Dr. Jerry Buss - Hall of Fame

An ardent poker player since his teens, Laker owner and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Buss is not adverse to taking a gamble. But even he would not have bet on a life of fame and fortune for a four-year-old boy mired in poverty, waiting for his next meal in a bread line in the midst of the Great Depression.

Buss himself was that four-year-old, standing on a bitter cold Wyoming day with a gunny sack in his hand to carry the precious food back home.

From those humble beginnings, Buss would go on to amass a fortune in real-estate, purchase the Lakers, the NHL's Kings and the Forum, establish Los Angeles' greatest sports dynasty with 10 NBA championships and change the face of the league with an innovative ownership style.

"He has owned the team 31 years and they have been in the NBA Finals 16 times," said NBA commissioner David Stern. "Luck doesn't last that long."

Indeed, Buss needed more than luck to escape the poverty of his early years.

After his parents divorced, it was just Buss and his mother, Jessie, struggling to survive. She worked as a waitress and scrubbed floors while he, as he got a little older, roamed the neighborhood in search of discarded books and papers that could fuel the wood in their fireplace, their only source of heat on freezing winter nights.

When Buss was nine, Jessie took him to California where the job opportunities were more plentiful and the dreams of a better life were fueled in the young boy's mind.

After three years, they returned to Wyoming where Jessie remarried and her son started on a path that would lead to a life beyond his imagination.

It was a path of unexpected twists and fortunate turns. Despite an impressive aptitude for science, Buss quit high school between his junior and senior year to work on the railroad.

After three months of hard labor for up to 14 hours a day, Buss had learned to appreciate the advantages of the classroom.

"I thought, `Wait, this is not for me,' " Buss recalled.

He returned to school and earned a scholarship to the University of Wyoming, got a job as a government chemist and ultimately returned to the land of his fantasies, Southern California, to attend graduate school at USC.

Buss' plan was to teach at USC and work in the aerospace industry, while dabbling in real estate.

He put $83.33 a month aside from his $700-a-month paycheck from the Douglas Aircraft Co. and, in a year's time, had saved $1,000. In 1959, he and several partners put $6,000 down to purchase an apartment building in West Los Angeles.

From that modest start, Buss and his partner, Frank Mariani, empowered by a Southern California real-estate boom, built an empire that stretched across three states.

In 1979, Buss, who was already a big fish in a small pond as the owner of the Los Angeles Strings of World Team Tennis, plunged into the deep water with the $67.5 million purchase of the Lakers, Kings, the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch from Jack Kent Cooke, part of a complicated transaction that also involved the swapping of properties.

The Laker portion of the transaction cost Buss $16 million, an obvious bargain with the hindsight of 31 years, but no sure thing back then. The league was struggling with drug and racism issues along with financial problems that threatened the very existence of several clubs.

For Buss, however, the optimism that had brought him from utter poverty to fabulous wealth was not dimmed by the task before him.

He had a unique plan for the Lakers that would hinge on two linchpins, Magic Johnson and Jack Nicholson. In a city long identified with the movie industry, Buss, the former chemist, devised a formula for success that mixed sports and entertainment.

On the court, Johnson, the Lakers' top draft choice in 1979, had the skill, style and charisma to make the team both a big winner and a huge draw.

At the end of his second season, the 21-year-old superstar became even more renowned when Buss signed him to a 25-year, $25-million contract, then the richest in sports history.

"I always felt other sports sometimes got a lot of press because their players were paid so much money," Buss said. "Anybody who makes an outlandish salary obviously attracts attention. That was what was behind my contract with Magic. I think it created a lot of attention for the Lakers."

It was a pattern Buss would follow through the ensuing years, paying top dollar to stock and restock the team to maintain a quality roster.

It is an investment that continues to pay dividends, Following the Showtime Lakers of the 80s and the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers at the start of this century, Buss is now working on a third dynasty led by Bryant and Pau Gasol.

"He is a master at building a team," Johnson said. "He has put the Lakers right up there with the New York Yankees as the top brands in sports.

"He has been able to do so because he is one of the shrewdest businessmen you will ever meet. With him, it's never been about putting money in his pocket. It's always been about putting it back into the team."

Off the court, Nicholson and his Hollywood friends filled the courtside seats, making Laker games a must see-and-be-seen destination, even for those who were more interested in the Forum Club than the Laker club on the court.

But Buss knew it was going to take more than stars to populate his private universe.

Back then, he would often hang out at a club in Santa Monica called The Horn. The evening's entertainment would begin with several vocalists singing, "It's Showtime."

That tune was in mind when Buss decided, good teams or bad, early season or postseason, at Laker games, it would always be Showtime.

"I liked the college atmosphere," Buss said, "so I wanted live music and Laker Girls, who are not really cheerleaders, but entertainers for the fans to watch during timeouts.

"At that time, people were saying, don't bother to go to the game. Just pop in on the telecast for the last three minutes and you can see the whole thing. We wanted to change that and one way was to have entertainment all the way through the game."

Now in his second decade in purple and gold, guard Derek Fisher appreciates the way Buss has kept the spheres of sports and entertainment separate, but distinct.

"Dr. Buss had a vision that put him way ahead of everybody else right from the beginning," Fisher said. "He felt sports and entertainment could coexist without the players being distracted. The Lakers could still make the smart decisions personnel wise in terms of coaches and players to consistently put a winning product on the court. Doc didn't allow the entertainment to take away from the product.

"Adding the entertainment factor has now become the norm in basketball and all of professional sports thanks to Doc."

Johnson was just a wide-eyed kid from East Lansing, Michigan when he found himself at the center of the three-ring circus known as Showtime.

"It was unbelievable to be a part of the show on a nightly basis," Johnson said. "It started with us on the floor. You had the band and then, at the first timeout, you had the Laker Girls, the best dancers and best-looking cheerleaders in the business. It was amazing to be involved in something that changed basketball."

The scene behind the scenes was just as impressive.

"Everybody you might want to meet would be having dinner at a large, rectangular table in a private dining room," Stern said, "with Dr. Buss sitting at the head, surrounded by his many guests.

"It was a place where the drama of the game -- the last live, unscripted, community-based drama in our society – was combined with a sort of salon approach. Everybody in L.A. wants to come to a Laker game and Jerry is a great host, bringing everyone together."

Being part of that scene is not cheap. Especially for those in the courtside seats.

It seems hard to believe now, but those courtside seats cost $15 when Buss bought the team.

"Originally, I wanted to free up some floor seats," Buss said, "so that not only myself, but my friends -- a lot of attorneys and accountants who helped me put together the deal to buy the Lakers – could enjoy them.

"I had been trying to buy floor seats for perhaps 10 years before I purchased the team, but there were never any for sale. So, I thought, they must be underpriced. I figured I'd increase them from $15 up to $30. Nobody cancelled. I then decided to go to $60, figuring that, for sure, we would get eight or 10 cancellations. There were still none. I had to apologize to all the people I had promised tickets.

"I moved it up to $100, and the process has continued right up until now where the current value is $2,700 per seat for the regular season and $3,000 for the playoffs."

Buss has also left his mark in television. In 1985, he and cable TV pioneer Bill Daniels started the Prime Ticket Network. It televised Laker games and soon grew to become the country's premier regional sports cable network.

For that groundbreaking enterprise, Buss was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His impressive list of achievements, Buss figures, may well have sprung from his harsh roots.

"I think the fear of poverty had a lot to do with my drive," he said. "I was always competitive, all the way back to elementary school. Certainly, the poverty was a frightening experience for me. I decided I didn't want to lead that life. I didn't want to go down in the coal mines, be one mile below the earth's surface, and have to pray that everything didn't come tumbling down on my head. Most of the people where I lived in Kemmerer, Wyoming worked in those mines.

"So, I prepared myself to make a decent living. Once you begin to run in that direction, you run faster and faster and faster."

All the way, it turns out, to Springfield, Mass.

"Over the years," said Jeanie Buss, one of Jerry's daughters and the Lakers' executive vice-president of business operations, "people have wanted to dedicate places like a hospital wing or a race track in my dad's name. He didn't want anything like that. His dream was to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame."

Having now realized that dream, Jerry Buss is emphatic about sharing it.

"I was blessed with having multiple Hall of Famers around me," he said, "starting with Bill Sharman and Jerry West and then going on to Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. Then, you get players like Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant. Probably nobody in my 31-year period has been surrounded by as many Hall of Fame people and future Hall of Famers as I have. Ultimately, that's what led to all the success, and therefore, the honor of being elected.

"Basketball has been my life for 31 years. To get the biggest award possible for anybody in professional basketball thrills you. It feels like the ultimate."