Posted Feb 18, 2013 8:07 PM
Lakers owner Jerry Buss passed away Monday morning following what the team said was a battle with cancer that lasted a year and a half, leaving behind a legacy few peers in any sport can match.
What a mind. What instincts. What vision. That's the lasting impression of the unique man who presided over a franchise known throughout the world for its glamour, rare level of attention and success.
Buss came from nothing and earned everything because he was as smart as he would become rich. He grew up in hardscrabble Wyoming, went to Los Angeles to attend grad school at USC, got a Ph.D. in chemistry and stayed in town. He started with a small investment in one apartment building and ended up a millionaire through real estate. A doctorate and a business tycoon, that's all, and then he really became a success.
Buss bought the Lakers, the NHL Kings, the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 for $67.5 million in the largest transaction in the history of sports in the United States at the time and quickly understood he was selling more than basketball. No background in marketing, no big deal. Buss knew he wanted the Lakers to be glitter.
"I was a long-time California fan," he said in a 2010 interview with NBA.com. "I used to go to the Dodger games. I used to go to the Laker games. I used to go to the Ram games. When you were ever in the arena, you often times would hear opponents yell, 'Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!' There used to be more people from out of town that would go to games than local residents. If Chicago played, the place would be packed with Chicago people. I used to really hate that when I was a loyal Los Angeles fan, so one of the things I tried to do was give us an identity which was the same as the city.
"The city's all about glamour. My thought was, let's have some showtime, let's have some glamour. That's why I tried to introduce the various celebrities to attend the game, have the beautiful cheerleaders, try to create an up-tempo basketball style, which later became known as Showtime, put in live music, not that dreadful organ you'd hear at games."
Showtime. Buss pushed the idea and Magic pushed the pace. The Laker Girls. Pat Riley with the suits and the slick hair. The general manager, Jerry West, fit the part too, swimming in stress but looking the part as a man who paid attention to wardrobe and was comfortable in front of a camera. Even the perfect announcer, hyperbole-fueled, mega-popular Chick Hearn.
Buss pulled it off because the team won, no question -- the Lakers would have been a laughingstock if they went Hollywood while cobbling together an occasional playoff series win. But the team won in large part because of Buss.
West was the ultimate hero in that regard, and the greatest Laker ever if all aspects are considered, not just play. West could also be a good counter-balance to Buss, as in the 1986 deal Buss struck to send James Worthy to the Mavericks for Roy Tarpley and Mark Aguirre that West insisted his boss reconsider. Buss, though, bankrolled West's brilliant vision of the roster. And when the Lakers were trying to recreate the Showtime mood by landing another superstar to grab headlines in Los Angeles, Buss pushed West to continue to pursue Shaquille O'Neal at a time West was increasingly wondering about calling off the chase and signing a couple Column B fallbacks rather than miss out on everyone. That had a big impact on West.
"He was as innovative as anyone I've met in basketball in my four or five decades," said former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, a contemporary. "He broke the ice, if you will, on a lot of things, like luxury seating, courtside seating, raised the bar in pricing, he created Showtime. Not that he put the ball in the basket on a fastbreak. But he created the atmosphere and brought people together. He made a great contribution."
Yes, there was also the image. There is no way to get around it, and Buss, to his credit, never tried. He was single and rich and unapologetically enjoyed the company of much younger females, in jeans and button-down shirts untucked at games because that was comfortable, not because that was trendy. And when I asked him in 1995 about daughter Jeanie's Playboy pictorial that had just come out, he thought for a couple seconds, then said it would probably be the only issue of the magazine he'll never look through.
But when Buss was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010 in one of his final appearances on a major stage, it was because the former chemist and real-estate mogul had become an all-time great in marketing. He also, usually, knew when to trust his basketball people and get out of the way. Commissioner David Stern said at the time that "Jerry, quite simply, was a pioneer in understanding what the value of entertainment was in a community."
That's the legacy.
That's the real image.
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