This fellow had direction, understood action, and took no prisoners. The two hardest things for him to handle in life were failure and success. He believed that the only disability in one’s life was a bad attitude. In his business deals, he was a blend of Tennessee sipping whiskey and “white lightning;” he could be smooth with a kick at the end. He often explained that we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think and most times, the things we take for granted, someone else is praying for. He was once asked how he got from the small rugged frontier town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, to the ownership of one of the most famous franchises in the history of American sports. He said “it takes confidence, knowledge, and hard work. Those things are taught while you’re getting your education, so the whole thing adds up to education, education, education.”
He was one of those special few who made it big by having no fear of failure. Guys like him took on deals that no one else would try. He became a teacher, a chemist, a real estate mogul, and started out as a hands-on owner, a 1980’s playboy with his shirt unbuttoned and his hair disheveled. He was a sports innovator whose timing was perfect; the first draft choice for this die-hard hoops fan was a fast-breaking, no-look-passing point guard, appropriately nicknamed “Magic.” By putting diamonds on the court, it translated into bling in the seats. He explained his strategy, “I felt the very large, spectacular salaries attracted people to the sport. I felt that people would say, ‘Who is worth that kind of money?’ and would come out to see.” His business model: Find the best people, pay them a lot of money, and stay out of the way. In the meantime, he went from “hoe down” to Hollywood. Comedian Chris Rock once said, “Buss was so cool he should be in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. He believed in star power, on the floor, in the seats and out in the public. He gave LA what they deserved, a word he himself coined, “Showtime.” As they say in the movie Space Jam, “Y’all ready for this?”
Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss was a child of the Great Depression. He was born in the sheep-herding town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, on January 27, 1933. Born into poverty, he and his divorced mother sometimes stood in a bread line. Buss has said that he dug ditches and worked on the railroad to help out his mom. We should have known Jerry was different when at the age of 12, he was asked what he wanted to grow up to be; his answer, “a scholar.” Through hard work and willingness to learn, Jerry Buss earned an academic scholarship to the University of Wyoming. He graduated in two and a half years and received a Bachelor of Science degree by 1953. He then moved to Los Angeles where he enrolled at the University of Southern California and by 1958, at the age of 24, he had earned a Master of Science and PhD in physical chemistry. His first job was as a chemist for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and he taught chemistry at USC. In 1959, he went to work in the aerospace industry.
He originally invested in real estate in order to raise money so he could continue to teach. His $1000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building in late 1959 returned tremendous results. He therefore made the decision to invest in the real estate market fulltime. With his longtime friend Frank Mariani, they created Mariani-Buss Associates. Twenty years later, this company was valued at 350 million and Buss decided to purchase the L.A. Lakers, the L.A. Kings of the NHL (National Hockey League), the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch from Jack Kent Cook for 67.5 million, the largest sports franchise purchase in the history of sports at that time. Jerry was onto something big. Some said he joked about changing the name of this country from the United States of America to the United States of Entertainment. Buss later sold the Kings. He also purchased the Los Angeles Lazors of the Major Indoor Soccer League and became the owner of the Los Angeles Strings, a franchise of World Team Tennis. In 1985, Buss launched a company known as Prime Ticket Network with a pal named Bill Daniels. This network became one of the premier regional sports television entities. It has now evolved into the FOX Sports Net West and FSN West 2. The Lazors folded in 1989, and the entire league was caput by 1992.
In 1996, Buss operated the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) franchise known as the L.A. Sparks. In 1999, Buss moved all his teams from the Forum to the newly-built Staples Center. In 2002, the WNBA restructured the league to allow individual owners to own a team outright. Buss assumed ownership of the Sparks, and this franchise also won two WNBA championships with such great players as Lisa Leslie, Tamecka Dixon, and DeLisha Milton-Jones. Buss sold the Sparks franchise in 2006. It seemed that everything he touched turned to gold.
Jerry Buss owned the Lakers for 34 seasons (1979-2013). No NBA franchise has won more games than the L.A. Lakers. Every time the Lakers won the NBA Championship, L.A. celebrated. Jerry Buss rode in more parades than Santa Claus, as the Lakers played in 16 world championship series and won ten under his watch. He championed six league MVP’s while recording a .659 winning percentage. Buss has also been credited for creating the Laker Girls. With such stars as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Pal Gasol, the Lakers thrived on and off the court. Buss also surrounded himself with qualified front-office executives and basketball people like Jerry West, Bill Sharman, Mitch Kupchak, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson.
For all his smarts, Jerry Buss was still a gambler. He owned two hands full of rings, played high-stakes poker in Vegas, shot pool like Minnesota Fats, drove a Gold Mercedes-Benz, and purchased sports teams like you and I buy doughnuts. Buss played in 12 official World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold-bracelet events, and his highest finish was third in 2009. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on October 30, 2006. He even bought Pickfair Mansion located in Beverly Hills from the Mary Pickford estate. Although he experienced tremendous success, there were times of adversity. In 1991, when Magic Johnson announced his retirement because he had tested positive for HIV, Buss was floored but stood behind his first draft choice and eventually sold him a part of the Lakers. “Chick” Hearn, the longtime Lakers announcer, died suddenly in 2002. It was disheartening for Jerry, and then Buss endured the departure of the best coach he ever had when Phil Jackson stepped down. Jerry said he got through the tough times because “Our business is run by the family.” His daughter Jeanie Buss is the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations. His son Jim handles the Lakers’ basketball operations.
Jerry Buss had health issues for several years before he passed. He had been hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of Los Angeles in 2011 with blood clots. He also suffered from dehydration. Surgery followed in August of 2012. The cause for the surgery was kept quiet. He turned 80 on January 27th and had not attended a Lakers game during the entire season. On February 14, the family finally released a statement that Jerry Buss had been battling cancer since 2012.
Jerry Buss, a quick study if there ever was one, died on Monday, February 18, 2013, of liver failure brought on by an 18-month fight with cancer. He left behind six kids and, Karen, his current wife.
In 2010, Dr. Jerry Buss was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. NBA Commissioner David Stern said, “The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come.” Jerry Buss understood that small-market teams needed to be able to survive in order for his franchise to prosper in both wins and value. The Lakers franchise is estimated by Forbes Magazine to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.1 billion dollars.
“He means everything to me,” said Kobe Bryant. “He took a chance on a 17-year-old kid coming out of Philadelphia and believed in me the entire way.” Bryant has been a part of five NBA Championships with the Lakers. Kareem said, “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 and second, how fragile each of us is, regardless of how powerful we were.”
The most intriguing and unique stories we have heard about Jerry Buss allow us to look inside his mind in regards to sports and entertainment. It is said that a list of all the celebrities that would be attending that night’s game were listed in the Lakers’ pre-game notes. Those packets were distributed to the media; Showtime was about to begin.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, email@example.com.