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Fast Company : When It’s Showtime at the Forum, the Lakers May Be the Stars but Jerry Buss Is the Director

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<i> Adapted from "Winnin' Times," by Scott Ostler, a syndicated sports columnist for The Times, and Times sportswriter Steve Springer, to be published next month by Macmillan Publishing Co</i>

In the early 1960s, on Wilshire Boulevard about two miles before it dead-ends at a row of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, there was a nightclub named The Horn. It featured live entertainment, big names and new faces--singers, musicians and comedians--on a small stage surrounded by 150 or so patrons in cozy booths. The Horn attracted an upscale clientele, L.A.’s hip Westside set. Jerry Buss, a budding real-estate tycoon, was a regular.

The club’s show always opened the same way. The lights would dim, and an entertainer planted at one of the tables would stand and begin to sing the establishment’s signature tune, “It’s Showtime.” A singer at another table would rise, then a third, all harmonizing.

Buss loved that opening--it gave him goose bumps. Its theatrics created a mood and charged the room with expectation. He liked to sit back, a pretty woman at his side, and light a cigarette, sip his rum-and-Coke and let himself be swept up in a fantasy of lights, music and entertainment.

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When he bought the Forum and the Lakers in 1979, Buss knew exactly what he wanted--a grand-scale version of The Horn. He wanted atmosphere and entertainment. He wanted showtime .

This meant that his headliners, the Lakers, had to be flashy, slick and talented. Buss figured that the purpose of a basketball team was the same as that of a nightclub act--to entertain. Once you booked your talent, you set the mood. Buss dumped the Forum organist and brought in a lively 10-piece band of young musicians. He commissioned the recruitment and training of a team of top female dancers, who became the slick, sexy Laker Girls.

Next Buss mapped out a strategy of packing the house with the right sociological blend of fans. He wanted to make his show available to the working class, the loyal beer-and-popcorn folks who would make a lot of noise. And, for a dash of glitter and glamour, Buss wanted to attract the Hollywood crowd, the city’s powerful and beautiful people.

Sprinkle in such touches as hokey mascots, improved media accommodations, a bigger “skybox” for the owner and his friends, and a stack of current soul and disco tunes to blare over the P.A. system when the band needs a rest--then throw in the basketball team--and you’ve got Buss’ version of showtime.

The term wasn’t new to basketball. The Harlem Globetrotters were the original showtime team, and college superstar Pistol Pete Maravich came to the National Basketball Assn. in 1970 preaching and practicing the gospel of showtime. But Buss took the concept to new heights, or to tackier depths, depending upon your viewpoint.

“Buss seems to have perfectly mated a product to an environment,” says Bob Ryan, Boston Globe sports columnist and a respected NBA analyst. “Try this in Cleveland, or Kansas City. His emphasis is on entertainment, the whole package. The Lakers stand for something now: the break, the instant basket, the blitz. They are a team of the future, the embodiment of speed and dazzle. That’s exactly what Buss wants ‘em to stand for. They are the vision of an owner.”

Buss wasn’t the Lakers’ first Hollywood-leaning, showtime-loving owner. Bob Short, who owned the team in the 1950s and early ‘60s, knew the value of showcasing his superstars, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, so he lured Doris Day to the Sports Arena with free courtside tickets, giving the team its first connection with Hollywood. She became the First Fan.

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Under Jack Kent Cooke, who bought the team from Short in 1965, the Lakers solidified the glitter image that would come to inspire some basketball fans and nauseate others. Cooke, the former Canadian bandleader, appreciated a good show and despised dullness. He didn’t just set the stage for showtime; he built the stage, the Fabulous Forum.

And Cooke, who loves to be surrounded by the bright and the beautiful, instilled in his Forum the Hollywood party ambiance. He gave L.A. fans in-your-face players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson--and in-your-lap thrills from the courtside seats. First, however, Cooke relegated the working press to the cheap seats and bounced Doris Day into the street. All in the name of money.

Before Cooke, the press sat courtside, as they do in all NBA arenas. But it occurred to him that the press doesn’t pay for those choice seats. So when the Lakers moved to the Forum, Cooke created a press section high in the western stands, in the cheap-seat zone, and offered those courtside seats to paying customers.

When Cooke bought the team, he took Doris Day off the comp list. Indeed, he did away with the comp list entirely, except for the working press. Day’s husband, Marty Melcher, reportedly was indignant.

“The hell with it,” he told Cooke. “We’ve never had to pay for tickets. Doris is a hell of an attraction for your team.”

“I’m sorry,” Cooke said. “That’s the way it’s going to be.”

Day was an attraction, a veritable Laker institution, but, as Cooke says now, “we didn’t need it. We were selling seats.”

Before every Lakers and Kings game, Cooke hosted a dinner party for 15 to 18 guests at his exclusive round table in his exclusive Forum Club. The guests would then repair to the arena for the game. When the Forum first opened, Cooke tried sitting courtside, then moved several rows up at midcourt. But there were too many distractions, so he blocked off a section of about 13 seats high in the northern end of the Forum stands. The skybox was born.

WHEN BUSS BOUGHT COOKE’S sports empire, he expanded on Cooke’s party-a-night theme. Buss knew that when people in Southern California have guests from out of town, often the visitors will ask if it’s possible to see a real movie star.

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Says Buss: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could always have movie stars, consistently, at the Forum?’ Eventually, everyone would know if you really want to see a movie star, there would be one place you could do it: Jerry Buss’ box at the Forum.”

So Buss set out to stock the Forum with stars. He convinced the Forum concessionaire that he could bring in bigger crowds and create more excitement if he could lure stars. He asked the concessionaire for an annual entertainment allowance, and the concessionaire gave him $50,000. Buss began to compile a list of celebrities--movie and television people, athletes, authors and scientists. He searched for and found every Nobel Prize winner in the L.A. area. They all went on his invitation list.

Over the years, Buss has enlarged Cooke’s original 13-seat skybox to 63 seats. (He also moved the press section back to courtside.) The skybox expansion solved the thorny protocol problem of accommodating Buss’ friends and business associates who demand tickets near the court when none are available. What Buss essentially says is, “If you want to watch a game, you can sit with me. I own the joint, and if these seats are good enough for me, how can you complain?”

Buss’ skybox remains SRO for every Laker game. He saves eight seats for the night’s designated celebrities and 10 for a regular group of friends. The rest of the seats are used by the Forum advertising department and by the original partners in Mariani-Buss, the real estate firm Buss owns with Frank Mariani.

On many evenings, the best show, for celebrity watchers at least, is in the stands. With Buss’ cultivation of the rich and famous, the team’s success and the gradual upgrading of the NBA, Laker games have become the place in L.A. to see and be seen, especially during the late rounds of the playoffs. It’s not uncommon on any given night to glimpse Ann-Margret, Jimmy Buffett, Christopher Cross, Michael Douglas, Darryl Hannah, Veronica Hamel, Bo Hopkins, Rob Reiner, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Mr. T, Raquel Welch or Debra Winger. Dodger third baseman Bill Madlock and former baseball manager Frank Robinson are season ticket holders. John McEnroe shows up often with his wife, Tatum O’Neal.

After the game, Buss usually drops by the Lakers’ locker room to chat with the players and coaches and to introduce his famous guests to famous Lakers. Nowhere in the world is there a more constant cultural interchange between stars and jocks than in the Lakers’ locker room. After any game, you can count on running into two or three big names off this partial list of one-time or regular locker room guests: Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Selleck, James Garner, Joe Namath, Don Rickles, Henry Winkler, Tina Turner, Muhammad Ali, Henny Youngman, Don King, Stephen Stills, Stevie Wonder and two or three of the Jacksons, including Michael.

There is one Laker fan, of course, who needs no introduction--Jack Nicholson. The actor began attending games when Cooke was owner, and he succeeded Doris Day as First Fan. He sits courtside, immediately to the left of the visiting team’s head coach, in a seat comped him by Buss. Once, when Dick Motta coached the Dallas Mavericks, he and Nicholson got into a courtside altercation. Nicholson claims that he merely asked Motta to sit down. Motta claims Nicholson goosed him. Motta responded by offering to make Nicholson an assistant coach so he would at least work for his seat.

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Nicholson attends every home game, unless he’s shooting a film out of town, in which case the Lakers ship him videotapes of the games he missed. During the playoffs, Nicholson frequently travels to road games. In Boston for the 1984-85 finals, he stirred up the Celtic fans and was even accused of mooning the Boston Garden crowd. Although taped replays are inconclusive, the alleged mooning has become part of Laker-Celtic legend.

Nicholson does not visit the Laker locker room after games with the rest of Hollywood, but he does socialize with the players. They are frequent guests at On the Rox, his private club on the Sunset Strip, and he has hosted team victory parties at his home.

After his locker room visit, Buss often shuns the more upscale crowd in the Forum Club to hang out in the smaller, more Spartan press lounge. Eventually, he, his date of the evening and the rest of his entourage are whisked off in his baby-blue limo, either to his mansion, Pickfair, or to a Hollywood disco.

When he and his retinue arrive at a nightspot, they are escorted to a centrally located table, which quickly becomes the hub of activity in the room, especially if a Laker player or two happen to be disco-ing at the same place and drop by Buss’ table.

If the conversation lags, Buss has a repertoire of sure-fire party tricks. He has been known to set his chest hair on fire, for laughs. And in college, he saw the movie “Red River,” in which Montgomery Clift puts out a cigarette by grinding it into the palm of his hand. Buss thought this a splendid gesture and taught himself the trick. You can do it by icing your palm first, which is cheating, or simply by the mind-over-matter method, which Buss prefers.

BUSS IS NEVER LONELY AT LAKER GAMES. Attendance has risen steadily during his seven-year reign, and last season’s average topped 16,000, the highest since the 1971-72 and ‘72-73 seasons of Chamberlain, West and Baylor.

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This is surely because of the quality of the floor show, starring the Lakers, but it’s also a measure of the success of Buss’ ticket-pricing policy, sort of a Robin Hood master plan.

Under Cooke, there was only a $2 difference between the price of the worst and the best seats in the house. That was pretty much the pricing philosophy throughout the league. Buss’ theory was that by jacking up the price of the good seats and lowering the cost of the not-so-good seats, he would bring more people in. The rich folks can afford to pay more, and the masses need inexpensive tickets.

He also remembered a theory he had heard years before, that entertainment tickets should be priced at the equivalent of two hours’ income of the fan you’re aiming to attract. The cheapest Laker ticket is now $7, although $5 tickets are available for senior citizens and students.

Buss knew that the Lakers also attracted many professional people who would be willing to pay much more for a good seat. As a result, a ticket for one of the 100 courtside seats for a Laker game is the most expensive in sports, having soared from $15 under Cooke, to $60 under Buss in his first season, up to the current $150. The price tag has given that golden rectangle of seats an aura of its own. It is the toughest ticket in town for a regularly scheduled event. Michael Jackson tried to buy courtside season seats, which go for $6,300 each, and was turned down, as is everyone who applies. There are simply no vacancies.

When Buss bought the Forum, he owed favors to several bankers and financiers, and he had other friends to whom he had promised courtside seats. He needed to free at least 10 of the 100 front-row seats to meet those personal obligations. Buss figured the best way to do so would be to raise the courtside prices steeply. He planned to bump the cost to $45. When he got $45 checks in the mail from people, along with notes thanking him for keeping the increase so reasonable, he realized it was going to take more to scare fans away. So, he decided to charge $60, and, expecting a mutiny of angry courtsiders, he called a meeting of the 100 ticket-holders to explain. When Buss arrived at the Forum for the meeting, a dozen Rolls-Royces were parked near the Forum Club entrance. Buss realized he didn’t need to feel guilty about squeezing these particular patrons for more ticket money.

“I notice many of you people drive the finest cars,” Buss told the assembled group. “Those cars cost $120,000, and the average car costs $12,000. So you’re willing to pay 10 times as much as the average person for luxury. And that’s what I intend for you to do here. Ultimately, you’ll pay 10 times as much as the average person for your seats.”

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In seven years, Buss has had only two cancellations of courtside season tickets, and those were for medical reasons. One man hoping to buy his way into the golden rectangle offered to write a check for four seats for five years in advance--more than $100,000. Buss had to decline. Nothing open.

His rich-and-poor ticket pricing concept has spread throughout the league and, no doubt, has been a factor in the NBA’s overall attendance boom.

s for the team itself, since the beginning of the Buss-Magic era, the Lakers, if not always the best team in the NBA, have consistently been the prettiest. Their fast break, when cranked to maximum r.p.m.s, is considered the most devastating running game in the history of basketball.

And that running game is the most vital component of Buss’ grand showtime design. All the girls and mascots and music and courtside glitter would be meaningless decoration if not for the fast break.

Buss tends to work in the background, to let his coaches and executives and advisers do the work and make the decisions, with his final approval. But if there is a message that rings down loud and clear from the skybox, it is this: Run.

Running is a Laker tradition, ever since West and Hot Rod Hundley and Baylor.

“The Lakers brought racehorse basketball to the West,” says Celtic announcer Johnny Most, “and it became a thing of beauty. Other clubs in the West had to change their styles to keep up with the Lakers, and now everyone out there is galloping. It’s racehorse basketball, and L.A. does it better than anyone.”

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Buss was determined to continue the tradition, even accelerate it. He hired Jack McKinney because he was a running coach, and he fired Paul Westhead because, Buss thought, Westhead had slowed the team down.

The Lakers must run because Buss demands it and because the coaching staff and front office believe in fast-break basketball. To Coach Pat Riley, the lightning transition game is anything but a theatrical gimmick. It is the direction of modern basketball, essential to the team’s success.

“Whether it’s for showtime, or whether it’s for marketing, or it’s for his (Buss’) whim, that’s how I like to play,” Riley says. “That’s how I was taught. It’s the best way to play basketball, the most fun way and most conducive to the kind of talent that comes off college campuses now. They are very agile, versatile, quick athletes whose instincts are to attack. I will always continue to be big on the wide-open running game.”

Buss also felt that the theatrical touches and the blazing running game would make the Forum fans more enthusiastic, and thereby strengthen the Lakers’ home-court advantage.

“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” Buss says. “I think we’ve been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.”

The Lakers’ exuberant and reckless style of play, coupled with the sideline circus, is not universally loved or admired. To some, what Buss and the Lakers have done is as praiseworthy as hiring LeRoy Neiman to repaint the Sistine Chapel.

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“I don’t think we liked them (the Lakers) particularly as players,” said Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, a former Celtic forward who now plays for the Clippers. “We didn’t like what they represented, and that was the Hollywood bourgeoisie, West Coast, laid-back-type style, showtime. We took it to heart that we were going to try to put an end to some of that. When we played them, it was the steelworkers against the Hollywood movie stars.”

Nevertheless, the Lakers’ showtime philosophy has been successful in terms of winning games and influencing fans and advertisers coast to coast.

“The Lakers have generated a tremendous following, with their exciting offense and with Kareem and Magic,” says Neal Pilson, executive vice president, CBS / Broadcast Group. “Their coach is an attractive, articulate guy with a distinctive style, and the Forum is a glamorous place to play. The Lakers are a very powerful part of our TV package.

“In the last four or five years, the ratings, in numbers and in quality demographics, have improved year by year, and that’s significant. Most other sports have been static or have declined. That’s why the NBA’s new TV contract is almost 100% bigger than the last one, at a time when other sports are not getting any contracts at all.

“There is a fundamental public perception that the league is a well-managed, well-run, economically sound sports league not troubled by the labor strife, antitrust problems and uncertainties that have plagued professional football and baseball.”

In 1981, according to Business Week magazine, 16 of the league’s 23 teams lost money and four were on the block, with no buyers in sight. This season, all 23 teams are expected to turn a profit.

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A major factor in the rise of the league has been an influx of marquee players--Magic, Larry Bird, Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan. But another reason has been solvent and competent ownership. The policies laid down by Jerry Buss--on ticket-pricing structure, marketing, organizational stability--have set a general trend.

It didn’t take Buss long to execute a showtime concept that paid off in good times, rich times and winning times--exactly what he had in mind when he went into the basketball business.

Adapted by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co. from “Winnin’ Times,” by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. Copyright 1986 by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer.

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