Remembering Jerry Buss

Darius Soriano —  February 18, 2013

It is truly a sad day for the Laker organization, the city of Los Angeles, and the team’s fans all over the world. Jerry Buss was not just a great owner, but was also great ambassador of the game and, most of all, a great person. He will be sorely missed.

Across the internet, tributes to Dr. Buss have been presented for consumption and, below, we share some of those with you.

First, the Lakers official statement on Dr. Buss’ passing:

Dr. Jerry Buss, longtime owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed away today at 5:55 am after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

“We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community,” a statement released on behalf of the Buss family said.

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 Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy,” the statement concluded.

He is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California; eight grandchildren; former wife JoAnn of Las Vegas; half sister Susan Hall of Phoenix; half brother Micky Brown of Scottsdale; and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyoming.

Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Lakers Youth Foundation or a charity of the donor’s choice.

From Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Los Angeles: The man smiling in all the pictures, the one in blue jeans and a casual shirt with a beautiful young woman on his arm, looks as though luck has smiled on him once or twice in his day. And truth be told, Dr. Jerry Buss, who turned a $1,000 real estate investment into the keys to the Los Angeles Lakers, and went on to become one of the most influential and successful owners in professional sports, did get one very important break when Magic Johnson fell into the Lakers’ arms the very same year he bought the team. But to chalk up his remarkable life to the whims of fate and fortune is profoundly shortsighted. It wasn’t luck that brought Buss from a Great Depression food line in a frigid corner of Wyoming to the sun-kissed boulevards of Los Angeles and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was vision.

From Steve Springer, Yahoo! Sports: For most men, such a swift and impressive rise would have been enough to savor for a lifetime. Not Jerry Buss. He had his eyes on bigger prizes. That same year, 1979, he pulled off arguably the most complicated and lucrative transaction in sports history. Buss’ savvy real-estate investments helped make him a fortune. Supported by an army of approximately 50 lawyers and accountants, Buss purchased the Lakers, the Kings hockey team, the Inglewood Forum and the 13,000-acre Raljon Ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. The deal broke down to $33.5 million for the Forum, $16 million for the Lakers, $10 million for the ranch and $8 million for the Kings. Cooke, in exchange, received the lease to the Chrysler Building in New York, and properties in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland. When the deal was done, 12 separate escrows finalized, Buss spent his first day at the Forum inspecting the crown jewel of his properties. As the workday ended and the arena emptied out, he lingered, surrounded by only a few security people. With no event that night at the Forum, Buss took a chair and walked down to the empty floor where he was surrounded by silence and darkness, except for a few scattered lights. He sat down at what would be mid-court or center ice, took out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled the magnitude of his surroundings. In his mind’s eye, he could see the seats packed, his Lakers and Kings moving up and down the floor or ice, his championship banners on the wall. Smiling, Buss told himself, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: What many basketball fans will remember him for is winning — the Lakers won 10 NBA titles under his ownership and made it to the finals 13 times. They produced legends of the game such as Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, plus welcomed others such as Shaquille O’Neal. Under Buss’ watch the Lakers grew into the center of the Los Angeles sports universe, and one of the most recognized brands in all of sport. But where Buss was truly an innovator was off the court. Back in 1979 most NBA owners treated basketball as, well, basketball. You came to the game, there was nothing else. Buss understood what he had purchased was an entertainment enterprise that sold basketball. He bought the steak, what he needed to add was sizzle. First in came the Laker Girls, the first dance team unit in the league. Next was Dancing Barry — a guy in top hat and tails who would dance through the crown during timeouts, which seems quaint now but was a revolution in entertainment back in the day. Soon music was being pumped through the arena during breaks. Nobody else was doing that, but Buss started putting on a show with basketball at the heart of it. Buss made Lakers games the coolest place to be seen in L.A., and the celebrities flocked (and still do). Buss established the Forum Club so celebrities had a place to throw back a few cocktails (and plenty of drugs, if we’re going to be honest) before, after and during the game. When they left the club those celebrities sat in very visible courtside seats. Jerry Buss lived that lifestyle, too — he was always seen with a beautiful young woman on his arm. He was part of the scene. None of it would have worked if the team stunk, but in the Lakers first draft after Buss bought the team they got the No. 1 pick and selected Magic Johnson. He and Buss were a perfect fit — Magic wanted to entertain and had a bigger-than-life personality on the court. It was Showtime and it was fun to watch — plus they won. A lot. It was a captivating era of the NBA that lifted the league out of a time in the 1970s when NBA finals games were taped delayed and shown at midnight.

From J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Don’t confuse Buss’ distance with disinterest. He felt better served by watching the games from halfway up the arena, rather than courtside, because the higher vantage point allowed him to see the plays and patterns of the game unfold. As for his occasional decision to, say, stay out West and hop over to Las Vegas rather than watch the Lakers in the Finals because he couldn’t think of anything fun to do in Indianapolis, ask yourself what you’d rather have as a fan: an owner who watches his team in the NBA Finals or an owner who consistently gets his team to the NBA Finals? The Lakers went to the NBA Finals 16 times in Buss’ 33 years as owner — about once every two years, on average. For Buss, wait ’til next year wasn’t a lament, it was a promise. He won with Magic and Kareem, he won with Shaq and Kobe, he won with Kobe and Gasol. He won with Jerry West as general manager and with Mitch Kupchak as the GM. He won with Paul Westhead as coach, then Pat Riley, then Phil Jackson, then Phil Jackson again. Buss was the constant over three decades. He made the Lakers glamorous, bringing in the Laker Girls to dance in front of A-list celebrities, turning the Lakers into the entertainment industry’s entertainment. He never forgot that the product came first, so he steadily reinvested the proceeds into the payroll. He signed Magic to a 25-year, $25 million contract back when that was considered an outlandish sum. He spent $121 million for Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. This season’s team has a $100 million payroll. In 2002, when the Lakers were en route to their third consecutive championship, there was concern they wouldn’t have a clear shot at a fourth because Buss wanted to slash payroll and get the team below the luxury tax threshold. Then they beat the Nets in the Finals, and at a victory party afterward a giddy Buss came up to me and said, “I’ve got a secret for you: We’re going way over the tax! I love winning!”

From Mike Trudell, Lakers.com: Innovative in numerous areas, Dr. Buss made break throughs in advertising (like a major agreement with Great Western Bank in 1988), served served two terms as President of the NBA Board of Governors and helped launch Prime Ticket Network (now FS West/Prime Ticket) in 1985. He got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 in a ceremony he shared with his team’s staff, including each of his six children (Jeanie, Johnny, Jim, Janie, Joey and Jesse) who are continually active in the franchise. Among his numerous philanthropic efforts, Dr. Buss focused on supporting education and the needs of disadvantaged youth and the elderly, leading to honors from such organizations as the City of Hope, NAACP, the B’nai B’rith, United Negro College Fund, United Indian Development Associations, American Hebrew University, National Organization of Women, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and Heart of Los Angeles Youth among many others. Dr. Buss also provided resources for scholarships at Wyoming and USC, and endowed the Magic Johnson Scholarship at Michigan State University.

From Jeff Shultz, Atlanta Journal Constitution: Eventually, and I seem to recall it was just before the sun came up, it was time for the last four or five of us to leave. Somebody had to drive Buss back home – to Pickfair. I regret to say it wasn’t me — it would’ve made this story better. But I have this lingering memory of leaving the parking lot, looking in the rearview mirror and barely seeing the top of Buss’s head in the car behind me as he was slowly sinking down in the passenger seat. It was the end of the show for one night. But there would be others. Magic Johnson starred in “Showtime,” but Jerry Buss produced it. He was a rarity for a sports owner then, and even now, one who connected with people at every level. The sports world has lost a great one. It was cool to have known him.

(UPDATED) From Kevin Ding, OC Register: With savvy decisions that played out both inside and outside of the arena, Buss was always the smartest and most daring guy in the room. That includes the high-stakes poker room, his most recent passion that challenged him to match wits with the best professional poker players in the world. Buss’ intelligence was applicable to a variety of realms: He started out a graduate of the University of Wyoming with a degree in chemistry, believing education would be his springboard to whatever else he could imagine. He was right. Buss sought his doctorate in physical chemistry from USC, bringing him to the area with which he would become so identified. He shifted gears from the aerospace field into real estate – turning a $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building into a Lakers empire that today is valued conservatively at $1 billion by Forbes magazine. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was swayed by Buss’ last-ditch phone call in 2004 in choosing to stay a Laker rather than sign with the Clippers, called Buss “extremely, extremely intelligent and extremely patient.” “You think about the rivalry that took place between the Lakers and the Celtics and what that did for the global outreach of the game,” Bryant said. “It reached me, and I was all the way in Italy and I was only 6 years old.”

There are other pieces that celebrate the life of Dr. Buss as well. While not from today, GQ had a fantastic profile of the man from May of 2010 that is well worth your time.

Commissioner Stern said today that, “The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come. More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend. Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time.” 

And, if you simply hop on twitter, you’ll find countless anecdotes from so many basketball writers, players, and historians. The common theme is that Jerry Buss truly was one of a kind.

Finally, I leave you with Dr. Buss speaking with another Laker Legend — the late great Chick Hearn — talking about Buss’ role as an owner, expansion, and other league topics:

Darius Soriano

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21 responses to Remembering Jerry Buss

  1. Thank you Dr Buss for all you provided for us (very spoiled) fans for so long.

    And thank you for these tribute posts Darius.

  2. Thank you Darius,
    We will too soon be back in the analysis of the current Laker team.

    Right now it is enough to savor the legacy of Jerry Buss. I was privileged to follow the Lakers for all of the years he was our owner. An iconic owner, he was able to communicate to and with every class of fan and understood the value of sports entertainment.

    His loss points up my own mortality and the fact that he lived 120 years in his 80 years on this planet is something I will take as a lesson when I am tired or would like to slow down.

  3. He was the model that all NBA owners should follow-. He was unafraid and willing to do anything and everything to assure the Lakers not just winning, but finish as Champions. Good was never good enough for him. He always had his eye on the prize every single season always looking to win another championship trophy. Look up the word ” winner in the dictionary and you’ll probably see his picture in the definition.

    One has to wonder whether Buss dies more of heartbreak than the cancer itself. His team was falling apart, his son was making a mess of things, and there a brewing feud between both children for control of the team. That certainly did not help his well being, that’s for sure. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for the Lakers as his passing will ignite a spark that has been long since snuffed.

  4. Thanks for posting the Chick Hearn interview with Dr. Buss. He was right on the money with his words on ownership staying out of the basketball side of the business, and letting guys like Jerry West handle that. He also made quality points on free agency and the salary cap. Just listening to him talk makes you realize how smart he really was, heck he had a PhD in Chemistry.

  5. It is really amazing when you think of just how many of the newly really rich people have degrees in chemistry, physics, and math. These are people who not only can see the future, but have the training and discipline to make it happen.

    Just a thought for those deciding on the path of their education, or even if they should get any higher education at all.

  6. Great man. Great loss. The current malaise of his beloved team is a lot easier to understand now. The foundation of the team’s success is gone.

  7. Thank you for the happiness, Dr. Buss.

  8. Rest in peace, Dr. Buss. Thank you for decades of excitement and joy.

    I wish the Lakers could have sent him out a champion, as they did with Chick Hearn, but I like to imagine that maybe an angel came to Dr. Buss during the third quarter of game 7 in the 2010 Finals, with the Celtics up by 15 on his home court, and told him, “If you’re willing to make this the last championship you’ll see in your lifetime, the Lakers can come back and take this game.” We all know he would have gone all in for that hand.

  9. There’s no hyperbole in saying this was the greatest owner in the history of modern pro sports. Buss spent money, but it wasn’t in the George Steinbrenner or Jerry Jones mold — simply tossing piles of cash at every Dave Winfield or Deion Sanders type that passed by on the free agent market. The Lakers were never a team that bought its way to a championship; yes, the franchise has resources some others didn’t, but there was more to its success than just money.

    Buss had an amazing ability for being involved, but never too involved so that he crowded out the expertise of those whom he was paying to lead the show. These days you see too many owners who like to see themselves in Forbes, or on SportsCenter or what have you. Buss could balance the spotlight and what was best for the team, what was best for the Lakers chances to win. He was one of a kind, and as fans we’ll miss his presence more than we can measure at this point.

  10. Sad day for Los Angeles and America. Jerry brought us all great times and joy over the past 32 years. I had the honor of meeting Dr. Buss over the years andvwill always remain in awe of him and his “win at any cost” philosophy and big picture philosophy of building the greatest sport brand of all time.

    Thank you Jerry Buss for the joy of allowing us Laker fans to share in the Laker name and brand.

  11. darius: in closing, the funeral procession will be a who’s who; moving and profound; uplifting and hearfelt in so many ways a champion of an owner beloved and respected by all. the width and breadth of jerry buss’s reach will be in full display. we will all be awestruck and proud at the same time. laker nation will never be emotionally stronger and a just time to reflect on one’s life.

    Live On Lakers !

  12. Darius, thank you for doing such a peerless job with this site, today and always.

    There have been so many insightful and moving comments about Dr. Buss. The CEO and co-owner of the Sixers had this to say: “A great man has left us.”

  13. Thank You Sir! You will always be remembered. How perfect it is that the last champinship that you have seen was against the Celtics.

  14. One of the reasons i became Lakers fan because i like what Dr.Buss did to the Lakers from hiring Bill Sharman, drafting Magic Johnson, when Magic was gone, another great move, he hired Phil Jackson. He is smart man, well-educated, he treated people in good way, he is the great owner in sports history, this is a big loss to Lakers, LA .

  15. To be fair, it’s just too much to ask the som or the daughter to fill in such a big shoe. It is just not fair to ask the kids to “out-do” the shadow of great ownership job that Dr Buss has done for this organization. Quite frankly, don’t think it’s possible to get another run of 10 championships out of 16 finals in a span of 30 years.
    RIP Dr Buss! no one should curse or blame your heirs for not being as great as you had been.

  16. Great post, Darius – especially the interview with Dr. Buss. I feel almost like I’ve lost a member of my own family today. Dr. Buss deserves a star of his own on the Lakers court. Let’s hope and pray that the Buss’s children will honor his legacy by making up and restoring peace and harmony in the family.

    Is there some way we could send our thoughts/prayers/condolances to the Buss family, like an electronic sympathy card we could sign or something of that sort?

  17. Thank you Mr. Buss. You’ve made a team that we can all be proud of. I hope howard learns what you’ve taught kobe. There aren’t that many players like Kobe these days. Loyal is a word that has been taken for granted in the NBA in recent years.

  18. Dr. Buss your inspiring leadership of the Lakers and contributions to the growth of the sport of basketball will forever be missed. Thank you for the work you’ve put in throughout the years.

  19. It is odd to me that ONLY 19 comments were made on this topic. Perhaps one of the greatest owners of all time, our leader deserves more props than that. If nothing else, to say at least Rest in peace Mr. Buss. My condolences to the Buss family.

  20. What would Dr. Buss be thinking from the grave looking at this team now? Very sad times in Lakerland.