Lakers owner Jerry Buss passed away this morning at the age of 80. Buss had been hospitalized for cancer for much of the past 18 months, according to the Lakers. His assistant, Bob Steiner, told the Associated Press that Dr. Buss ultimately died of kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Jerry Buss completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Southern California at the age of 24. He also taught at USC in the chemistry department. His first investment was $1,000 in a West L.A. apartment building in order to provide income so that he could continue to teach. Dr. Buss’s success in real estate had him commit to it full-time.
In 1979, Dr. Buss purchased the Lakers, the L.A. Kings, and the Forum from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson the same year. They won 60 games in the 1979-80 NBA season and went on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. The Showtime era was born.
The Lakers new style of play fit perfectly with Dr. Buss’s efforts for the team to go hand in hand with the city they played in.
“One of the first things I tried to do when I bought the team was to make it an identification for this city, like Motown in Detroit,” Dr. Buss told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I try to keep that identification alive. I’m a real Angeleno. I want us to be part of the community.”
His first move to improve showmanship in the NBA was the formation of the Laker Girls in 1979.
“I thought the game itself was fantastic, but the ambiance was really kind of dead. It was quiet and boring, and so I thought what I’d like to do is spice it up with having some dancers,” he said.
He also brought in a live band to play during games.
Much like the Staples Center today, the Forum would be filled with stars the likes of Jack Nicholson. But Dr. Buss made sure his team was also full of stars on the court. He signed Magic Johnson to a 25-year $25 million contract in 1981. The Lakers drafted James Worthy and Mychal Thomson with the first overall picks in 1982 and 1987, respectively. The Showtime Lakers brought five championships to L.A.
The Lakers signed Shaquille O’neal to a seven-year $121 million contract in 1996. The same year, Dr. Buss took a chance on a 17-year-old kid out of high school, trading his starting center to acquire Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets.
“He’s meant everything to me in my career in terms of taking a risk on a 17-year-old kid coming out of high school and then believing in me my entire career,” Bryant told reporters during All-Star weekend.
In 1999, the Lakers also brought on Phil Jackson to coach the team. The duo of Bryant and O’Neal won a championship in Jackson’s first year, followed by two more.
After O’Neal’s departure in 2004, the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and were eliminated in the first round the following two years. But the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol in 2008 and made their way back to the NBA Finals three straight years, winning two.
During Dr. Buss’s reign as owner of one of the winningest franchises in sports, the Lakers made the Finals 16 times in 33 seasons, winning 10 championships. He never shied away from spending money if it meant his team would win.
According to J.A. Adande, in 2002, before the Lakers beat the Nets in the Finals, Buss wanted to cut payroll to avoid paying the luxury tax.
“Then they beat the Nets in the Finals, and at a victory party afterward a giddy Buss came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got a secret for you: We’re going way over the tax! I love winning!’” writes Adande.
The Lakers all-star lineup this year places them as the second most valuable team in the NBA at $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Dr. Buss was inducted to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2010. “These men put their hands together, their souls together, and brought me with them. And I thank each and every one of them from the bottom of my heart,” Buss said about his players during a speech.
The Buss family released the following statement:
“We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community […] It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.”