As a youngster, he thought he might be a photographer. But in high school, he shifted his focus to becoming a chemist.
"I wanted to go on and teach school in a big university, preferably one with a really good football team," he once said in a television interview, "and that's why I went to USC."
The University of Wyoming graduate earned a master's degree and then a PhD in physical chemistry from USC in 1957, becoming the Dr. Jerry Buss who made a fortune in real estate and purchased the Lakers a little more than two decades later.
But Buss, who taught chemistry at USC, never really left the university completely.
USC officials said he gave millions of dollars to endow faculty positions, scholarships and fund facilities in the chemistry department, annually gave to the athletic department's scholarship fund, donated money to various sports and the Trojans marching band and regularly attended home and away USC football games and track meets.
"He never missed a dual meet," said Ron Allice, USC's director of track and field. "And he would go to the
As a USC student, Buss studied and worked under noted chemist Sidney Benson, who died in December 2011.
"He was so terribly intelligent that I used to sit and wonder, 'Could I ever possibly become as well educated, as intellectual as he was?'" Buss said in a 2006 interview with Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune and Casper Journal.
In 2008, Buss endowed chairs/faculty positions in the names of Benson and chemistry professor David Dows.
"As an academician and a person, Sidney Benson was a model to aspire to, to emulate and, to a young student, a little intimidating," Buss said in a statement from a USC release announcing his gift. "A young professor himself at the time, David Dows gave me the encouragement to continue and to succeed. I am indebted to both."
Howard Taylor, an emeritus professor of chemistry at USC, began teaching at the university in 1961, after Buss had completed his PhD.
But he knew Buss' work with Benson and said he was among a group of academics and engineers who invested with the fledgling real-estate magnate.
Taylor said that Buss — as a student and later as a businessman — had outstanding organizational skills, "especially complex things that involved lots of numbers."
Buss' talent was especially useful before the onset of the computer age when enormous amounts of information were processed by hand.
"Working with the data that existed, [Buss and Benson] developed a rapid-fire shorthand based on scientific tables that allowed you to find key numbers," Taylor said.
Buss maintained USC connections after he bought the Lakers, inviting administrators and coaches to watch games with him. His daughter Jeanie, now governor and executive vice president of the Lakers, attended USC.
Former Trojans running back Mike Garrett and former Trojans assistant coach
When USC was searching for a new athletic director in 1992, Buss visited Steven Sample, then the university president, and recommended Garrett.
"When I hired Mike, I must admit it was largely because he had been such a famous athlete," Buss told The Times in 2010. "Then I realized he had super powers as an administrator, an organizer."
Buss' strong connection to USC was evident at his memorial service.
Several members of the Trojans marching band played "Amazing Grace."