When legendary Lakers owner Jerry Buss bought the franchise for $20 million in 1979, Los Angeles was a baseball town and the NBA’s future was in doubt.
Buss passed away on Tuesday, 33 years after buying the team, and the Lakers are valued at $1 billion, Los Angeles is a rabid basketball town obsessed with the Lakers, and the NBA has gone through two golden ages largely due to Buss’s forward-looking innovations.
During his 33 years as the team’s owner, the Lakers made 16 NBA finals appearances, which means they played for the title nearly one out of every two years with Buss at the helm. Los Angeles won ten titles.
Most importantly, though, Buss was a visionary who ushered in the “Showtime” era in Los Angeles, making Laker games a destination for celebrities and a central part of the Los Angeles culture. He loved the city and, as Magic Johnson said, would do almost anything to bring L.A. fans the titles they coveted.
On Sunday, the sports world celebrated Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday. It is perhaps fitting that Buss passed away the day after for, without Buss, there may have never been a Michael Jordan.
“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 in a statement.
As Magic Johnson noted in an interview with ESPN on Monday, Buss was criticized for doing things that many considered were not “proper” at the time. Johnson noted, with glee, how often Buss’s doubters conceded how wrong they were.
Just like the late legendary Lakers broadcaster, Chick Hearn, who coined nearly every basketball term commonly used today – like “slam dunk” and “traveling” – Buss is responsible for many things NBA fans now take for granted at games.
He created the “Laker Girls” cheerleaders and made them become to the NBA what the famed Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were to the NFL. Today, cheerleaders perform during intermission in nearly every NBA arena.
He signed deals with regional cable networks, expanding the reach of the basketball team beyond the 17,000 people who could see the Lakers play at the Great Western Forum.
He was the first to sell naming rights to the stadium and put the the “Great Western” logo on the Forum. Great Western was a major bank in California in the 1980s and 1990s.
Buss, who made his fortune in real estate, was the first owner to put in courtside seats. And, as is the case in real estate, he charged a premium for seats with the best location. These seats were coveted, and celebrities like Jack Nicholson would always be seen in the front row of Lakers games, making them a central part of the Lakers culture.
As Magic Johnson said, these innovations were frowned upon, and not seen as “cool.” But Buss made NBA games into marquee events. It sold seats. Compelled people to watch on television. And expanded the league’s influence and reach across the globe.
The Lakers had the talent. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Byron Scott, Norm Nixon, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Derek Fisher, in addition to “box office” coaches like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, ensured the team would succeed on the court. But Buss made sure the Lakers was seen — and talked about.
What also made Buss special was he treated everybody equally and did not act like a billionaire. Buss grew up in a hardscrabble town in Wyoming after the Great Depression and had to search for phone books his family could use to throw in the fire place to heat the home during the winters.
As Johnson recounted, Buss told him when Johnson visited him at the hospital that Buss had no regrets because he was someone who grew up “dirt poor” who ended up owning one of the all-time great sports franchises.
“I realized that most of the kids who grew up in the mining camps stayed in those towns and worked in the mines,” Buss once said. “I didn’t see myself doing that. … Freedom became the most important thing in my life and education became my way out.”
Buss ended up getting a Ph.D in Chemistry from USC, a school he loved and sports teams he supported. He took Magic Johnson to USC football games every Saturday when Johnson first came to Los Angeles.
Because of his experiences in life, Buss was able to identify with many NBA players who came from humble origins and amassed wealth they could have never dreamed of. In fact, Buss often ensured his players would make successful business investments and not squander their wealth. Johnson credited Buss for teaching him the business of basketball and making him a successful businessman.
Buss was a self-made man. He once told the Casper Journal in Wyoming that when one grows up “tens of miles away from any kind of assistance, you learn self-reliance, and self-reliance in any environment is a virtue.”
Described as a common guy and fan who ended up owning a basketball team, Buss would shake everyone’s hands, not micromanage employees, and – like Hearn – liked to watch basketball games from high atop the Forum and, later, the Staples Center because it offered him better vantage points.
Legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden and President Ronald Reagan often said it was amazing how much could be accomplished if nobody cared about who got the credit, and Buss proved that to be true.
“‘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 the Lakers released. “Dr. Buss had been hospitalized much of the past 18 months in a battle which ‘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 Buss family concluded by saying, “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.”
Buss, who was 80 at the time of his passing, is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California, and eight grandchildren.
“There will never be another Jerry Buss,” Johnson said of his “second father.” “I love the man to death.”