Jerry Buss: A true sports visionary
Ramona Shelburne [ARCHIVE]
February 19, 2013
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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.

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 "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.

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...
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