Jerry Buss, Lakers’ Flamboyant Owner, Dies at 80

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The current Lakers (25-29) have struggled mightily despite adding Howard and Steve Nash in a couple of moves that were typical of Buss’ brash style. Los Angeles could miss the playoffs this spring for just the third time since Buss bought the franchise.

“Today is a very sad day for all the Lakers and basketball,” Gasol tweeted. “All my support and condolences to the Buss family. Rest in peace Dr. Buss.”

Although Buss gained fame and another fortune with the Lakers, he also was a scholar, Renaissance man and bon vivant who epitomized California cool his entire public life.

Buss rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm — at Southern California football games, high-stakes poker tournaments, hundreds of boxing matches promoted by Buss at the Forum — and, of course, Lakers games from his private box at Staples Center, which was built under his watch. With his failing health, Buss hadn’t attended a Lakers game in the past two seasons.

After a rough-and-tumble childhood that included stints as a ditch-digger and a bellhop in the frigid Wyoming winters, Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from USC at 24, and had careers in aerospace and real estate development before getting into sports.

With money from his real-estate ventures and a good bit of creative accounting, Buss bought the then-struggling Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and both clubs’ arena — the Forum — from Jack Kent Cooke in a $67.5 million deal that was the largest sports transaction in history at the time.

Last month, Forbes estimated the Lakers were worth $1 billion, second most in the NBA.

Buss also helped change televised sports by co-founding the Prime Ticket network in 1985, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 for his work in television. Breaking the contemporary model of subscription services for televised sports, Buss’ Prime Ticket put beloved broadcaster Chick Hearn and the Lakers’ home games on basic cable.

Buss also sold the naming rights to the Forum in 1988 to Great Western Savings & Loan — another deal that was ahead of its time.

Born in Salt Lake City, Gerald Hatten Buss was raised in poverty before improving his life through education. He also grew to love basketball, describing himself as an “overly competitive but underly endowed player.”

After graduating from the University of Wyoming, Buss attended USC for graduate school because he loved its sports teams. He also became a chemistry professor and worked in the missile division of defense contractor McDonnell Douglas before carving out a path to wealth and sports prominence.

His real-estate portfolio grew out of a $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building with partner Frank Mariani, an aerospace engineer and co-worker.

Heavily leveraging his fortune and various real-estate holdings during two years of negotiations, Buss purchased Cooke’s entire Los Angeles sports empire along with a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County. Buss immediately worked to transform the Lakers — who had won just one NBA title since moving west from Minneapolis in 1960 — into a star-powered endeavor befitting Hollywood.

“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,” he 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.”

With showmanship, fearless spending and a little drafting luck, Buss quickly succeeded: Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and coach Paul Westhead led the Lakers to the 1980 title. Johnson’s ball-handling wizardry and Abdul-Jabbar’s smooth inside game made for an attractive style of play, and the Lakers came to define West Coast sophistication.

Riley, the former broadcaster who fit the L.A. image perfectly with his slick-backed hair and good looks, became one of the best coaches in NBA history after Buss promoted him, leading the Lakers to four straight NBA finals and four titles.

“I was privileged to be part of that for 10 years and even more grateful for the friendship that has lasted all these many years,” said Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat. “I have always come to realize that if it weren’t for Dr. Buss, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Overall, the Lakers made the Finals nine times in Buss’ first 12 seasons while rekindling the NBA’s best rivalry with the Boston Celtics, and Buss basked in the worldwide celebrity he received from his team’s achievements. His partying became the stuff of Los Angeles legends, with even his players struggling to keep up with Buss’ lifestyle.

Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and retirement in 1991 staggered Buss and the Lakers, the owner recalled in 2011. The Lakers went through seven coaches and made just one conference finals appearance in an eight-year stretch of the 1990s despite the 1996 arrivals of O’Neal, who signed with Los Angeles as a free agent, and Bryant, the 17-year-old high schooler acquired in a draft-week trade.

Shaq and Kobe didn’t reach their potential until Buss persuaded Jackson, the Chicago Bulls’ six-time NBA champion coach, to take over the Lakers in 1999. Los Angeles immediately won the next three NBA titles in brand-new Staples Center, AEG’s state-of-the-art downtown arena built with the Lakers as the primary tenant.

After the Lakers traded O’Neal in 2004, they hovered in mediocrity again until acquiring Gasol in a heist of a trade with Memphis in early 2008. Los Angeles made the next three NBA Finals, winning two more titles.

Buss owned the NHL’s Kings from 1979-87, and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks won two league titles under Buss’ ownership.

Buss’ children have pledged to continue his commitment to the Lakers’ distinctive success, although their efforts haven’t been rewarded in the past three years while Jerry Buss ceded many decision-making responsibilities to Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of player personnel and the second-oldest child. While daughter Jeanie runs the franchise’s business side, Jim Buss now has the final say on basketball decisions.

“I am blessed with a wonderful family who have helped me and guided me every step of the way,” Buss said in 2010 at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “This support is the best anybody could ever have.”

Buss is survived by his six children: sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse, and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel. He had eight grandchildren.

Arrangements are pending for a funeral and memorial service, likely at Staples Center or a nearby theater in downtown Los Angeles.

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