Keeping Score

From Showtime to the 21st Century: How Jerry Buss Owned L.A.

No one mixed show-biz and basketball like the longtime Lakers owner who died Monday at age 80.

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LENNOX MCLENDON / AP

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss holds the NBA Championship trophy after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 106-93 to win the NBA Championship in Inglewood, Calif., June 15, 1987.

Can any other sports owner inspire a Tweet like this one?

Probably not, and that’s what makes Dr. Jerry Buss, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Lakers who died of cancer, at age 80, on Monday a singular character in sports. No one sold the entertainment value of sports, while still winning championship after championship, better than Buss. (The Lakers took 10 NBA titles during his tenure). He made his 1980s Lakers, led by a charismatic, fast-breaking, no-look-passing point guard named Magic Johnson, into the perfect representatives of the town — Hollywood, baby — and times — the go-go 80s. Buss’s success helped rescue the entire NBA from its late-70s malaise. As Ramona Shelburne writes at ESPNLosAngeles.com:

But Buss saw something nobody else saw: a show. And so he turned the Forum Club into an exclusive den for celebrities to see and be seen. He charged top dollar for courtside seats, recognizing that people who can afford them like to show off a little, and that everyone else dreams of being able to sit there one day, too. He hired a live band, turned the Lakers cheerleaders into the “Laker Girls,” and their sizzling dance routines during timeouts became as much a part of the show as Magic Johnson’s no-look passes or Chick Hearn’s famous calls on the radio. He partied with celebrities, dated supermodels and played high-stakes poker with professionals.

Buss wasn’t born into Showtime. While growing up in depression-era western Wyoming, Buss stood in bread lines with his single mother, desperate for food. He quit high school after his junior year, to work for the railroad. After three months of fruitless blue-collar work, however, Buss went back to school. He graduated from the University of Wyoming in just two-and-a-half years, and earned a chemistry Ph.D from the University of Southern California at age 24. That’s no honorary doctorate attached to his name.

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He got a job at an aircraft company, but soon directed his analytic eye to real estate:  by 1979 Buss amassed enough of a fortune to buy the Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, the Inglewood Forum – where the Lakers and Kings played — and a 13,000 acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for $67.5 million. The deal was famously complicated: Buss hired 50 accountants and lawyers to put it all together.

Buss’ tenure wasn’t perfect. For example his team hired Mike Brown as coach in 2011 — then fired him a little over a season later. Buss was involved with the decision to acquire Dwight Howard from Orlando this summer – a move many Laker fans are now regretting, as Howard hasn’t meshed with his new team, which is playing sub-.500 basketball.

But, like almost all successful sports owners, he spared no expense to help his team win, most notably luring Phil Jackson to LA to meld the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s. His Lakers dominated three different eras – the entire 80s, the turn-of-the-century, when Kobe and Shaq won three straight titles, and the late 2000s, when Bryant and Pau Gasol led the Lakers to another pair of back-to-back championships.

The Lakers will remain a family business, for now at least. Buss’ son, Jim, runs basketball operations for the Lakers, and his daughter, Jeanie – Jackson’s fiancé — runs the business side. “It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family,” the family said in a statement. “The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.”

In her excellent Buss obit, Shelburne raises a prescient question: “can a franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers — now valued at $1 billion by Forbes magazine — be purchased by one man and run by one family?” Is Buss the last of a breed? The Los Angeles Dodgers may be the 21st century model: a private equity firm purchased the team last year, for $2 billion. Faceless corporations have the resources, and number crunchers, to run today’s sports franchises, which are now mini-conglomerates that also own television networks, invest in other sports properties, etc. (Buss himself, who co-founded the Prime Ticket network — which put the Lakers on basic cable — and brokered one of the first facility naming rights deals, selling the rights to the Forum to Great Western Savings & Loan in 1988 — helped the financial valuations of sports teams explode).

Will fans ultimately benefit from such MBA know-how? Maybe. But no owner will have more fun than Jerry Buss did. No owner will ever be a bigger star.

(MORE: Can The Los Angeles Lakers Get Any More Bizarre)

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