Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss died at the end of an “All-Star Weekend” that was as much rock concert as sports, as much Thunderdome as basketball. It was, perhaps, a fitting coda to a standard-setting stint as owner that cemented the league’s role as a Hollywood presence, and furthered the ties between sports and entertainment culture.
Under Buss, the Lakers became their own kind of Hollywood stars. Even the name for the team at its apex in the 1980s — “Showtime” — embodied that connection. Of course, Buss stumbled onto the perfect star to complete that hookup, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whose magnetic personality and infectious style of play caught the town’s attention, making the Lakers (with an assist from superfan Jack Nicholson) the ultimate “A-list” ticket among the showbiz elite.
It wasn’t an accident that stars, agents and pop divas circled the court in the stratosphere-priced seats. As Johnson said at one point in the midst of the Showtime era, the vibe was such that the players wanted to be the movie stars, and the actors wanted to be the players.
Remarkably, with a lot of help from then-General Manager Jerry West and coaches like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, Buss was able to reload after the ’80s ran their course, winning more championships. Despite the hold the Dodgers have always had on Los Angeles, the Lakers became more closely associated with the town’s stereotypical, Randy Newman-themed image than any other franchise ever has.
As it happened, the star system Buss advanced — capitalizing on major-market TV revenues — also perfectly mirrored a shift in Hollywood priorities, where the sky was the limit for highly paid superstars, while journeymen had to settle for considerably less.
Meanwhile, TV revenues have soared, to the point where even inept owners have a hard time not making money. As proof, look no further than the Lakers’ staggering TV deal with Time Warner Cable, built around the assumption when it comes to sports and die-hard fans, the concept “Too much of a good thing” simply doesn’t exist.
Notably, the Lakers are currently in the midst of a downward spiral, with Buss having already largely handed off stewardship of the team to his kids (principally his son Jim), whose attempts to rebuild the franchise — using dad’s formula, hoping to regain the magic with big-name stars — have failed so far to pay off.
Then again, even the idea of passing the keys to the kingdom on to an heir who might not be fully up to the task is, by itself, another one of those great Hollywood traditions.