The chrome and glass furniture in Jack Kent Cooke's former office did not seem to suit Jerry Buss, and he seemed a little uncomfortable in his new surroundings as he prepared on Tuesday for his first meeting with Los Angeles Kings' Coach Bob Berry.
It was seven weeks to the day after the announcement of a $67.5 million transaction - the largest in sport's history - and Dr. Jerry Hatten Buss, 46, the new owner of Cooke's holdings, including the Kings, the Lakers and the 17,505 seat Forum, was finally getting down to the business of running the hockey team.
"Bob, I looked forward to this meeting," Buss told his coach as Gorge Maguire, the crusty general manager of the Kings, looked on.
"I obviously am dedicated to trying to improve the team. I'm sure you know by now that I don't know very much about hockey and that make it doubly tough on me, and I guess tough on you to some extent, since I'm not going to know a lot about what you're talking about," Buss confessed, promising that he would soon learn how to run the club successfully.
Buss has been learning and profiting from his knowledge for most of his life. Twenty years ago - two years after receiving a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Southern California - Buss, and a fellow aerospace worker, chemical engineer Frank Mariani, put down $12,000 in savings and purchased a $105,000 14-unit apartment building in west Los Angeles.
The two pyramided the investment into a real estate empire which now spans the west. Their apartment building, shopping centers and resort hotels in southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and elsewhere have an estimated value of $350 million. Buss puts his personal worth at $50 million.
Dr. Buss (as his employes call him), is an amiable, soft-spoken, Wyomingbred 6-footer who relinquishes his reputation as playboy-tycoon.
This Tuesday morning started out not much differently from any other. At 11:45 (his work day runs from noon to 8 p.m.), he had just finished dressing. He walked through the recreation room of his Bel Air mansion followed by a companion, long-legged model Autumn Hargis - outfitted in slinky black pants and a low cut T-shirt - and greeted a photographer. Buss as usual, was casually atired in an open-neck shirt.
Posing at his pool table, his pinball machine, then outside next to his swimming pool with his great Dane, "Toy," his tennis court in the background, Buss seemed relaxed, basking in the attention as his 17-year-old daughter Jeanie (the reigning Miss Pacific Palisades), a reporter his public reations man and his Japanese house servant watched.
Later, Buss sat in the back of the Mariani-Buss Associates' powder blue Lincoln Continental limousine (his $127,000 Rolls Royce Camargue was being polished), as the car sped down the San Diego freeway toward his office at the Forum.
Autumn frequently wiped the perspiration from the good doctor's brow, taking care to to disarrange the carefully coiffed mesh of grey hair strategically positioned and combed forward to provide the impression of an abundant crop.
There is an irresponsible child in Jerry Buss, a candy fanatic and pinball devotee who is living out the fantasies of millions of grown-up American boys.
Photos of his centerfold-like girlfriend ("I like one type [of woman], Beautiful") are kept like a catalogue of playthings in an album. He has achieved the ultimate bubble gum card trader's dream by being able to call two major league teams his very own. (Buss acquired the Forum and Cooke's 13,000 acre ranch in the California Sierras along with business associates).
Buss had shopped around before starting six weeks of bargaining with Cooke. He had expressed interest in other teams, among them, the Oakland A's, the San Diego Chargers, the California Angels and the Oakland Raiders.
But "every owner would like to own a team in his own city," Buss said. So, after Cooke's history-making $43 million divorse settlement was final, Buss made his move and found a receptive seller.
Cooke and Buss go back three years when Buss moved his ill-fated L. A. Strings into the Forum. Buss lost $4 million when the World Team Tennis league collapsed - $2.5 million on his own team, and the rest on teams in which he had invested.
But Buss had no plans to give up on sports, and for the last three years he and Cooke, who he views as his mentor, have met every three weeks to discuss the business mechanics of the sports' world. As part of the deal, "Jack has has agreed to be a consultant for as many years as I need him," Buss said.
Leaning back in the limousine, absent-mindedly caressingg Autumn's leg, Buss happily settled into a discussion about the Lakers.
A coach, to replace Jerry West who accepted a front office job, will be announced within a few days, he said. He also drew satisfaction from his active behind-the-scenes role in signing Earvin (Magic) Johnson. Buss will place a priority on trying to acquire a power forward for the team and has had talks with representatives of San Antonio's Larry Kenon, a free agent.
Besides appointing a coach, "one of my first things, of course, is to sign my draft choices," Buss said.
"The first order of business is kind of to make sure you got your team in terms of signing some of your older players, signing your new players, getting your trades organized," he said.
Arriving at the Forum, there was time for more picture posing and then a lunch in a private dining room with USC assistant football Coach Marv Goux.
Buss is an avid USC fan, and he contributes money regularly to his alma mater. Sitting at the head of the table, flanked by Autumn and daughter, Jeanie (the product of a marriage that ended in divorce 12 years ago), Buss looked around the room at walls still covered with the legacy of Jack Kent Cooke - photos, plaques, and other memorabilia. Directly behind Buss was a bronze bust of his precessor.
Buss spoke knowledgeably and with insight about the USC football team, reminiscing about old times, suggesting players Goux might want to recruit, then inviting the coach to accompany him on his 55-foot boat on a trip down to San Diego where they would stay in a Buss-owned hotel.
"We can take about eight couples down there and go to the bullfights the next day," he offered.
After lunch, Buss said goodbye to Jeanie and Autumn and called in his hockey coach and manager.
This was an important meeting. The Kings are losing an average of half a million a year by Buss' estimate, and he places a high priority on building up the team.
First, an explanation to Berry about his relative lack of knowledge about hockey: "If I say anything (in an interview) which to you as a coach sounds really stupid, understand that I'm really doing a public relations job. I'm not really trying to comment on hockey other than from a fan's point of view."
A similar problem dogged him when he told reporters last week that the Lakers plan to prevent other teams from double-teaming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"Jerry West came in my office the next day and said to me, he said, 'Well, gee,' he said, 'I thought I took advantage of the fact that they were double-teaming Jabbar. (They) were amongst our best plays,'" said Buss.
Then he became more direct. "Is there something that I can do in an immediate way to improve the team?" he asked Berry and Maguire. The aanswer came immediately from Berry" . . . every question aa reporter ever asks you is (Dale) MmcCourt, McCourt, McCourt, and of course it's come up again. I would think that if we could resolve that some way . . . we'd be great."
(The recalcitrant Detroit Red Wing superstar has refused to play for the Kings who have requested his services as compensation after the Detroit club signed on goalie Rogie Vachon as a free agent. McCourt's case is still on appeal.)
Buss promptly took up the challenge. "I would like to talk to McCourt," he announced. "I would like to fly to Detroit immediately.I'd like to sit down with the kid, talk to him, and see if I can't convince him by signing a new contract - a four or five-year contract - that we're going to treat him right, and this would be a good place to play . . . Now if I'm successful, great, if I'm not, then I'd like to come back here, sit down with you guys, and see what we want for compensation, and let's get off the dime."
Berry and Maguire explained that they and others had tried to speak to McCourt without success. "The poor kid is under such an amount of duress and strain from the attorneys right now that he won't talk to anybody," said Berry.
"I have reasonable rapport," Buss replied "One of the things I did have some experience on is signing some of the athletes. I signed a lot of athletes (in World Team Tennis) who said they would never sign up," he said, citing an example Chris Evert, Rod Laver and Vitas Gerulaitis.
"What would be reasonable compensation?" asked Buss, getting back to McCourt.
"Minimum? One draft choice this year - Andre St. Laurent and Willie Huber, their (the Detroit Red Wings) draft choice next year. In other words, two draft choices," said Maguire.
Maguire said he had been interested in signing Detroit's Reed Larson and had spoken to his lawyer. But the asking price was a five-year contract and $175,000 to $200,000 a year. "I don't think Larson is worth that kind of money," stated the 57-year-old general manager.
The conversation returned again to McCourt and Maguire volunteered to contact McCourt's Detroit lawyer and try to arrange a meeting.
"I'll fly back any time, any place," said Buss."Just give me 48 hours notice."
From ice hockey to show business, and a meeting with a promoter who told Buss, "I'm totally tuned into celebrities," and offered to have Hollywood's glamorous types show up at the Forum to plug events.
But Buss had his mind on other things as the telephone buzzed - a caller who could not be kept waiting.
"Hi baby," Buss told the receiver. "I just decided to see you and I thought I'd take off the whole day if I could. Okay, super (a frequent Buss adjective). You'll have to be at my house by noon."
Buss used the promoter out, took another phone call ("Hi gorgeous") and walked off to take part in an interview program produced by a syndicated cable television company.
Eventually, the questioner mentioned the Coliseum in Los Angeles and the fact that it will no longer house a pro football team.
Buss' face lit up like that of a little boy who had just been offered an inexhaustible supply of candy.
"To have a football team in Los Angeles would be the last of my wishes," said Jerry Buss, who only an hour before was talking about bringing the Stanley Cup to L. A. CAPTION: Picture, Jerry Buss