Dr. Jerry Buss, who helped pioneer “Showtime” basketball and won 10 NBA titles as owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, died Monday. He was 80.
Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after being hospitalized for cancer, but the immediate cause of death was kidney failure, according to the team.
Buss purchased the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and The Forum in 1979 for $67.5 million from Jack Kent Cooke. At the time, it was the largest financial transaction in sports history. He would later sell the Kings, and move the Lakers from Inglewood to downtown when Staples Center opened in 1999.
Under his Lakers ownership, the club not only won, but did so with an entertaining brand of basketball known as “Showtime.” In the 1980s, Buss encouraged high-scoring, fast-break basketball to entertain fans, and the Lakers delivered with such star players as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, and Byron Scott to win five titles.
In the 1990s, the NBA slowed down from the up-tempo style into more of a half-court game. After the sudden retirement of Johnson, the Lakers struggled to compete for titles. However, Buss, who entrusted a great deal into a brain trust that included former Laker great Jerry West, decided to make cost-cutting trades to create salary-cap space with the hopes of prying superstar center Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic, despite the Magic having a clear financial advantage to retain O’Neal.
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The gamble paid off, as O’Neal’s signed in July 1996 in a deal that sent shockwaves through the world of sports. Just prior to the O’Neal signing, the Lakers traded for the draft rights to then-teenager Kobe Bryant, who emerged as an all-time great. While the Lakers failed to win a title in the 1990s, they would eventually win three titles with O’Neal and Bryant the next decade.
After O’Neal forced the Lakers to trade him due to a feud with Bryant and prolonged contract-extension negotiations, the Lakers experienced another title drought, but recovered with a trade that brought Pau Gasol to Los Angeles. The Lakers would win two more titles in the decade under head coach Phil Jackson.
Buss brought a mom-and-pop style ownership to the city, as the players and employees of the club were treated as an extended family. Buss involved his children in the operations of the club, and would spend what it took to win. The strategy worked, as the club enjoyed nine seasons of 60 wins or more in the 82-game schedule.
He was also regarded as a visionary. The Lakers played in two high-profile arenas during his ownership, and the club’s iconic purple and gold uniforms remained a constant. For several years, the Lakers were the only NBA organization to not have white home uniforms.
Under Buss, the Lakers also entertained fans with the Lakers Girls, an all-female team of dancers. It was rather uncommon for teams to have cheerleaders, but Buss ordered the formation of the squad to liven up the game.
Attending Laker games grew into a celebrity scene, as much of the Hollywood elite would attend what was considered the best show in town. Actors Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon, Penny Marshall, and Denzel Washington continue to be regulars, while numerous other celebrities can be seen in high-priced seats near the court.
While Buss inherited long-time broadcaster Chick Hearn to broadcast games, televised Laker games grew in popularity, as the Los Angeles fan base became accustomed to the rapid-fire commentary of Hearn, and the analysis of color commentator Stu Lantz. In a city that for so long seemed to belong to baseball more than any other sport, the Lakers’ popularity grew steadily with a collection of legendary players and under Buss’s broad vision.
Buss was born in Salt Lake City and raised in Wyoming by his divorced mother. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Wyoming, and earned his masters and doctorate in physical chemistry at USC.
A $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building helped spark interest in real estate, which Buss decided to pursue full time. Buss would enjoy great success in real estate, and became a self-made millionaire in the industry.
While Buss was known as a playboy who played high-stakes poker, he rarely made public appearances and kept a low profile. However, there was a down side to his fast-paced ways. In 2007, he was issued a citation for driving under the influence when California Highway Patrol caught him driving on the wrong side of the road.
Perhaps due to his humble upbringing, Buss was in touch with regular fans and the club’s staff. Johnson, who at one time was part-owner, once recalled that he was taken aback by the owner wearing jeans to games.
“He treated people with respect no matter what their role,” said former Laker center and broadcaster Mychal Thompson on Monday.
In recent years, Buss delegated more day-to-day operations to his children. His son Jim oversees basketball operations, while daughter Jeanie oversees the business side. Jeanie has had a long-term relationship with Jackson, who served as head coach for nine seasons.
"The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend. Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time."