When he was just 9 years old, Los Angeles first welcomed Jerry Buss. Still under the same city lights, 71 years later, Buss passed away, and much of the city’s identity perished with him.
“My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same,” Buss said in a 2010 interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. “When you think New York, you think Yankees. I wanted that to be the case here as well. That when you think L.A., you think Lakers. I believe I’ve accomplished that” (Source: ESPN).
Buss not only left a legacy in L.A., winning 10 of the 16 NBA Championships in Lakers history, but in the game in general. He saw a game not as just a game, but as a show to be enjoyed by all. He had a live Lakers band, made cheerleaders dance their way into people’s hearts as the “Laker Girls,” paid some of the highest player contracts in history and made sure that those who could afford to pay (see David Beckham, Spike Lee, Justin Bieber, Denzel Washington and Michelle Obama, among others) paid top dollar. All this was to ensure that his franchise would remain remarkably affluent, and fans, rich or not, could enjoy the bright lights, beauty, and winning of “Showtime”.
Buss did not always live a life of luxury. The outset of his life was far from it, in fact. Buss escaped the hardships of his childhood via education: he battled through divorce, remarriage, hunger and plenty of hard work to acquire a degree from the University of Wyoming, and subsequently a doctorate from USC, earning him the title Dr. Buss.
Always a gambler (Buss even made appearances in the World Series of Poker later in his life), Buss invested every single dollar to his name after college in a 14-unit apartment complex with his colleague Frank Mariani in 1959. Their investment was a phenomenal one, and their initial complex grew to hold houses in California, Nevada and Arizona, amassing the investors a $350-million dollar company.
Not satisfied, Buss took perhaps the largest risk of his life that would definitely produce his largest reward when he purchased the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, a 13,000-acre ranch and the Forum (soon to be home of the Lakers) for $67 million in 1979. Critics scoffed at Buss, scoffing that that Buss’ new teams and property had been hemorrhaging money for years. But, as he would soon prove to do on a frequent basis, Dr. Buss turned the City of Angels on its head.
Buss drafted Magic Johnson with their first pick in the 1979 Draft (whom he signed to an unprecedented 25-year contract), adding the perfect ingredient to the game of talented big man Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The very next year, the Lakers went on to win the NBA title. And with that, Buss had begun to rewrite the very history of Los Angeles and of the NBA.
Buss’ success became the epitome of the L.A. experience: a poor kid from the middle of nowhere with nothing but his education and a vision became an instant success, in the face of all that was rising against him. Not only did Buss succeed, but he also thrived: with his 10 championships in 16 NBA Finals appearances in total, Buss became the winningest owner in the history of North American professional sports.
And yet, Buss never seemed to flaunt his success. It seemed he was telling you to join in on his fun: to embrace the sunshine and all that the city had to offer with him. It was due to this that while the Lakers were consistently hated (as most winning teams in professional sports are), Buss was just as consistently loved. He made gambles that were often unpopular decisions, but his intelligence was one of the most driving parts of his game and his demeanor in general.
“He’s extremely, extremely intelligent and extremely patient. He’ll sit and he’ll wait because he has his goals and he knows exactly where he wants to be and how to construct a ballclub. He’s just extremely smart in how he goes about it. It’s very rare to find that kind of owner who seemingly doesn’t make any mistakes … his vibrations were felt all the way to a kid in Italy at 6 years old, before the sport was even global. His impact is worldwide,” Kobe Bryant recently told ESPN.com of Buss.
Buss had everything an NBA owner should and everything most men dream of. He had smarts, wealth, luck and guts, and he was beloved by his players, peers, Los Angeles and all of the game of basketball. It’s a sad week for the NBA, but while Buss may have passed, his legacy stands in an entire city, and an unqualified group of people who will never let Dr. Buss die in spirit.