Jerry Buss, Lakers’ flamboyant owner, dies at 80
Jerry Buss built a glittering life at the intersection of sports and Hollywood.
After growing up in poverty in Wyoming, he earned success in academia, aerospace and real estate before discovering his favorite vocation when he bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. While Buss wrote the checks and fostered partnerships with two generations of basketball greats, the Lakers won 10 NBA titles and became a glamorous worldwide brand.
With a scientist’s analytical skills, a playboy’s flair, a businessman’s money-making savvy and a die-hard hoops fan’s heart, Buss fashioned the Lakers into a remarkable sports entity. They became a nightly happening, often defined by just one word coined by Buss: Showtime.
“His impact is felt worldwide,” said Kobe Bryant, who has spent nearly half his life working for Buss.
Buss, who shepherded his NBA team from the Showtime dynasty of the 1980s to the current Bryant era while becoming one of the most important and successful owners in pro sports, died Monday. He was 80.
“Think about the impact that he’s had on the game and the decisions he’s made, and the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime and the impact that had on the sport as a whole,” Bryant said a few days ago. “Those vibrations were felt to a kid all the way in Italy who was 6 years old, before basketball was even global.”
Under Buss’ leadership, the Lakers became Southern California’s most beloved sports team and a worldwide extension of Los Angeles glamour. Buss acquired, nurtured and befriended a staggering array of talented players and basketball minds during his Hall of Fame tenure, from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.
Few owners in sports history can approach Buss’ accomplishments with the Lakers, who made the NBA finals 16 times during his nearly 34 years in charge, winning 10 titles between 1980 and 2010. Whatever the Lakers did under Buss’ watch, they did it big — with marquee players, eye-popping style and a relentless pursuit of success.
Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Bob Steiner, his assistant and longtime friend. Buss had been hospitalized for most of the past 18 months while undergoing cancer treatment, but the immediate cause of death was kidney failure, Steiner said.
“When someone as celebrated and charismatic as Jerry Buss dies, we are reminded of two things,” said Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history. “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. … The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.”
With his condition worsening in recent months, several prominent former Lakers visited Buss to say goodbye. Buss’ list of basketball friends is long and stellar, with Johnson citing him as a role model and nearly all former Lakers considering him a friend.
“He was a great man and an incredible friend,” Johnson tweeted.
Buss always referred to the Lakers as his extended family, and his players rewarded his fanlike excitement with devotion, friendship and two hands full of championship rings. Working with front-office executives West, Bill Sharman and Mitch Kupchak, Buss spent lavishly to win his titles despite lacking a huge personal fortune, often running the NBA’s highest payroll while also paying high-profile coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
With 1,786 victories, the Lakers easily are the NBA’s most successful team since he bought the club, which is now run largely by Jim Buss and Jeanie Buss, two of his six children.
“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 Buss family said in a statement issued by the Lakers.
“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.”
Johnson and fellow Hall of Famers Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy formed lifelong bonds with Buss during the Lakers’ run to five titles in nine years in the 1980s, when the Lakers earned a reputation as basketball’s most exciting team with their flamboyant Showtime repartee.
The buzz extended throughout the Forum, where Buss used the Laker Girls, a brass band and promotions to keep Lakers fans interested in all four quarters of their games. Courtside seats, priced at $15 when he bought the Lakers, became the hottest tickets in Hollywood — and they still are, with fixture Jack Nicholson and many other celebrities attending every home game.
“Anybody associated with the NBA since 1980 benefited greatly from Jerry Buss’ impact on the game,” Steiner said. “He had a different way of looking at things than I did, and people who had been raised in basketball.”
Worthy tweeted that Buss was “not only the greatest sports owner, but a true friend & just a really cool guy. Loved him dearly.”
After a rough stretch of the 1990s for the Lakers, Jackson led O’Neal and Bryant to a three-peat from 2000-02, rekindling the Lakers’ mystique, before Bryant and Pau Gasol won two more titles under Jackson in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers have struggled mightily during their current season despite adding Howard and Steve Nash, and could miss the playoffs for just the third time since Buss bought the franchise.
“Today is a very sad day for all the Lakers and basketball,” Gasol tweeted. “All my support and condolences to the Buss family. Rest in peace Dr. Buss.”
Always an innovative businessman, Buss paid for the Lakers through both their wild success and his groundbreaking moves to raise revenue. He co-founded a basic-cable sports television network and sold the naming rights to the Forum at times when both now-standard strategies were unusual, further justifying his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
“The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend.”
Although Buss gained fame and another fortune with the Lakers, he also was a scholar, Renaissance man and bon vivant who epitomized California cool his entire public life.
Buss rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm — at USC football games, high-stakes poker tournaments, hundreds of boxing matches promoted by Buss at the Forum — and, of course, Lakers games from his private box at Staples Center, which was built under his watch. In failing health recently, Buss hadn’t attended a Lakers game in the past two seasons.
After a rough-and-tumble childhood that included stints as a ditch-digger and a bellhop in the frigid Wyoming winters, Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at age 24 and had careers in aerospace and real estate development before getting into sports. With money from his real-estate ventures and a good bit of creative accounting, Buss bought the then-struggling Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and both clubs’ arena — the Forum — from Jack Kent Cooke in a $67.5 million deal that was the largest sports transaction in history at the time.
Last month, Forbes estimated the Lakers were worth $1 billion, second most in the NBA.
Born in Salt Lake City, Gerald Hatten Buss was raised in poverty in Wyoming before improving his life through education. He also grew to love basketball, describing himself as an “overly competitive but underly endowed player.”
After graduating from the University of Wyoming, Buss attended USC for graduate school. He became a chemistry professor and worked as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines before carving out a path to wealth and sports prominence.
The former mathematician’s fortune grew out of a $1,000 real-estate investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building with partner Frank Mariani, an aerospace engineer and co-worker.
Heavily leveraging his fortune and various real-estate holdings during two years of negotiations, Buss purchased Cooke’s entire Los Angeles sports empire in 1979, including a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County. Buss cited his love of basketball as the motivation for his purchase, and he immediately worked to transform the Lakers — who had won just one NBA title since moving west from Minneapolis in 1960 — into a star-powered endeavor befitting Hollywood.
“One of the first things I tried to do when I bought the team was to make it an identification for this city, like Motown in Detroit,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I try to keep that identification alive. I’m a real Angeleno. I want us to be part of the community.”
Buss’ plans immediately worked: Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and coach Paul Westhead led the Lakers to the 1980 title. Johnson’s ball-handling wizardry and Abdul-Jabbar’s smooth inside game made for an attractive style of play, and the Lakers came to define West Coast sophistication.
Riley, the former broadcaster who fit the L.A. image perfectly with his slick-backed hair and good looks, was surprisingly promoted by Buss early in the 1981-82 season after West declined to co-coach the team. Riley became one of the best coaches in NBA history, leading the Lakers to four straight NBA finals and four titles, with Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and A.C. Green playing major roles.
Overall, the Lakers made the finals nine times in Buss’ first 12 seasons while rekindling the NBA’s best rivalry with the Boston Celtics, and Buss basked in the worldwide celebrity he received from his team’s achievements. His partying became Hollywood legend, with even his players struggling to keep up with Buss’ lifestyle.
Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and retirement in 1991 staggered Buss and the Lakers, the owner recalled in 2011. The Lakers struggled through much of the 1990s, going through seven coaches and making just one conference finals appearance in an eight-year stretch despite the 1996 arrivals of O’Neal, who signed with Los Angeles as a free agent, and Bryant, the 17-year-old high schooler acquired in a draft-week trade.
Shaq and Kobe didn’t reach their potential until Buss persuaded Jackson, the Chicago Bulls’ six-time NBA champion coach, to take over the Lakers in 1999. Los Angeles immediately won the next three NBA titles in brand-new Staples Center, AEG’s state-of-the-art downtown arena built with the Lakers as the primary tenant.
After the Lakers traded O’Neal in 2004, they hovered in mediocrity again until acquiring Gasol in a heist of a trade with Memphis in early 2008. Los Angeles made the next three NBA finals, winning two more titles.
Through the Lakers’ frequent successes and occasional struggles, Buss never stopped living his Hollywood dream. He was an avid poker player and a fixture on the Los Angeles club scene well into his 70s, when a late-night drunk-driving arrest in 2007 — with a 23-year-old woman in the passenger seat of his Mercedes-Benz — prompted him to cut down on his partying.
Buss owned the NHL’s Kings from 1979-87, and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks won two league titles under Buss’ ownership. He also owned Los Angeles franchises in World Team Tennis and the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Ownership of the Lakers is now in a trust controlled by Buss’ six children, who all have worked for the Lakers organization in various capacities for several years. Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of player personnel and the second-oldest child, has taken over much of the club’s primary decision-making responsibilities in the last few years, while daughter Jeanie runs the franchise’s business side.
“I am blessed with a wonderful family who have helped me and guided me every step of the way,” Buss said in 2010 at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “This support is the best anybody could ever have.”
Jerry Buss still served two terms as president of the NBA’s Board of Governors and was actively involved in the 2011 lockout negotiations, developing blood clots in his legs attributed to his extensive travel during that time.
Buss is survived by his six children: sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse, and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel. He had eight grandchildren.
Arrangements are pending for a funeral and memorial service, likely at Staples Center or a nearby theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
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