Lakers Legendary Jerry Buss and His "Rags to Riches" Story Truly One of a Kind

William Van NollFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2013

Guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on with Lakers owner Jerry Boss during a game.
Ken Levine/Getty Images

By his passing on Monday at the age of 80, Dr. Jerry Buss should be remembered for his ubiquitous impact on professional sports, his unprecedented success as an owner in the modern game, and his triumph as a businessman who treated everyone he came across with dignity and respect.

Humble Beginnings

A self-made man, Jerry Buss lived a rags-to-riches tale emblematic of the American Dream. A Great Depression-era child living at the poverty line in Wyoming, Gerald Hatten "Jerry" Buss experienced the hardships of a blue-collar lifestyle and began working at a young age.

Early on, Buss worked for his stepfather's plumbing business—waking up at 4:30 in the morning to dig ditches in frozen ground for three hours before school.

Later in high school, Buss worked at a local hotel making two dollars a day.  He soon quit school to work for the railroad, eventually returning to receive his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate in physical chemistry from USC.

Saving money from his first job out of USC, in 1959, Buss recruited four other investors to purchase a 14-unit rental apartment in West Los Angeles for a $6,000 down payment and $100,000 loan from the bank.

Eighteen years later, Buss turned this $6,000 down payment into a $350 million real estate empire.

Visionary and Innovator

In 1979, Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the Lakers in a multifaceted $67.5 million deal that included the Lakers, the NHL Kings, the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and a 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Buss had a vision from the start: make the idea of going to a basketball game an all-out entertainment spectacle.

And so, the concept of "sports entertainment" was born.

At his newly-owned Great Western Forum, Buss added entertainment aspects that had never been thought of by any owner in any other sport.

He added cheerleaders (the now world famous Laker girls), added music and fanfare during breaks in the action, introduced a house band to play live music (which, to this day, still lives on and performs at STAPLES Center during player warm-ups) and delivered a complete entertainment experience to anyone with a ticket to the game.

Dr. Jerry Buss also mastered the concept of "premium seating." He wasn't the first to structure tiered pricing for seats at his arena, but he was most certainly the best at it.

Buss created the Forum Club—an exclusive VIP sanctuary for celebrities and LA rainmakers to engage in drink and merriment before games—and made courtside seating the premier destination for Hollywood celebrities, turning the atmosphere of a sporting event on its head.

Recalls sports writer Vincent Bonsignore, the environment at Laker games during the '80s was "a mixture of the Oscars and the Grammy Awards with a little bit of the Playboy Mansion and Studio 54 mixed in."

Before Buss, courtside seats were reserved for the press and media. Thanks to Buss' vision, courtside seats have become valuable attractions and important profit generators for teams today.

A Genuine "People Person"

Having walked with kings after living among commoners, Buss was a charismatic, calm and personable owner quite uncommon for a man of his fortune.

From the bottom to the top levels of society, Buss treated all with the same genuine interest and respect.

There are plenty of legendary tales about encounters with Jerry Buss, whether it was throwing parties for the custodial workers and security guards at the Great Western Forum or choosing to wait with the masses for a poker table at Hollywood Park Casino. It seems everyone in the greater Los Angeles area has their own Jerry Buss story.

I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Jerry Buss after a USC Trojans basketball game in 2010.

As fan of the game, Dr. Jerry Buss would attend USC basketball games during the Lakers offseason at the Galen Center in Downtown Los Angeles.

With his tattered jeans, white socks and an unbuttoned dress shirt rare for a self-made billionaire, Dr. Buss regularly sat in seats available to the general public and unassumingly took in the game.

After one game, I saw Dr. Jerry Buss making his way seamlessly through the crowds to the exits, no one noticing that the Lakers' owner was actually walking beside them.

I tracked him down, extended my hand and said "Dr. Buss? Thanks for everything you've done for the Lakers. You're the best in the business."

"Why thank you," he said, shaking my hand. "I appreciate that." And off he went.

Thirty seconds was all it took to let him know of my gratitude as a lifelong Lakers fan.

Even after winning multiple championships and befriending every celebrity in Hollywood during his ownership of the Lakers, Dr. Jerry Buss was still as genuine and approachable as ever.

Management Style

Dr. Jerry Buss ran his organization through a simple formula: hire the best, most talented people and get the heck out of their way.

This was a very hands-off approach and a stark contrast to the management style of the previous Lakers' owner—cable magnate and serial sports entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke.

Bringing in legendary basketball minds, such as Bill Sharman, Jerry West, Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak, and bestowing them with all the authority necessary to make decisions has been Buss' key to successful management over the past three and half decades.

Through a $3.6 billion television deal with Time Warner Cable—the largest in franchise history and last major deal before his passing—Buss has left his self-made fortune to his family and his team financially secure for the next two decades. 

Jeanie Buss will take over for her father and serve as the team's governor, giving her the Lakers' vote at owners' meetings, while Jim Buss will oversee the basketball operations alongside Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. 

Remembering Dr. Jerry Buss

True to his nature, Dr. Jerry Buss graciously waited until the All-Star Weekend was over to leave this world rather than overshadow the sports entertainment spectacle of the weekend—a spectacle he arguably invented.

He never wanted the spotlight. All he wanted was to win.

And boy, did he ever.

In his 34 years as owner of the Lakers, his teams went to the NBA Finals a ridiculous 16 times and won 10 NBA championships.

Dr. Jerry Buss was a Wyoming kid with big eyes and a full heart living out his American Dream.

Today, it's about celebrating his life, his contributions to the city of LA and his inimitable impact on the sport. Dr. Jerry Buss was truly one of a kind and will go down as the greatest owner in Los Angeles, if not, the entire sport.

Rest in Peace and Fight On, JB.


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