Lakers owner Jerry Buss dies at 80

February 18, 2013

Jerry Buss, who turned the Los Angeles Lakers into the “Showtime” Lakers during his 34 years as owner of the NBA team, died Monday at the age of 80.

Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his assistant, Bob Steiner, said (via ESPN Los Angeles). He had been hospitalized on and off for over a year as he battled cancer, but Steiner said the immediate cause of death was kidney failure. During his recent hospitalization, he had been visited by a number of his former players, including Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Buss was born in Salt Lake City, grew up in Wyoming and earned a doctorate in chemistry at USC. After building a fortune in real estate, Buss purchased the Lakers for $67.5 million in 1979 and made the Forum a popular destination for Hollywood’s most glittering stars. Along the way, the Lakers won 10 NBA championships, with players like Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson,  Bryant and O’Neal. It was under Pat Riley and Johnson that “Showtime” became the team’s catch phrase and Phil Jackson continued the winning trend with Bryant.

“I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity,” Buss, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, said (via the Los Angeles Times). “I mean the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood.”

Jerry Buss was welcomed into the Hall of Fame by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley. (Elise Amendola / AP)
Jerry Buss was welcomed into the Hall of Fame by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley. (Elise Amendola / AP)

Buss liked what he saw in the Lakers and, along with his business partners, purchased the team, the NHL’s Kings, the Forum in Inglewood and a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County from Jack Kent Cooke.

With Abdul-Jabbar at center and Johnson a 1979 pick out of Michigan State, the Lakers won an NBA title in Buss’s first season as owner. Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper won five titles together. With Bryant, the team has won another five titles. He added courtside seats and Laker girls, placing a premium on entertainment as well as competition.

The Laker Girls, shown with Buss in 2005, helped build the team's brand. (Fred Proust / Reuters)
The Laker Girls helped Buss land a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Fred Prouser / Reuters)

The Lakers now are run by two of Buss’s children: his son, Jim, and his daughter, Jeanie (who is engaged to Phil Jackson). Forbes estimates the Lakers — now a brand as well as a team — are worth $1 billion.

“Jerry Buss helped set the league on the course it is on today,” Commissioner David Stern said. “Remember, he showed us it was about ‘Showtime,’ the notion that an arena can become the focal point for not just basketball, but entertainment. He made it the place to see and be seen.”

It was some trip for a guy who stood in bread lines as a kid during the Great Depression, Steve Springer writes at Yahoo:

Buss always said with pride that he knew what he didn’t know. He knew real estate, he knew economics and he knew how to sell a product, but he didn’t know basketball, not at a higher level than that of the average fan.

So when he took over the Lakers, he had no intention of being a Jerry Jones by meddling in the intricacies of personnel decisions. For that, he had Bill Sharman, Jerry West and a string of competent coaches.

Buss focused instead on marketing the team. Magic Johnson had already been drafted by the Lakers by the time Buss took over the club, but it was Buss who envisioned that the unorthodox point guard with the brilliant ball-handling skills, flashy style and ebullient personality could not only be the central figure in a championship run, but also for a unique brand of basketball that combined sports and entertainment.

Long a fervent supporter of his alma mater, USC, Buss took two successful elements from Trojan games – cheerleaders and a band – to build his brand.

Like any successful product, Buss’ brainchild needed a name. For that, he reached back to his nights at a Santa Monica nightclub named The Horn. The evening’s entertainment there would begin with one, then two, then three singers rising from tables spread around the room, each proclaiming, “It’s Showtime.”

 

 

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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Cindy Boren | February 18, 2013