Jerry Buss navigated his way through life and business much as Magic Johnson navigated through a tight NBA defense. He had moves, a quick learning curve and a confidence.
In the wake of Buss’ death Monday, all sides of him will be in play in the news and tributes.
There will be mentions of his gambling habits. He never met a poker table he didn’t like. Also mentions of his fascination with younger women. He never met an attractive 22-year-old he didn’t like.
He was a major player in a big and complicated business world. Real estate dealings put him into a position where he could do something as risky and extravagant as buying the Lakers. And even when he played the real-estate game along a slippery edge, he was able to stay upright, despite being hit with a hard shot.
It was 1985. Buss owned rental properties in Arizona and had paid taxes on some of them at a level 8% below the going rate. Times sportswriter Steve Springer dug out a story that Arizona authorities were investigating him. Buss said he hadn’t understood the complexities of the Arizona tax laws and, the moment he saw the gravity of the matter and read threatening quotes from Arizona officials in Springer’s story that raised the possibility of prosecution, he wrote a check for nearly $1 million to settle things.
Most people in Buss’ position would have, understandably, had a difficult time being cheery with the reporter who had brought it all on, even when the report was accurate. Not Buss. The next time he saw Springer, he joked that, had he known Springer was writing that story, he would have given him the $1 million instead.
Buss was anything but a social butterfly. But he was always, in his unique way, a people person.
Bob Steiner, his longtime friend and public relations consultant, says, “I never saw him when he wasn’t polite to everybody.”
He was also extremely generous.
Walt Hazzard played for the Lakers and then, after a coaching stint at his alma mater UCLA, was hired by Buss as a Lakers special consultant in 1994. Then in 1996, he suffered a debilitating stroke. As Hazzard struggled with his health, Buss kept re-upping his contract, even adding three years to it a day or so before Hazzard was to have a dangerous, possibly life-threatening surgical procedure. Hazzard died in 2011.
Rudy Tomjanovich had a less-than-spectacular run as Lakers coach in 2004-05, but after his departure, Buss kept him on the payroll to scout NBA talent.
Then there is Bill Sharman, the former Lakers coach and front-office star, who may be the only person able to become a revered Laker on all fronts despite having been a star player for the hated Boston Celtics.
Sharman is 86 and in failing health now. But the Lakers checks keep coming in.
He was the team’s coach from 1971 to ’76 and was the man at the controls in the famous title season of 1971-72 that included the 33-game winning streak. By the time Buss purchased the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979, Sharman was the team’s general manager.
For Buss, Sharman’s Celtics flaw was mitigated by the fact that they both had gone to USC. Trojans blood was thicker than Boston water.
Sharman, an intense competitor and thoroughly likable man, started losing his voice from years of yelling from the bench. In 1982, he felt the need to step down as GM. He wasn’t yelling from the bench now, but he was out in the world, making appearances and speeches, and his vocal cords were still getting little rest.
Buss heard him out and said, OK, you will now be team president.
Jerry West, who had been Sharman’s alter ego in the front office as they worked in near harmony with little worry about titles or status, became GM.
Sharman carried on with his new title through 1988, but his vocal problem continued to worsen and so he went to see Buss again, this time to resign as president.
Buss heard him out and said, OK, you will now be a special consultant to the Lakers.
And that has continued. At one point, Buss asked Sharman to do occasional written reports on his views of the current Lakers. Sharman hesitated, because he didn’t want to be seen as undercutting any of the current Lakers management.
Buss heard him out and said, OK, just write them for me.
We live in an era of soulless corporations and heartless management. People are laid off by email or by discovering the lock changed on their office door.
In Buss’ corporation, there was always heart and soul.
Steiner’s daughter, Cathy, is developmentally disabled. She is also a huge Lakers fan, of course, and used to sit in Buss’ box with her dad at games and keep score. She used the game program to do so.
But somewhere along the line, an order had come to the ushers that the game programs need not be distributed in the boss’ box until he arrived. Invariably, Buss would be delayed by pregame duties, and one time, he didn’t make it into his box until near halftime. When he arrived, Cathy let him know that she would have no more of these delays, that she needed her program before the game started.
To which Jerry Buss replied meekly: “I will take care of it, Cathy.”
And he did.
“Jerry was sensational with her,” Steiner says.
He was the same with thousands of other people.