Born in Salt Lake City, Gerald Hatten Buss was raised in poverty in Wyoming 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, was surprisingly promoted by Buss early in the 1981-82 season. He became one of the best coaches in NBA history, leading the Lakers to four straight NBA finals and four titles, with Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and A.C. Green playing major roles.
‘‘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,’’ Riley said. ‘‘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.
Through the Lakers’ frequent successes and occasional struggles, Buss never stopped living his Hollywood dream. He was an avid poker player and a fixture on the Los Angeles club scene well into his 70s, when a late-night drunk-driving arrest in 2007 — with a 23-year-old woman in the passenger seat of his Mercedes-Benz — prompted him to cut down on his partying.
Buss owned the NHL’s Kings from 1979-87, and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks won two league titles under Buss’ ownership. He also owned Los Angeles franchises in World Team Tennis and the Major Indoor Soccer League.
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.Continued...