Jerry Buss: A true sports visionary

  • Ramona Shelburne [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPNLosAngeles.com | February 19, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- The man smiling in all the pictures, the one in blue jeans and a casual shirt with a beautiful young woman on his arm, looks as though luck has smiled on him once or twice in his day.

And truth be told, Dr. Jerry Buss, who turned a $1,000 real estate investment into the keys to the Los Angeles Lakers, and went on to become one of the most influential and successful owners in professional sports, did get one very important break when Magic Johnson fell into the Lakers' arms the very same year he bought the team. But to chalk up his remarkable life to the whims of fate and fortune is profoundly shortsighted. It wasn't luck that brought Buss from a Great Depression food line in a frigid corner of Wyoming to the sun-kissed boulevards of Los Angeles and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Jerry Buss
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesJerry Buss poses with the NBA championship trophy after Game 6 of the Finals between the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers on May 16, 1980.

It was vision.

Buss, who has died of cancer Monday at the age of 80, first came to Los Angeles as a 9-year-old boy. He stayed just three years before being yanked back to a hardscrabble life of shining shoes at the old Kemmerer Hotel and working at a Union Pacific railroad station after his mother remarried a man from Wyoming. And yet somehow in that brief, youthful glimpse, he saw the sorts of beautiful things in Los Angeles that Randy Newman would sing about some 40 years later in his civic -- and now Lakers -- anthem, "I Love L.A."

Look at those mountains, look at those trees. … Look at those women, ain't nothing like 'em nowhere.

That was the brand. The vision Buss would build his team into. The Lakers didn't just win 10 of their 16 NBA titles under Buss' ownership, they won with swagger and an effortless cool the locals here like to think they have, too.

"My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same," Buss said in a 2010 interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. "When you think New York, you think Yankees. I wanted that to be the case here as well. That when you think L.A., you think Lakers. I believe I've accomplished that."

Buss' genius, which will now become part of the long legacy he leaves to the sports world, is the way he monetized that vision. In fact, he had that vision well before the Lakers burned their brightest during the 1980s "Showtime" era and everyone wanted to bask in it. Most thought it was a terrible investment when he used every dollar he'd made from that initial $1,000 investment in an apartment complex and spent $67.5 million to buy the Lakers, the NHL's Kings, the Forum and a sprawling ranch in Kern County from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. They'd all been losing money for years.

But Buss saw something nobody else saw: a show. And so he turned the Forum Club into an exclusive den for celebrities to see and be seen. He charged top dollar for courtside seats, recognizing that people who can afford them like to show off a little, and that everyone else dreams of being able to sit there one day, too. He hired a live band, turned the Lakers cheerleaders into the "Laker Girls," and their sizzling dance routines during timeouts became as much a part of the show as Magic Johnson's no-look passes or Chick Hearn's famous calls on the radio. He partied with celebrities, dated supermodels and played high-stakes poker with professionals.

It was a vision that appealed to everyone. And in keeping with his blue-collar roots, Buss made sure everyone could be a part of it when he co-founded Prime Ticket, a regional cable sports network that carried all of the Lakers' home games. Buss insisted that Prime Ticket be part of a basic cable package, not a premium package, so Lakers games could be seen by the broadest audience in Los Angeles.

That appeal to the everyman was the key. To him, and to why his story paralleled perfectly with a golden era in Los Angeles that burned so brightly that the city, the Lakers, and everyone who lived through that time will forever be trying to relive and recreate it.

Buss and the Lakers came to embody Los Angeles in the 1980s: A place where a poor kid from Wyoming with smarts, some street savvy and a dream could make a nice life for himself -- and have quite a bit of fun along the way. There were no judgments. So long as you made a lot of money and kept on winning like the Lakers did, the rest of it -- the city, its sunshine and all its pleasures -- were yours to enjoy. In fact you should enjoy them.

"Welcome to Hollywood! What's your dream?" the man on the street exclaims at the end of the 1990 movie "Pretty Woman," as Julia Roberts and Richard Gere kiss on the fire escape. "Some dreams come true, some don't. But keep on dreamin' -- this is Hollywood."

Such brash commitments to hope and possibility were part of how Los Angeles broke from the trappings of its old Hollywood elegance, and differentiated itself from New York, its uptight older brother. They were part of why Buss became something of a folk hero in L.A.

"There's only a few cities that would accept my flamboyance," Buss said in a 2010 GQ profile. "I'm aware of that."

It worked for him because it never felt like Buss was showing off. Rather, he was inviting you into his world at the "Fabulous Forum," or inside his Pickfair Mansion in Beverly Hills with an amused look that suggested you'd live like him, too, if you could.

Which is why despite the "Beat L.A." chants his team heard wherever they went, Dr. Jerry Buss was always one of the most popular owners in sports. People might root against or dislike the Lakers, but how many disliked him?

What's amazing is that Buss and the Lakers were successful for many of the same reasons George Steinbrenner and the Yankees were. He always spent what it took to win championships, plus a little extra just to be sure. He wasn't afraid to fire a coach suddenly (Paul Westhead) or painfully (Del Harris) if it became clear it wasn't working. He wasn't afraid to choose between two fan favorites, as he did when he gave Johnson a 25-year, $25 million contract in 1981, placing him ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or when he traded Shaquille O'Neal in 2004 to give a larger role to Kobe Bryant.

Magic Johnson Kevin Reece/WireImageDr. Jerry Buss was always one of the most popular owners in sports. People might root against or dislike the Lakers, but how many disliked him?

He made tough, sometimes unpopular, calls. He gambled on players and coaches like he did at the card table -- weighing all the odds with a brilliant, analytical mind, then pushing his chips into the middle of the table when the timing and the moment felt right. Most of his moves worked out well and resulted in championships (such as firing Westhead and promoting a young assistant with great hair named Pat Riley). Some didn't, as poor Randy Pfund and Mike Brown found out. But like a good card player, Buss usually owned up to it and got out of bad hands as quickly as he could.

"He's extremely, extremely intelligent and extremely patient," Bryant said after a recent game. "He'll sit and he'll wait because he has his goals and he knows exactly where he wants to be and how to construct a ballclub. He's just extremely smart in how he goes about it. It's very rare to find that kind of owner who seemingly doesn't make any mistakes."

Buss' intelligence was evident early on. Classmates recall him as a genius. In her autobiography, "Laker Girl," daughter Jeanie Buss wrote that he was "a wonder boy." He was so bright, he was entrusted to teach his high school chemistry class as a senior. He sailed through the University of Wyoming in 2½ years -- long enough to meet his first wife, JoAnn Mueller -- by borrowing his classmates' text books (he couldn't afford his own) early in the semesters before they needed them to study, remembering what he needed until the finals. He later earned a Ph.D in chemistry from USC, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in law from Wyoming in 2005.

It was Buss' patience that saved Bryant from being traded to "Pluto" -- or perhaps the Chicago Bulls -- before the 2007-08 NBA season. Bryant had reason to be angry with the Lakers, of course. In 2004, Buss interrupted his summer vacation in Venice, Italy, to call Bryant in a last-ditch effort to convince him to re-sign with the Lakers when it looked as if he might leave to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Buss had promised Bryant he was serious about contending for titles, as the Lakers always are, and would spend what it took to make that happen. But when two seasons went by with the Lakers wallowing in mediocrity, Bryant was frustrated and asked to be traded.

Buss held firm and called his bluff, knowing Bryant was too competitive to simply mail it in, and would eventually come around if the Lakers could pull off a trade for a player who would get them back into championship contention. Five months later, the Lakers traded for forward Pau Gasol and were on their way to two more titles, in 2009 and 2010.

"He believed in me," Bryant said in the 2010 GQ article. "The trust factor feels good. We won a championship. And now I'm going to run through the f---ing wall to bring him another."

Bryant and Buss became very close over the years. They chatted often about everything from marriage to potential trades. It made Bryant feel included and respected; and gave Buss a connection to the team and what was going on in the locker room that was vital in making tough decisions. It was the type of relationship between owner and superstar player that's now common in today's NBA, but was really another of Buss' insights that helped transform the game. For the NBA to succeed, it needed to put on a great show, not just a great game. And you need stars to put on a great show.

Johnson was the first superstar Buss grew close to. Over the years, Johnson became like a son to Buss, and stayed that way long after Johnson retired for good in 1995.

"One of my first friends in Los Angeles was the new owner, Jerry Buss," Johnson wrote in his autobiography, ''My Life." "We were like a couple of kids, both of us full of energy and new ideas. People thought my enthusiasm wouldn't last, and they said the same about Jerry. But then, he wasn't exactly your typical franchise owner.

"Jerry used to invite me over to his house, where we'd eat chocolate doughnuts and play pool. Sometimes we would double-date, going out for dinner or dancing. A couple of times I went with him to Las Vegas."

It was an unusual friendship, but it was also a genuine one. And it speaks to the side of Buss that was never celebrated as it should have been, but was just as important to the Lakers brand as all the swagger and success.

The generous side.

From the day he bought the team from Cooke, the Lakers were a family-run organization. Buss and his family ran the team -- his six children all have roles within the organization now -- but everyone who either played or worked for the franchise became a part of the extended family. The stories of Buss' generosity and kindness are legendary around the league.

Rasheed Hazzard, whose father Walt Hazzard played for the Lakers in the mid-1970s and later worked for them as an adviser, said Buss not only kept his father on the payroll after he suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1996, he assured Hazzard he would always be a Lakers employee for as long as Buss owned the team.

"He stood by his word," Rasheed Hazzard said. "When my dad passed away [in 2011], he was still an employee of the Lakers and our family is eternally grateful. Without him we would have lost our father in more ways than can be described."

There are countless other stories of Buss' generosity. But you wonder, looking back on all he did, if there will ever be a man with a story like Buss' again. In many ways he was a unique 20th century hero. A self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps with smarts and savvy to achieve a life of luxury and leisure among the beautiful people and things.

Is it even possible for a man from such humble beginnings to rise so high? Can a franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers -- now valued at $1 billion by Forbes magazine -- be purchased by one man and run by one family? Is vision enough?

They are questions for his children now. And he has, of course, taught them well. His daughter Jeanie Buss will run the Lakers' business operations. His son Jim Buss has been groomed to run the Lakers' basketball operations. The team will officially belong to all six of them, including his sons Johnny, Joey and Jesse and daughter Janie.

"I text them at least once a month, saying, 'Do you have any idea how proud of you I am?'" Buss told ESPN in 2010. "What makes me feel that way is not only that they are running the organization, but that they are doing so well, perhaps better than I would do."

It is a future Jerry Buss has long planned for. He has trained his children, made them earn it, or at least learn what they should know. Now that he sleeps, it is up to them to dream.

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