The sports world in general, and the NBA in particular, has lost a legend. Dr. Jerry Buss, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed away on Monday at the age of 80, according to David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times.
Born Jan. 27, 1933, in Salt Lake City, Buss' upbringing was none too pleasant. His parents divorced when he was an infant, and he moved with his mother to Wyoming thereafter. He spent his early childhood in the midst of the Great Depression, often enduring the bitter cold to procure rations from breadlines. His mother remarried, but Jerry's stepfather turned out to be a harsh man who forced him to spend hours digging ditches.
Like so many who've achieved the American Dream, Buss escaped the hardship of his youth through education. He left high school after his junior year to work on the railroad but soon returned to earn a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming.
While there, he met and married JoAnn Mueller, with whom he had four children (Buss would go on to sire two more children after his divorce, with girlfriend Karen Demel). They later moved to Los Angeles, where Buss obtained a doctorate in chemistry from USC.
After a handful of years spent with the Bureau of Mines and Douglas Air, Buss started down the path toward leading what's now perhaps regarded as the most glamorous franchise in all of professional sports. He and colleague Frank Mariani bought a 14-unit apartment building together, with the help of four other investors, in 1959. Over time, the depth and breadth of their investments grew to include holdings in California, Nevada and Arizona worth approximately $350 million.
An avid gambler, Buss placed his biggest bet of all in 1979, when he purchased the Lakers, the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, the Forum in Inglewood and a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County from Jack Kent Cooke for $67 million in one of the most complicated transactions ever seen in sports.
Buss had been a Lakers season-ticketholder and minority shareholder in the team but had the opportunity to take over the team in its entirety once Cooke's estate was sapped by divorce.
It didn't take long for the Lakers to achieve ultimate success under Buss' regime. The team selected Magic Johnson with the first pick in the 1979 NBA draft and, with fellow Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already on the payroll, won the NBA title in 1980.
In Johnson, Buss found the perfect star whose personality and style of play could connect the worlds of sports and entertainment into one glitzy whole. Buss quickly made Johnson a Laker for life, signing him to an unprecedented 25-year contract.
The Lakers would go on to claim five titles with Magic and 10 championships in 16 NBA Finals appearances in total under Buss, making Jerry the winningest owner in the history of North American professional sports.
The Lakers enjoyed tremendous prosperity in the 2000s, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But it was with the "Showtime" Lakers in the 1980s that the team and its owner truly achieved transcendence.
Buss was the first NBA owner to recognize the value of pro basketball as a form of entertainment, particularly with Hollywood situated so close by. He turned courtside seats into hot commodities by raising prices to the point where the rich and famous would clamor after them. He filled breaks in the action with the Laker Girls (the league's first dance team), Dancing Barry (who would dance his way through the crowds) and music pumped in through the PA system at the fabulous Forum.
The arena came to be known as the Great Western Forum after Buss wrangled one of the NBA's first arena naming rights deals with Great Western Savings and Loan in 1988.
On the whole, Buss turned the Lakers into the hottest ticket in town. The success and style of "Showtime" became the hallmark of Buss' tenure and the envy of so many outside of the city. Their games turned into occasions for stargazing, especially after Buss established the Forum Club, which attracted all manner of courtside celebrities.
The Forum, then, became the place to be seen in L.A.
Buss knew that to keep it that way, he had to ensure the quality and excitement of the product being put out on the floor. As such, he spared no expense to keep the Lakers relevant. He spent lavishly to bring Shaq to L.A. and green-lit sky-high payrolls, including the $100 million one that the Lakers currently sport, courtesy of Kobe, Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Dr. Buss was just the man to revel in and promote it all. He broke the mold of sports ownership (i.e. stuffy and stiff with boardroom demeanor) with a free-thinking, freewheeling style that extended from his mode of dress to the female company he kept on the sideline.
As his daughter Jeanie told GQ back in 2010:
He's like Hugh Hefner in that he does exactly what he wants. Except that he owns a sports team that wins championships, and he plays poker all night. Every guy wants to be him.
Buss' model for sports as entertainment has since swept through not only the NBA, but also the sports world as a whole. His stewardship helped to transform the Lakers from a $16 million investment in the late 1970s to a global brand whose value Forbes recently estimated at $1 billion.
His vision—which included the expansion of the playoffs—elevated the Association to new heights, by reaching out to untapped demographics and pioneering a style of successful leadership that many (including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) have imitated.
But it's a style that none have yet duplicated, and no one likely ever will.