Jerry Buss, the Los Angeles Lakers’ playboy owner who shepherded the NBA team to 10 championships from the Showtime dynasty of the 1980s to the Kobe Bryant era, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 80.
Buss had been hospitalized for most of the past 18 months while undergoing cancer treatment, but the immediate cause of death was kidney failure. With his condition apparently worsening in recent weeks, several prominent former Lakers visited Buss to say goodbye.
Under Buss’ leadership since 1979, the Lakers became Southern California’s most beloved sports franchise and a worldwide extension of Hollywood glamour. Buss acquired, nurtured and befriended a staggering array of talented players and basketball minds during his Hall of Fame tenure, from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.
Few owners in sports history can approach Buss’ accomplishments with the Lakers, who made the NBA finals 16 times through 2011 during his nearly 34 years in charge, winning 10 titles between 1980 and 2010.
Buss always referred to the Lakers as his extended family, and his players rewarded his fanlike excitement with devotion, friendship and two hands full of championship rings. Working with front-office executives Jerry West, Bill Sharman and Mitch Kupchak, Buss spent lavishly to win his titles despite lacking a huge personal fortune, often running the NBA’s highest payroll while also paying high-profile coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
Always an innovative businessman, Buss paid for the Lakers through both their wild success and his own groundbreaking moves to raise revenue. He co-founded a basic-cable sports television network and sold the naming rights to the Forum at times when both now-standard strategies were unusual, further justifying his induction to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Dr. Jerry Buss was a cornerstone of the Los Angeles sports community and his name will always be synonymous with his beloved Lakers,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “It was through his stewardship that the Lakers brought ‘Showtime’ basketball and numerous championship rings to this great city. Today we mourn the loss and celebrate the life of a man who helped shape the modern landscape of sports in L.A.”
Although Buss gained fame and fortune with the Lakers, he also was a scholar, Renaissance man and bon vivant who epitomized California cool — and a certain Los Angeles lifestyle — for his entire public life.
Buss rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm at USC football games, boxing matches at the Forum, poker tournaments — and, of course, Lakers games from his private box at Staples Center.
Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at age 24 and had careers in aerospace and real estate development before getting into sports. With money from his real-estate ventures and a good bit of creative accounting, Buss bought the then-struggling Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and both clubs’ arena — the Forum — from Jack Kent Cooke in a $67.5 million deal that was the largest sports transaction in history at the time.
Last month, Forbes estimated the Lakers were worth $1 billion, second most in the NBA.
Buss also helped change televised sports by co-founding the Prime Ticket network in 1985, receiving a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 for his work in television. Breaking the contemporary model of subscription services for televised sports, Buss’ Prime Ticket put beloved broadcaster Chick Hearn and the Lakers’ home games on basic cable.
Buss also sold the naming rights to the Forum in 1988 to Great Western Savings & Loan — another deal that was ahead of its time.
Born in Salt Lake City, Gerald Hatten Buss was raised in poverty in Wyoming before improving his life through education. He attended USC for graduate school, eventually becoming a chemistry professor and working as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines before his life took a turn into wealth and sports.
“One of the first things I tried to do when I bought the team was to make it an identification for this city, like Motown in Detroit,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I try to keep that identification alive. I’m a real Angeleno. I want us to be part of the community.”
Buss basked in the worldwide celebrity he received from his team’s achievements. His womanizing and partying became Hollywood legend, with even his players struggling to keep up with Buss’ lifestyle.
Through the Lakers’ frequent successes and occasional struggles, Buss never stopped living his Hollywood dream. He was an avid poker player, frequently participating in high-stakes tournaments, and a fixture on the Los Angeles club scene well into his 70s, when a late-night drunk-driving arrest in 2007 — with a 23-year-old woman in the passenger seat of his Mercedes-Benz — prompted him to cut down on his partying.
Buss’ six children all have worked for the Lakers organization in various capacities for several years. Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of player personnel and the second-oldest child, has taken over much of the club’s primary decision-making responsibilities in the last few years, while daughter Jeanie runs the franchise’s business side.
Jerry Buss still served two terms as president of the NBA’s Board of Governors and was actively involved in the 2011 lockout negotiations.