Lakers fans will remember the real estate mogul for enjoying extraordinary NBA success — 10 championships in three-plus decades — but equally important to his legacy was a sense of showmanship
When Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, he wanted to build a championship team. But that wasn’t all.
The new owner gave courtside seats to movie stars. He hired pretty women to dance during timeouts. He spent freely on big stars and encouraged a fast-paced, exuberant style of play.
As the Lakers sprinted to one NBA title after another, Buss cut an audacious figure in the stands, an aging playboy in blue jeans, often with a younger woman by his side.
PHOTOS: Jerry Buss through the years
“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” he once said. “I think we’ve been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.”
Buss died Monday of an undisclosed form of cancer atCedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to his longtime spokesman, Bob Steiner. Buss was 80.
Lakers fans will remember Buss for bringing extraordinary success — 10 championships in three-plus decades — but equally important to his legacy was a sense of showmanship that transformed pro basketball from sport to spectacle.
Live discussion at 10:30: The legacy of Jerry 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.”
His teams featured the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. He was also smart enough to hire Hall of Fame-caliber coaches in Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
“I’ve worked hard and been lucky,” Buss said. “With the combination of the two, I’ve accomplished everything I ever set out to do.”
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 tight-fisted.” 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 bell hopping 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, did well enough to earn a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming.
Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, when he was 19 he married a coed 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.”