CHICAGO – Dr. Jerry Buss, the legendary Basketball Hall of Fame owner of the Los Angeles Lakers who died Monday, was by vocation a chemist, the Dr. before his name for his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California at age 24.
Smart man, surely.
But it takes more than being intelligent to be successful, especially to the level of Buss, who turned a modest real estate investment into the greatest U.S. sports empire in the last three decades with ownership of the Lakers, the Lakers’ arena, the NHL team, the WNBA team, teams in soccer and team tennis and a massive cable TV deal.
It takes luck with vision, and with that rare alchemy the one- time college chemistry professor and government chemist lived out his dreams as one of the premier sports moguls in U.S. history and as much as the league itself the man in many ways responsible for the great public explosion of the NBA in the 1980s with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
“He was smart, of course,” said Chicago attorney George Andrews, who was Johnson’s first agent and with Buss worked out the then-extraordinary, groundbreaking 25-year, $25 million contract for Johnson that changed the economics of the game forever.
As much as many credit Jordan for the economic renaissance of the NBA, it was Johnson’s stunning deal that led to Jordan renegotiating his own rookie contract to keep pace. Michael could jump the highest with the fanciest sneakers, but it often was by chasing Magic and Buss.
“He (Buss) understood the star system and Hollywood thought process and brought that to the NBA,” says Andrews. “From expensive floor seats to suites to the stars, he understood the glamour that could become the game.”
While NBA commissioner David Stern deservedly is credited with the NBA marketing revolution that inspired everything in other team sports from the fan- friendly arena atmosphere to the NFL’s Super Bowl spectacular, it was no coincidence that was traced to the early 1980s when Buss came into the league.
In 1979, he purchased the Lakers, the NHL’s Kings and the arena in a complicated transaction from Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, for Beverly Hills real estate among other properties.
Within a year, the Lakers had a championship, though it takes players. And the Lakers got lucky there, winning the 1979 coin flip for the No. 1 draft pick with the Chicago Bulls for the magical Johnson. Buss inherited a previous trade with Cleveland that got him a No. 1 pick in 1982, which was James Worthy. Again, the Lakers won the coin toss, this time with the San Diego Clippers.
You need luck, but then it’s what you do with it.
You didn’t have to tell Dr. Buss.
He began increasing courtside ticket prices when it was unheard of in the NBA. The stars came out because it was a place to go and be seen. They remain the most expensive and popular per game seats in the NBA at more than $2,500 per game. Buss in the old Great Western Forum, he being the first to sell naming rights to a building, created the forerunner of sky boxes and suites. They weren’t even good views back then, but stars wanted to be there. The same with the exclusive Forum Club inside the arena.
The Lakers introduced dancers, the famed Laker Girls, who inspired a generation of dance teams in all sports. Laker Girls dancers went on to be TV and movie stars, drawing again the elite. The Lakers brought in Hollywood stars to toss up a ceremonial first ball. It became a marketing show of the first order that also inspired the NBA and its teams to enter an era none had imagined and which catapulted the NBA beyond all the U.S. sports in vision and innovation.
Leading it all was Buss who, along with Walter Brown the Celtics owner of the dynasty 1960s who backed Red Auerbach and was a pioneer against the racism that kept many blacks out of the NBA at the time, stood alone among NBA owners who changed the game.
And those who knew Buss said he always was a man who never forgot where he came from, down to earth and fun loving well into his 70s with a pair of starlets on his arms, a common sight in Los Angeles along with Lakers’ success.
It sustained remarkably under Buss, from Magic’s Showtime team to Jerry West acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant out from under everyone to get three more titles under Phil Jackson and then again moving more quickly than anyone else to purloin Pau Gasol and win two more titles, 10 overall under Buss, more than any other owner.
It is perhaps too soon, but you wonder what now. You don’t replace a Jerry Buss. And it makes one wonder about this week’s NBA trade deadline. Though it was not widely known, Buss had been seriously ill for months. Many believed the Lakers’ summer spending spree for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard was to try to get one more title before Buss died.
So with all the issues with Howard and uncertainty surrounding his return to the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, would the Lakers make a bold move now with Howard?
Dr. Buss always was a step or more ahead of the competition and convention. His contributions live on, though what of his great franchise?
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”