Lakers owner Jerry Buss dies at 80
Jerry Buss, the longtime owner of the Lakers whose penchant for showmanship helped turn the game of basketball into “Showtime” and who led the team to 10 NBA championships, died Monday. He was 80.
A self-made millionaire who built his fortune in real estate, Buss bought the Lakers in 1979. He charted his successful course with marquee players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Hall of Fame coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, celebrities sitting courtside and Laker Girls dancing during timeouts.
“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” Buss said. “I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.”
It was a remarkable winning streak for a man who dug his way out of a hardscrabble youth.
A Depression-era baby, Jerry Hatten Buss was born Jan. 27, 1933, in Salt Lake City. His parents 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.
Later, Buss earned a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming. At 19 he married a coed named JoAnn Mueller, and they would eventually have four children: John, Jim, Jeanie and Janie.
By the mid-1950s, the couple had moved to Southern California, where Buss earned a doctorate in chemistry at USC. He worked briefly in the aerospace industry, and in the late 1950s, he and a colleague, Frank Mariani, tried their hand at real estate.
They scraped together a few thousand dollars to buy a 14-unit apartment house in West Los Angeles and, to save money, did all the repairs themselves. Their real estate company kept growing as they invested in residential properties, hotels and office buildings.
In 1979, Buss and his partners bought the Lakers (along with the Forum in Inglewood), the NHL’s Kings and a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County for $67 million from Jack Kent Cooke.
At the time, the NBA had fallen by the wayside and several teams stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
But to Buss, the Lakers looked like a gem in the coal bin. They had a dominant center in Abdul-Jabbar, and the team picked the effervescent Johnson out of Michigan State in the 1979 NBA draft.
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. Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper guided the Lakers to five titles.
The Lakers’ next title era came with O’Neal; the precocious Bryant, whom they traded for after he was drafted out of high school; and Jackson as coach. The Lakers won three consecutive championships from 2000 through 2002.
The team then flamed out in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons and traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat. At the same time, Jackson walked away.
After a few more disappointing seasons, Bryant demanded a trade, but Buss stood firm.
The Lakers, with Jackson back as coach and with Pau Gasol added to the team, defeated Orlando for the 2008-09 title. The following season, they beat Boston for another championship. It was their 10th and final title under Buss.
“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.”
Former Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this report.
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