Lakers owner Jerry Buss brought ‘Showtime’ success to L.A.

Jerry Buss was all smiles while receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

The frozen fields of Wyoming came first. Long before the championship trophies. Before the glitz and glamour. Jerry Buss was still a teenager, digging ditches beside his stepfather, when he dreamed of bigger things.

It was youthful ambition — a hunger for excitement — that led him to Southern California, where he amassed a fortune in real estate, traded it all to buy the Lakers, then became the man who transformed pro basketball from sport into spectacle.

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


The same could be said of Buss, who died at age 80 on Feb. 18 of complications from cancer. Fans will remember him not only for his success — 10 NBA titles in three-plus decades — but also for showmanship.

His teams became known for big names and fast-paced play, the owner valuing superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. He was also smart enough to hire future Hall of Fame coaches in Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.

As the Lakers sprinted from one championship to the next, Buss cut an audacious figure in the stands, an aging playboy in blue jeans, often with a younger woman by his side.

This persona fit perfectly with the movie stars he invited to games and the pretty dancers he hired to entertain during timeouts.

“Jerry Buss helped set the league on the course it is on today,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “Remember, he showed us it was about ‘Showtime,’ the notion that an arena can become the focal point for not just basketball but entertainment. He made it the place to see and be seen.”

As Buss put it: “I’ve worked hard and been lucky. With the combination of the two, I’ve accomplished everything I ever set out to do.”

Hardscrabble roots

A Depression-era baby, Jerry Hatten Buss was born in Salt Lake City on Jan. 27, 1933, although some sources cite 1934 as his birth year. His parents, Lydus and Jessie Buss, divorced when he was an infant.

His mother struggled to make ends meet as a waitress in tiny Evanston, Wyo., and Buss remembered standing in food lines in the bitter cold. They moved to Southern California when he was 9, but within a few years she remarried and her second husband took the family back to Wyoming.

His stepfather, Cecil Brown, was, as Buss put it, “very tightfisted.” Brown made his living as a plumber and expected his children (one from a previous marriage, another son and a daughter with Jessie) to help.

This work included digging ditches in the cold. Buss preferred being a bellhop at a local hotel and running a mail-order stamp-collecting business that he started at age 13.

Leaving high school a year early, he worked on the railroad, pumping a hand-driven car up and down the line to make repairs. The job lasted just three months.

Until then, Buss had never much liked academics. But he returned to school and, with a science teacher’s encouragement, earned a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming.

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, when he was 19 he married a student named JoAnn Mueller and they would eventually have four children: John, Jim, Jeanie and Janie.

The couple moved to Southern California in 1953, when USC gave Buss a scholarship for graduate school. He earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1957. The degree brought him great pride — Lakers employees always called him “Dr. Buss.”

He was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in February 1958, part of a team that developed rocket fuel and other classified material. But the idea of a career in the aerospace industry did not appeal to Buss. As the 1950s drew to a close, he and a Douglas colleague, Frank Mariani, decided to try their hand at real estate.

They scraped together a few thousand dollars and took out multiple mortgages to buy a 14-unit apartment house in West Los Angeles and, to save money, did all the repairs themselves.

Once, fixing a damaged wall after work, Buss peeled off his T-shirt, stuffed it into the hole and plastered over it.

They soon bought a second building and stumbled onto some good fortune. The partners — along with several relatives — won $12,000 at the racetrack, then bought yet another building, soon discovering oil on the property and receiving lucrative royalty rights.

“Everybody just felt like God loves us,” Buss recalled in the book “Winnin’ Times,” written by former Times sportswriters Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. “Everything we did just went the right way.”

Now millionaires, Buss and Mariani turned to another sort of venture.

Gathering friends as investors, they bought into the fledgling World Team Tennis league in 1974. Buss purchased the Los Angeles Strings and Mariani bought the San Diego Friars. Others took over franchises in Anaheim and Indiana.

The Strings won a championship in 1978, but the league did not last much longer. Buss went looking for a bigger, better opportunity.

“I have enough money to own a major league team,” he said at the time. “And I intend to do so.”

Jack Kent Cooke, who had built the Forum in Inglewood to house his Lakers and Kings, was in the midst of an expensive divorce and wanted to cash out. He began negotiating with Buss.

The asking price was $33.5 million for the arena, $16 million for the Lakers, $8 million for the Kings and $10 million for Cooke’s ranch in the Sierra Nevada. Buss suggested a real-estate swap to avoid capital gains taxes and wound up unloading the majority of his holdings. As part of the deal, he acquired the Chrysler Building in New York City and traded it to Cooke.

Negotiations nearly fell through at the last minute when an investor dropped out, leaving Buss to scramble for more money, including a $1-million loan from Mariani’s friend Donald T. Sterling, who would later purchase the Clippers.

Once again, Buss was leveraged to the hilt, as he was at the start of his real estate career. Once again, he was taking a risk.

The NBA — the “sport of the ‘70s” — had fallen by the wayside. Several teams stood on the brink of bankruptcy, CBS was broadcasting finals games on tape delay instead of live, and there were reports of rampant drug use among players. But to Buss, the Lakers looked like a gem in the coal bin. Seven years removed from their last title, they had a dominant center in Abdul-Jabbar and were poised to select the effervescent Johnson out of Michigan State in the 1979 NBA draft.

Buss added something more to the mix: a vision for the future.

He did not pretend to know much about Xs and O’s, so he hired Jack McKinney, a coach who favored running, to introduce an up-tempo brand of basketball.

Next came a live band to perform with the Laker Girls.

Celebrities began showing up for games, encouraged by the management. Hollywood regulars included Denzel Washington, Dyan Cannon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Penny Marshall. Jack Nicholson cemented his position as the No. 1 fan, seated courtside, close to the visiting team’s bench so he could needle opponents.

“Jerry Buss is always thinking in terms of putting a show on,” said Lon Rosen, the former Lakers publicist who became Johnson’s agent. “Everything the Lakers do, everything is planned.”

Shrewd and independent

So there were always two sides to Buss. People closest to him saw an astute businessman, an owner who boosted revenue by raising the cost of premium seats while giving everyday fans a better deal in the upper sections of the arena.

“At heart, he’s a mathematician,” said Bob Steiner, his longtime public relations manager. “He always told me, ‘Work the numbers. No matter what common sense may tell you, work the numbers.’”

But much of the world saw him as a maverick, a rich man who acted like one of the guys.

“I saw him walking in with these jeans on,” Johnson recalled of their first meeting. “I said, ‘This man’s got all this money?’”

This unpretentious style helped Buss, divorced and known as a playboy, forge close relationships with many of his players. After games, he transformed the Forum’s press lounge into a late-night party spot, entertaining athletes, reporters and young women as announcer Chick Hearn poured drinks at the bar.

Buss said: “Just because I’m a public figure doesn’t mean I don’t get to live my life the way I want.”

Success came quickly. With former Lakers star Jerry West maturing into one of the most gifted general managers in the league, the team won an NBA championship in Buss’ first season.

“You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment,” Buss told his players afterward.

The good times lasted almost a decade, the Lakers winning five titles with the likes of Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and James Worthy. But no team can stay on top forever, and the franchise struggled through much of the 1990s.

Buss stopped hanging around so much, and the front office became more bureaucratic. West was obliged to train and consult with the owner’s son Jim, who was given the title of assistant general manager. It took some bold moves to turn things around.

West tore the roster apart in summer 1996, trading center Vlade Divac and reducing the payroll enough to make a run at O’Neal, who was nearing the end of his contract with the Orlando Magic.

As negotiations stalled, West wondered if the team should settle for Plan B, signing another center, Dikembe Mutombo, and a big power forward in Dale Davis.

Buss insisted that his general manager keep pursuing O’Neal, so West traded away two more players, creating enough salary cap room to give O’Neal the $118-million offer he demanded.

“We knew we were out on a limb,” Buss said. “We were going to either be very sorry or very ecstatic.”

The Divac trade allowed the Lakers to add the precocious Bryant out of high school, but when the team fell short of winning it all the next three seasons, Buss had to roll the dice one more time.

Going against a previous dictum to spend conservatively on coaches, he paid $30 million over five seasons to hire Jackson in 1999.

The franchise soon moved into Staples Center, a downtown location that featured state-of-the-art accommodations and — just as important — 160 revenue-producing luxury suites. Buss would realize pretax profits estimated at more than $50 million over the next few years.

More championships

Jackson’s arrival marked the final step in the greatest rebuilding project of the salary cap era.

The Lakers celebrated a “three-peat” with three consecutive championships starting in 1999-2000, and once again Buss drifted away from day-to-day operations, only to be drawn back in.

When O’Neal agitated for a long-term contract in 2003, the owner balked. The team flamed out in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons and traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat. Then Jackson walked away, saying he wanted to “pause and reflect.”

A few more disappointing seasons made Bryant antsy, and he demanded a trade. But Buss stood firm.

Having already acquired Lamar Odom in the O’Neal trade, the Lakers subsequently traded to get Spanish forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in February 2008.

The Lakers lost to the archrival Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals that spring but rebounded to defeat Orlando for the 2008-09 title. The next season, they earned revenge against Boston for another championship.

It was their 10th and final title under Buss, and a particularly satisfying victory for the owner, who said: “One of the biggest reasons I bought the Lakers was to beat the Celtics.”

That year, 2010, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Buss, who also owned the Sparks of the WNBA and the Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League, eventually sold all of his sports teams except the Lakers. This year Forbes magazine valued the team at $1 billion.

The final months of Buss’ life were not a particularly happy time for the Lakers.

Last summer, the team made headlines with another pair of blockbuster moves, acquiring superstars Howard and Steve Nash.

With Buss’ health failing, there was much speculation about who ran the operation, him or his son Jim.

The questions grew louder as the team stumbled out of the blocks, firing Coach Mike Brown and bypassing Jackson to hire Mike D’Antoni.

Despite their Hall of Fame roster, the Lakers suffered a losing record through the first months of the season and fans grumbled. But the recent struggles cannot overshadow what Buss had done for the franchise.

Buss’ survivors include his four children from his marriage to Mueller: son Jim, executive vice president of player personnel for the Lakers; daughter Jeanie, the team’s executive vice president of business operations; another son, John, the Lakers’ executive vice president of strategic development; and daughter Janie Buss Drexel, the Lakers’ director of charitable services. He is also survived by two children from his relationship with Karen Demel: son Joey, an executive with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers’ minor league affiliate; and son Jesse, the Lakers’ director of scouting; as well as eight grandchildren. His half sister Susan Hall of Phoenix, half brother Mickey Brown of Scottsdale, Ariz., and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyo., also survive him.

Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan and former Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this report.