Jerry Buss had been a chemist and a mathematician long before he bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. The self-made millionaire with a head for business and an impresario’s heart immersed himself in the NBA with every skill he acquired along the way.
With his personal alchemy and charisma, he blended two generations of marquee basketball stars and big-name coaches into 10 championship teams. His financial wizardry allowed him to pay top dollar to get the best players and keep them together without a huge personal fortune.
Buss built a glittering life for himself and the Lakers, playing a huge role in the NBA’s move from a second-tier pro sport into can’t-miss Hollywood entertainment while polishing his oddly nicknamed franchise into a glamorous global brand.
Magic, Kareem and Big Game James. Kobe, Shaq and Pau.
They were the stars, but Buss created Showtime.
The applause still hasn’t died down.
Buss, who shepherded the Lakers from their 1980s dynasty through the current Kobe Bryant era while becoming one of the most important and successful owners in pro sports, died Monday at 80.
“Jerry Buss was more than just an owner. He was one of the great innovators that any sport has ever encountered,” said Pat Riley, who coached four of Buss’ 10 title teams. “He was a true visionary, and it was obvious with the Lakers in the `80s that `Showtime’ was more than just Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was really the vision of a man who saw something that connected with a community.”
Under Buss’ leadership, the star-studded, trophy-winning Lakers became Southern California’s most beloved sports franchise and a signature cultural representation of Los Angeles. Buss acquired, nurtured and befriended a staggering array of talented players and hoops minds during his Hall of Fame tenure, from Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
“Think about the impact that he’s had on the game and the decisions he’s made, and the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime and the impact that had on the sport as a whole,” Bryant said a few days ago. “Those vibrations were felt to a kid all the way in Italy who was 6 years old, before basketball was even global. His impact is felt worldwide.”
Few owners in sports history can approach Buss’ accomplishments with the Lakers, who made the NBA Finals 16 times during his nearly 34 years in charge, winning 10 titles between 1980 and 2010. Whatever the Lakers did under Buss’ watch, they did it big _ with the big-name players Hollywood demanded, an eye-popping style of play and a relentless pursuit of success with little regard to its financial cost.
“His incredible commitment and desire to build a championship-caliber team that could sustain success over a long period of time has been unmatched,” said Jerry West, Buss’ longtime general manager and now a consultant with the Golden State Warriors. “With all of his achievements, Jerry was without a doubt one of the most humble men I’ve ever been around. His vision was second to none; he wanted an NBA franchise brand that represented the very best and went to every extreme to accomplish his goals.”
Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Bob Steiner, his assistant and longtime friend. Buss had been hospitalized for most of the past 18 months while undergoing cancer treatment, but the cause of death was kidney failure, Steiner said.
“When someone as celebrated and charismatic as Jerry Buss dies, we are reminded of two things,” said Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history. “First, just how much one person with vision and strength of will can accomplish. Second, how fragile each of us is, regardless of how powerful we were. Those two things combine to inspire us to reach for the stars, but also to remain with our feet firmly on the ground among our loved ones. … The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.”
With his condition worsening in recent months, several prominent former Lakers visited Buss to say goodbye. Even rivals such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Clippers owner Donald Sterling hailed the passion and bonhomie of the poor kid from Wyoming who lived his own Hollywood dream.