Farewell Jerry Buss, You Were The Best
Lakers’ Owner Dies At 80
By Mitch Chortkoff
Jerry Buss hadn’t owned the Lakers yet when I drove to his Santa Monica office in the ‘70s to discuss World Team Tennis.
That was Buss’ first venture into sports and as sports editor of the now-defunct Santa Monica Outlook I wanted to ask if we could arrange a tradeout – he’d pay travel expenses for one of our writers to cover the LA Strings in exchange for advertising in the newspaper.
I was nervous but he put me at ease. I stammered a bit in making my pitch but he quickly interrupted by saying “I’ll take $3,000.”
That was the beginning of a monumental era in Los Angeles sports.
Buss and partner Frank Mariani kept Team Tennis afloat, then moved on to the Lakers and Kings. Buss bought both teams and the Forum from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979.
The complex deal included a ranch and Buss gave up the Chrysler Building in New York. The deal was for $67.5 million, a record for a sports transaction at the time.
Buss proceeded to prevail over 10 NBA championships before he stopped attending Laker games the last few years while battling cancer. He died Monday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the age of 80, officially of kidney failure.
Realizing the end was near I began collection Buss interviews in the last month. Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol visited him in the hospital. Others spoke before or after Laker and Clipper games.
“Out of respect we didn’t say much about it,” said Bryant.
“As for the championships, Dr. Buss was smart and patient. He knew what he wanted -- a distinctive brand of basketball known as Showtime.
“It’s unusual that an owner would be so savvy in the specifics of how to build a team. He was beyond measure.
“Dr. Buss took a chance on a 17-year-old kid from Philadelphia,” said Bryant. “I owe so much to him.”
And it wasn’t just basketball for Buss, who believed the Lakers had to capitalize on the glamour of the Hollywood scene to gain popularity. His ideas included introducing a dance group, now the well-established Laker Girls, placing celebrities in the front row and showing home games on a cable outlet, Prime Ticket, a new concept at the time.
He dated a lot of attractive young women, enjoying the lifestyle but don’t minimize his thought that the image of a swinging environment would help interest free agent players in the Lakers. He once told me that was his strategy.
He treated the players, the famous ones and last man on the roster, with respect. He dressed casually and spent considerable time with them away from the game.
“He was easy to talk to,” recalls Robert Horry. “He wanted to know what was going on in our lives.”
I have recently talked to a lot of players and concluded Jerry Buss was a very good man.
“He saved my career,” said forward Ronny Turiaf, who is now with the Clippers.
The Lakers drafted Turiaf in the second round of the 2005 NBA draft, but were forced to void his contract because he had an enlarged heart that required surgery.
Instead of ending their relationship the Lakers retained his rights in case he’d ever be cleared to play. Turiaf did play for the Lakers and is now an NBA veteran who has been in more than 400 games.
“Dr. Buss paid all my medical expenses,” said Turiaf. “Without that I’d be nowhere.”
“Dr. Buss was not only a great owner but a really cool guy,” said former Laker star James Worthy.
NBA Commissioner David Stern called Buss “a visionary.”
Clippers owner Donald Sterling also called him a visionary as well as a great friend.
Johnson called him a great owner and a great friend.
When I made my deal regarding Team Tennis I thought he was doing a favor for the local newspaper.
Many years later I learned he saw it as a win-win for both sides since the Strings would receive coverage that could lead to greater fan support.
Buss regarded that small transaction as one of his first business dealings as a sports owner. He wanted publicity for his star players, Ilie Nastase and Chris Evert. He thought I was doing him a favor.
In 2010, when he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, he asked me to write his biography for the official program.
I couldn’t do it due to my health problems at the time, but I was touched that he asked.
Buss grew up in Wyoming and was far from a wealthy man when he came to Los Angeles at age 24 to attend graduate school at USC, where he received his doctorate. But he and Mariani saved money, began investing in apartments and created a fortune.
When Cooke was going through a divorce in the late ‘70s he began talking to Buss about buying the Lakers.
In the 34 years Buss owned the Lakers the team went to the NBA Finals an incredible 16 times.
It is not a coincidence the Lakers have faltered this season with Buss too ill to run the operation. His son, Jim Buss, has taken over and the Lakers are in danger of missing the playoffs.
What he Lakers need is another Jerry Buss. But we’ll have to settle for the memories he gave us.