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NBA FINALS / LAKERS vs. PHILADELPHIA

L.A. 's Leading Man

With Hard Work and a Bit of Luck, Jerry Buss Has Become L.A.'s Most Successful Sports Owner--a Savvy Businessman and Clever Showman Who Is Currently Working on His Second Laker Dynasty

June 15, 2001|STEVE SPRINGER and LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The crowd inside the Staples Center suite has been handpicked by Jerry Buss, perhaps explaining why the guest list is mostly made up of stunning young women in tight pants and halter tops. Many look like centerfold models, and some actually are.

But this night, the ill-fated Finals Game 1 of the Lakers' run at consecutive NBA titles, finds Buss ignoring those in attendance, including Hugh Hefner and his seven girlfriends--that's right, seven--all Playboy Playmates. Instead, the team's owner intently watches the game from a front-row seat, or paces by himself, his personal assistant making sure the boss is left alone when he wants to be.

Buss may be phasing in his four grown children to take control of the Lakers, and may joke about needing more time to squire around his young girlfriends, but at 68, he remains very much at the helm of the team whose success he considers priceless.

"What is really fun is to walk around town, see the guy sweeping the street or the guy shining shoes and to see the smile on their faces because of the Lakers," Buss said later that night. "The pleasure I seem to have given this city through the Lakers is really heartwarming."

Today, with one more victory needed to clinch the title against the Philadelphia 76ers, L.A.'s most successful sports owner is again standing at the top of the basketball world. Working on his second NBA dynasty, Buss is also reinforcing his reputation as a maestro of marketing, a pioneer who perfected the art of mixing sports and entertainment in a glitzy package that remains the envy of the sports world.

"He was at the epicenter of the revitalization of the NBA," Commissioner David Stern said.

He arrived there from bleak beginnings in Wyoming where, at the age of 4, he would stand in food lines to collect canned goods for his family.

"I've worked hard and been lucky," Buss says humbly. "With the combination of the two, I've accomplished everything I ever set out to do."

That includes parlaying a $1,000-real estate deal in the 1970s into holdings that would top several hundred million, putting together one of the biggest and most complex real estate deals in Southern California history to buy the Lakers, the NHL's Kings and the Forum, brazenly raising courtside seat prices one hundredfold, and signing Magic Johnson to a 25-year, $25-million contract when such a deal was unheard of.

A forerunner in the fields of naming rights and cable television ventures, Buss still enjoys a reputation as a savvy player in a league that has attracted such high-powered businessmen as Paul Allen (Microsoft, Portland Trail Blazers), Howard Schultz (Starbucks, Seattle SuperSonics) and Mark Cuban (Internet ventures, Dallas Mavericks).

"It's not fair to put [Buss] into the category of old guard because he stays on the cutting edge," said Denver sports-marketing consultant Dean Bonham. Said one agent: "Buss is the last of a dying breed--the entrepreneurial owner."

It's a role that Buss cherishes, along with the well-worn jeans and cowboy boots that he often sports.

"You'd be surprised at how influential he is within the NBA," said Rick Welts, the league's former top marketing executive. "He picks his spots carefully, and when he does pick up the phone, other owners are very responsive. People see him as very, very smart."

Hole-in-the-Wall Gang

As a 13-year-old in Kemmerer, Wyo., Buss often dreamed about a life filled with riches. It helped take his mind off digging ditches in frozen fields with his stepfather. Buss would begin at 4:30 a.m., so he could get some work in before the school day.

Buss was 20 when he graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1953 and headed west with his new wife, Joanne Mueller. Buss enrolled at USC in pursuit of a PhD. in physical chemistry.

But poverty was tough to shake.

Buss still remembers finding $5 on the street.

"A dollar sixty-seven goes to you," Buss told Joanne. "A dollar sixty-seven I get . . . and a dollar sixty-seven goes into the general kitty."

By the late '50s, Buss was working as an aerospace engineer at Douglas Aircraft. With two kids and two more soon to follow, he needed a better financial game plan than looking for money on the street.

Buss and co-worker Frank Mariani pooled $1,000 each along with several colleagues, investing in the promising Southern California real estate market.

They bought a 14-unit apartment building in West Los Angeles for $105,000. To save money, Buss and Mariani did the maintenance work.

Late one night, while painting an apartment, they found a large hole in the wall. They had put in a full day at Douglas, they were tired and another day would soon beckon. So Buss improvised.

He took off his T-shirt, stuffed it in the hole and plastered over it.

A second building soon followed, as well as some luck. Needing a chunk of money for a down payment, Buss, Mariani and several relatives went to the track and won $12,000. After they'd bought another Los Angeles apartment building, oil was discovered on the property.

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