Remembering Jerry Buss One Year After His Passing
From humble beginnings in Wyoming to the pinnacle of success in Hollywood, one of sports’ most enduring figures lived out a dream, delivering something special to everyday sports fans.
As Ramona Shelburne wrote for ESPN 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.
Born during the Great Depression, Gerald Hatten Buss was still an infant when his parents, Lydus and Jessie Buss, divorced.
As a young child, Buss stood in bread lines in bitter cold Wyoming. He moved to Southern California with his mother at the age of nine. Within a few years, Jessie remarried and took the family back to Wyoming.
Buss had gotten a taste of Los Angeles, however, and would never forget. A hardscrabble life on the desolate Wyoming plains eventually led to a science scholarship at the University of Wyoming and a degree in chemistry.
At age 19, Buss married a fellow student, JoAnn Mueller. In 1953 the young couple moved to Southern California, where Buss earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from USC. The couple also raised four children, Johnny, Jim, Jeanie and Janie.
After working in the aerospace industry, Buss partnered with Frank Mariani and jumped into the real estate business. A $1,000 investment in an apartment complex led to increasingly profitable deals, including the discovery of oil on one of his properties.
In 1979, Buss, an avid sports fan, completed a lengthy and complicated purchase and land swap with Jack Kent Cooke.
When all was said and done, Cooke received $67.5 million and the Chrysler Building in New York City. Buss landed the Lakers, the Forum, the NHL’s Kings and a sprawling ranch in Kern County.
The show was about to begin.
He Called It Showtime
During the 1960’s, Jerry Buss liked to frequent The Horn, a Wilshire Boulevard nightclub in Santa Monica where the evening’s entertainment would begin with singers rising from tables around the room, each announcing, “It’s Showtime!’”
Buss brought the idea with him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
He always claimed that he knew business and how to sell a product, but didn’t know more about basketball than the average fan. By the time he took over the organization, there were already important pieces of the puzzle in place—longtime basketball professionals like Bill Sharman and Jerry West, who knew the ins and outs of the game.
He also had some pretty good players on the roster, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and a kid named Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who had been drafted by the Lakers in 1979 as the No. 1 overall pick.
The 1979-80 season would mark a return to prominence for the team and would bring the new owner his first of 10 NBA titles. It also marked the beginning of the Showtime era, with Buss as the marketing innovator, introducing elements such as a live band, the dancing Lakers Girls, the “Kiss Me” fan cam and courtside seating to attract celebrities—and attract, they did.
In an interview with Steve Springer for ESPN Los Angeles in 2010, Dr. Buss reflected on his years of ownership and what he had tried to accomplish:
I guess everybody kind of reaches for the stars if they have some confidence in what they do. Why dream if you don't think you can succeed? My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same.
He certainly accomplished that and more.
Attendance at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood shot through the roof, presided over by an owner who dated a bevy of young beauties, and counted authors, musicians and movie stars as his friends.
Scott Ostler for The San Francisco Chronicle, recounts those halcyon days:
For postgame wind-down, Buss usually avoided the super-glitzy Forum Club to hang with his guests, date, coaches and media in the Press Lounge, where Pat Riley and Chick Hearn often would get behind the bar and pour drinks. "Hey, Riles, give me another gin and tonic, would you?"
Of course, it was the team itself that truly personified the Showtime era, led by Magic Johnson, a 6’9” point guard with brilliant ball-handling skills, a giant smile and the unique ability to not only galvanize a team behind him, but the city of Los Angeles itself, and beyond.
How can you sum up all the great NBA players who were a part of Jerry Buss’s legacy?
From role players to the brightest stars, hundreds of athletes were part of the Lakers experience, and it almost seems unfair to single any out.
Dr. Buss was a believer of the team concept, as well as the notion that there are those who truly rise to the top. In an interview with Howard Beck of The New York Times, Buss said:
“I like the concept of having the same number of weapons and just see who can run the ship the best. That’s competition.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man with the unstoppable skyhook, joined the Lakers before the 1975-76 season, having already won a title with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 7’2” center known as “The Captain” would win five more titles under Buss, later saying of the team owner, “Perhaps his greatest quality was his willingness to share his success with everyone else.”
Of any NBA player, Magic Johnson may be the most closely associated with Buss. They came into the league the same year—a rookie point guard and a rookie owner. Johnson personified the Showtime era with his charismatic personality, his inventive playing style and a knack for winning—he won five championships alongside Abdul-Jabbar.
Per ESPN, Johnson described how Buss changed the landscape in Los Angeles:
He was a visionary, he was a trailblazer. He did things that were, at that time, people thought wasn't cool, wasn't proper. He was a man who walked the walk and talked the talk. He produced championships, because he was the most competitive owner you could ever meet in your life.
In 1981, Buss signed Johnson to a 25-year contract extension that would begin in 1984, paying $1 million per year. Buss said the contract would turn into a management role when the star guard’s playing days were done, adding, “But what it comes down to, is that Magic is part of the family.''
The Showtime days also included Lakers greats such as Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Norm Nixon and Kurt Rambis, all of whom won multiple titles with the team.
Last year, Worthy spoke with Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News, about an owner who never micromanaged:
He was able to hire good people and let them do their job. He wasn’t on the sidelines or on the floor seats. He was sitting up top in his suite. If he gave input, he knew how to do it. I saw how he treated his kids and the love had had for them there. You always want to be around that type of person.
A new era began when Shaquille O’Neal arrived as a free agent in 1996. It was also the rookie season for both Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
O'Neal won three championship titles in Los Angeles, and years later, spoke about the architect of a dynasty:
"He was a visionary. He saw the future before any of us did. And the future he saw, brought people together."
Bryant spoke at Dr. Buss' memorial service last year, recounting how he grew up a Lakers fan and arrived as a 17-year-old rookie. Buss told him at the time, “I want you to be a Laker for life.”
The Lakers superstar goes on to explain that he was just a stubborn, know-it-all kid, but the trust and belief Buss had in him, in turn, “made me want to go the extra mile for him.”
And during the summer of 2005, when Buss was considering bringing Jackson back, Bryant, who had famously feuded with the coach during their first run together, wasn’t so sure. In Bryant’s words:
“And he (Buss) just looked at me, and said ‘Trust me’. And I did.”
Two more championships followed—Bryant now has five and has been the face of the franchise for a generation. This, his 18th season, has been a difficult time with injuries. Yet, the words of an owner have lived on, even after his passing. Bryant was given a two-year contract extension in November—he will indeed, be a Laker for life.
There weren’t nearly as many Los Angeles Lakers head coaches as there were players during Dr. Jerry Buss’s ownership, but there were certainly plenty.
Over the span of a quarter-century, the Lakers became a prime destination for NBA signal-callers, the men who roam the sidelines and choreograph the on-court action.
Jack McKinney was Buss’ first head coach, starting out the 1979-80 season with a 10-4 record before suffering a serious head injury in a fall while bicycling.
McKinney was succeeded by assistant coach Paul Westhead, who would lead the Lakers to an NBA championship that season. It was the first of Buss’ 10 championship titles. Westhead served for one more full season and was replaced during the early part of the 1981-82 season.
Westhead’s replacement was Pat Riley, who had won a title as a player with the Lakers in 1972 and had subsequently moved into the broadcast booth, before becoming an assistant coach.
Riley would go on to become as closely associated with the Showtime era as any of the star players on the court.
The man with the slicked-back hair and custom suits was the mastermind of the team’s explosive fast-break offense and also incorporated an effective blue-collar defense as the team aged. Riley won five championships as a head coach with the Lakers and was also a three-time NBA Coach of the Year. He is currently the President of the Miami Heat.
The 1990s brought a lot of changes to the Lakers.
Mike Dunleavy, Sr. took over as head coach for the 1990-91 season and led the Lakers to the NBA Finals but lost to the Chicago Bulls. Dunleavy returned the following season and made it to the Western Conference playoffs, losing in the first round to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Next up was Randy Pfund who also made it to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, losing in the first round to the Phoenix Suns.
Under Pfund, the Lakers began the following season with a 27-37 record, prompting another change. Longtime Lakers executive Bill Bertka took over the coaching reins for two games, followed by none other than Magic Johnson who posted a 5-11 record. It would be the first time that the Lakers had not advanced to the playoffs under Buss’ ownership.
Del Harris rounded out most of the remaining decade, coaching four full seasons and the first 12 games of the 1998-99 season. He brought the team to the playoffs in each of his full seasons and to the Western Conference Finals in 1998 before being swept by the Utah Jazz. Harris was the NBA Coach of the Year in 1995.
Harris was let go in February 1999 and replaced by Bertka for one game, followed by Kurt Rambis for the remainder of the lockout-shortened season. The Lakers made it to the Western Conference Semifinals before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers entered a new era of excellence with the arrival of Phil Jackson, who had delivered six championship rings during his nine seasons as head coach for the Chicago Bulls.
Jackson made an impact immediately, coaching star players O’Neal and Bryant, and winning a title in his first season. Per Steve Springer of The Los Angeles Times, Buss gave credit to Jackson in the Staples media room, after the 2000 trophy ceremony:
I felt confident we would have a big improvement, but to take us to the championship in the first year? That's something I couldn't even imagine. At least in my mind, I doubt whether anybody else could have done that.
There were other changes as well—Jackson began a long-term relationship with Jeanie Buss, daughter of the owner and the head of business operations. They are currently engaged to be married.
Under Jackson, the Lakers also won titles in 2001 and 2002, and were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Jackson left at the end of the season.
Rudy Tomjanovich was the next head coach hired by Buss, but left his position midway through the season, citing health issues. Assistant coach Frank Hamblen finished out the season in the head coach's chair. It was the second time under Buss’s stewardship that the team failed to reach the playoffs.
Jackson returned to coach the Lakers for another six seasons, including two more championships.
Mike Brown, a former NBA Coach of the Year with the Cleveland Cavaliers, took over for the Lakers for the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, losing in the Western Conference Semis. That summer, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined the Lakers amid high expectations. Brown was fired after going 1-5 to start the new season.
Three months before his passing, Dr. Buss presided over one last major hiring.
While Jackson was considered for a third stand with the team, the job ultimately went to Mike D’Antoni who was known for his up-tempo system. Before D’Antoni actively took over the reins, however, Lakers assistant Bernie Bickerstaff coached five games—and won them all!
D’Antoni is now in his second season with the Lakers, and admittedly, it’s been a challenge. The roster has been decimated by injuries, and the team’s record currently stands at 18-35. The Purple and Gold will look to regroup during the summer and head into another season under Buss family ownership.
Upon his passing, Dr. Buss left the team to his children through a family trust, administered by his three oldest children—Johnny, Jim and Jeanie.
All six of his children have been involved in the family business over the years, with Jim and Jeanie figuring most prominently into day-to-day Lakers operations—Jim with basketball decisions and Jeanie heading up the business side.
Here then are the six Buss children in chronological order—the first four from Jerry’s marriage to JoAnn and two from his relationship with Karen Demel.
The eldest of the Buss children, Johnny, was the President of the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks for 10 seasons before his father sold the team for a reported $10 million in 2006. Earlier this month, the Sparks were sold once again, this time to an investment group led by Magic Johnson.
As for the oldest Buss son, Johnny isn’t actively involved in basketball operations, concentrating efforts on ancillary ventures as the team’s vice president of strategic development.
Jim Buss didn’t set out to run the Lakers, but that’s where he finds himself these days.
He tried his hand at various ventures, including running the Los Angeles Lazars, an indoor soccer team owned by his father, and training race horses, also owned by his father. He eventually moved into basketball, however, becoming the assistant to general manager Mitch Kupchak.
After years of observing, learning and taking on increased responsibility, Jim serves as the team’s executive vice president of player personnel, and is coming to grips with life after the passing of his father, and having the ultimate say in Lakers basketball decisions.
Per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles:
I'm looked upon as that decision-maker even though it's a team effort. I think people want to have that. They want the new decision-making process to be out in the forefront as opposed to keeping the legacy of Dr. Buss in the forefront.
Jeanie Buss has been involved in the sports business from a young age, appointed as general manager of the Los Angeles Strings tennis team by her father the age of 19 while still attending USC.
She later became owner of the team and subsequently owned and operated the Los Angeles Blades roller hockey team. Since 1995, she has served on the NBA Board of Governors.
While Jim heads up the basketball side, Jeanie has been the executive vice president of business operations since 1999, running point on team marketing, sponsorships and strategic new interests such as their $3.6 billion deal with Time Warner Cable.
Jeanie has also been dating former Lakers coach Phil Jackson since 1999—the two announced their engagement over the Christmas holidays in 2012.
In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article by John Ireland, Jerry Buss described his daughter’s determination:
"She's driven and willing to accept any challenge. She is always there—and if it has to be until midnight, seven days a week, she'll do it."
The youngest of Jerry and JoAnn’s children, Janie Buss Drexel graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1993 and later worked for the Lakers in their community relations office.
Married and the mother of two, Janie now serves as in the Lakers' director of charitable services and also runs the Lakers Youth Foundation.
As her father said (per the above-mentioned Times article), "She's probably the most compassionate of all of my children. Charity is really her calling. As a mother, it's a great fit."
Joey Buss also got a taste for the family business at a young age, hanging around the Lakers' offices, shadowing Phil Jackson for a year, learning the ins and outs of scouting and finally taking over the reins of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the first D-League team to be owned by an NBA team.
Now the President and CEO of the Lakers’ affiliate minor league team, Buss has built it into both a financial asset and an important developer and provider of basketball talent. In 2012, he spoke with the Kamenetzy brothers for ESPN Los Angeles, describing the way in which he was handed the opportunity by his father:
“He’s always about the sink or swim type. Just go out there and do it. Don’t ask me about anything. This is kind of like a test.”
The youngest of the Buss children, Jesse began working for the Lakers organization as a basketball operations assistant while still in his teens, and is now the Lakers’ scouting coordinator, as well as the D-Fenders' director of scouting.
When his older brother Jim was working in scouting, Jesse would accompany him on tips. Now, Jesse himself is on the road as much as 100 days a year.
Speaking with Alex Lambeth and Jory Dreher for Lakers Nation, Jesse spoke about the relationship he had with his father.
"He just understood all aspects of life—whether it was talking about a movie we had just seen, the latest hip-hop song that came out, basketball, or anything personal. It is definitely a huge void in my life not having him here; I really miss talking to him."
It has been a year now since the passing of an icon. The Buss siblings are moving ahead, learning by doing and still learning to cope with the loss of their father.
An Extended Family
The Los Angeles Lakers have always been a family business under Dr. Jerry Buss, and not only in a biological sense. The list of employees past and present sometimes resembles an ongoing and interconnected line.
The legendary Chick Hearn began broadcasting Lakers games in 1965 and continued doing so until shortly before his passing in 2002. Scott Ostler who was a Lakers beat writer for many years, remembers Chick tending bar with Pat Riley in the Forum Press Lounge after games.
Stu Lantz played for the Lakers before becoming a color commentator alongside Chick Hearn. He’s still broadcasting Lakers games 27 years later.
Frank Mariani met Buss when they both worked at Douglas Aircraft in the late 1950s. They would go on to become real estate partners and investors together—Mariani still serves as CEO of the Lakers marketing division.
Jerry West may have left the Lakers nearly 15 years ago, but his son Ryan works for the team today as the assistant director of scouting, sharing an El Segundo office with Jesse Buss.
Mitch Kupchak was signed as a free agent by the Lakers in 1981 on the recommendation of Magic Johnson. After Kupchak blew out his knee, he was brought into the front office by West. He’s still with the team three decades later as one of the most successful and long-tenured general managers in sports.
Per Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times, Magic talks learning the skills for life after basketball, from Buss:
He said, 'Earvin, let me teach you the business. He brought me in, showed me the books, taught me how it all works, introduced me to people I would never have met, made me understand what it means to be in L.A.
Kurt Rambis was one of Magic’s Showtime teammates and would go on to work in the front office, as an assistant coach under Del Harris, Phil Jackson and now Mike D’Antoni. Mark Madsen was a player under Jackson and Rambis and is now back with the Lakers—as a player development coach.
Gary Vitti has been the team’s athletic trainer for 29 seasons now. John Black is the longtime vice president of public relations. Bob Steiner was Buss' longtime friend and assistant and is now the family spokesperson.
The list goes on, and the connections continue paying forward—all part of the Lakers' extended family tradition, and all owing to Jerry Buss, a child of the Great Depression who struck gold in Los Angeles.
It has been a year since the passing of Dr. Jerry Buss, and the Lakers and their fortunes continue to evolve.
When Buss bought his way into the sports business all those years ago, he paid $67.5 million but only $16 million was for the Lakers team itself. The rest was apportioned out to the Forum, the Los Angeles Kings and a sprawling California ranch.
These days, the Lakers are valued at $1.350 billion by Forbes. The players’ payroll alone is more than the total package purchased by Buss in 1979.
It’s a new era in basketball, and the 2011 collective bargaining agreement has changed the way that owners can spend money. With steeper luxury taxes and even stricter “repeater” taxes, team executives are forced to make decisions in ever more calculated ways and often with shorter projections.
The idea of players who play for only one team for an entire extended career will probably become a thing of the past.
Certainly, you’ll never have a situation like the 25-year agreement between Buss and Magic Johnson again. Kobe Bryant’s new extension means that he’ll finish a 20-year career with one team, and you get the feeling that Buss would have been happy about that.
It’s the fulfillment of the wish he expressed to a 17-year-old rookie, that he wanted Bryant to be a Laker for life.
The Lakers are having the kind of season that most certainly wouldn’t have made Buss happy though—their current record is worse than anything experienced during his many years of ownership.
What would Buss do with a season like this? Weather the storm? Make a bold move? Create a little magic? The answers won’t come easily.
At Dr. Buss' memorial, Jerry West said, “he left a large shadow.”
It’s up to his children now. He brought them into his business, grooming, nurturing and encouraging them. It’s time for them to step into the void and create some light again.
It’s time for a new Lakers winning tradition.