooke’s Forum ($33 million), his NHL Kings ($8 million) and a large ranch in the Sierra Nevada. Buss had to transfer the rights to his Chrysler Building in New York, as well as other property in other states.
The complicated transaction was then a record for any sports-related deal at the time, one that took dozens of lawyers and accountants to sort out and avoid huge tax liens for either side.
Combined with their real estate company, Buss and Mariani held assets of $350 million when the dust settle.
With his new status, Buss showed two sides to his ownership ways. In the media, he tried to stay under the radar. But for someone who eventually took ownership as of the famed Pickfair mansion in Beverly Hills, he enjoyed appearing at Lakers games in his end-zone luxury box with young women on his arms, this not long after he divorced his wife.
Buss, who chose to remain dressed down in boots and jeans to go along with pull-over sweaters, figured out the Lakers needed the missing Hollywood ingredient if he was going to be able to sell seats.
His idea was to add the Lakers dance team, the in-seat waitresses, live music, and an array of stars sitting courtside seats, starting with Jack Nicholson planted firmly for all the cameras and patrons to see.
Buss was also the first to figure out how to cash in on naming rights, slapping the Forum with the Great Western Bank logo. He sold seats at the arena as he did real estate – it was all about location. He created a year-around seat program for all events in the Forum, called “Senate seats,” which were viewed as condominiums without walls.
It led to the launch of a regional sports network and added TV revenue. In 1985, Buss became partners with Colorado cable TV entrepreneur Bill Daniels, and the two started the Prime Ticket network to show the Lakers and Kings games, home and away, live to Southern California and Hawaii residents.
“I remember when Dad told me he was going to start showing home games on cable,” said Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ head of business operations , before his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2010. “I was worried it would ruin our business. He corrected me and said I had to think of it as expanding the capacity at the Forum. Instead of 17,505 to watch a game now we could include all the fans who wanted to see the game but couldn’t get tickets. It was genius.”
That eventually got Buss a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with a logo of a TV set.
Buss had already sold off the Kings before the Lakers and his WNBA Sparks moved from the Forum to Staples Center in 1999. He sold his ownership of the Sparks in 2006. That year, he also became the first owner of an NBA Development League team, the Defenders.
But the Lakers would remain a family property – almost like one he would buy up during family games of Monopoly.
His family ties to USC remains strong as well. In 2008, as an inaugural member of the USC College Board of Councilors, Buss endowed $7.5 million to the school for two endowed chairs in honor of his mentors, friends and former USC chemistry professors, Sidney Benson and David Dows.
While Buss enjoyed getting out and competing in poker tournaments, in recent years he tried to stay more in the background. He relinquished much of the initial decision-making duties to son Jim, but always was in on the discussion.
Although he hasn’t attended a Lakers game all year, he gave the final approval of pushing the Lakers’ payroll over the $100 million mark to add Steve Nash and Dwight Howard this season. He may have feared having to pay more in NBA luxury tax, but a new deal with Time Warner Cable that gave the team another influx of funds for the next 20 years was enough of a guarantee that things could move forward.
Buss also was part of the change in hiring Mike D’Antoni as the new coach instead of rehiring Phil Jackson, now engaged to his daughter Jeanie.
Buss is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse, and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California. He has eight grandchildren. He is also survived by former wife JoAnn, living in of Las Vegas, half sister Susan Hall of Phoenix, half brother Micky Brown of Scottsdale and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyoming.
Services are pending.