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JERRY HATTEN BUSS, 1933 - 2013

'Showtime' ringmaster

Lakers owner enjoyed extraordinary NBA success, but equally important to his legacy was a sense of spectacle

February 19, 2013|David Wharton

When Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, he wanted to build a championship team. He also wanted to put on a show.

The new owner gave courtside seats to movie stars. He hired pretty women to dance during timeouts. He spent freely on big stars and encouraged a fast-paced, exuberant style of play.

As the Lakers sprinted to one NBA title after another, Buss cut an audacious figure in the stands, an aging playboy in bluejeans, often with a younger woman.

"I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity," he once said. "I think we've been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 01, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Jerry Buss obituary: In the Feb. 19 Section A, the obituary of Lakers owner Jerry Buss said that the team made headlines last summer when it paid tens of millions to acquire free agents Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Howard was not a free agent.

Buss, 80, died Monday of complications of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Lakers fans will remember Buss for bringing extraordinary success -- 10 championships in three-plus decades -- but equally important to his legacy was a sense of showmanship that transformed pro basketball from sport to spectacle.

"Jerry Buss helped set the league on the course it is on today," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "Remember, he showed us it was about 'Showtime,' the notion that an arena can become the focal point for not just basketball, but entertainment. He made it the place to see and be seen."

His teams featured the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard. He was also smart enough to hire Hall of Fame-caliber coaches in Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.

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

A Depression-era baby, Jerry Hatten Buss was born in Salt Lake City on Jan. 27, 1933, although some sources cite 1934 as his birth year. His parents, Lydus and Jessie Buss, divorced when he was an infant.

His mother struggled to make ends meet as a waitress in tiny Evanston, Wyo., and Buss remembered standing in food lines in the bitter cold. They moved to Southern California when he was 9, but within a few years she remarried and her second husband took the family back to Wyoming.

His stepfather, Cecil Brown, was, as Buss put it, "very tight-fisted." Brown made his living as a plumber and expected his children (one from a previous marriage, another son and a daughter with Jessie) to help.

This work included digging ditches in the cold. Buss preferred being a bellhop at a local hotel and running a mail-order stamp-collecting business that he started at age 13.

Leaving high school a year early, he worked on the railroad, pumping a hand-driven car up and down the line to make repairs. The job lasted just three months.

Until then, Buss had never much liked academics. But he returned to school and, with a science teacher's encouragement, did well enough to earn a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming.

Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, when he was 19 he married a student named JoAnn Mueller and they would eventually have four children: John, Jim, Jeanie and Janie.

The couple moved to Southern California in 1953, when USC gave Buss a scholarship for graduate school. He earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1957. The degree brought him great pride -- Lakers employees always called him "Dr. Buss."

He was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in February 1958, part of a team that developed rocket fuel and other classified material. But the idea of a career in aerospace did not appeal to Buss. As the 1950s drew to a close, he and a Douglas colleague, Frank Mariani, decided to try their hand at real estate.

They scraped together a few thousand dollars and took out multiple mortgages to buy a 14-unit apartment house in West Los Angeles and, to save money, did all the repairs themselves. Once, fixing a damaged wall after work, Buss peeled off his T-shirt, stuffed it into the hole and plastered over it.

They soon bought a second building and stumbled onto some good fortune. The partners -- along with several relatives -- won $12,000 at the racetrack, then bought yet another building, soon discovering oil on the property and receiving lucrative royalty rights.

"Everybody just felt like God loves us," Buss recalled in the book "Winnin' Times," written by former Times sportswriters Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. "Everything we did just went the right way."

Now millionaires, Buss and Mariani turned to another sort of venture. Gathering friends as investors, they bought into the fledgling World Team Tennis league in 1974. Buss purchased the Los Angeles Strings and Mariani bought the San Diego Friars. The Strings won a championship in 1978, but the league did not last much longer. Buss went looking for a bigger, better opportunity.

"I have enough money to own a major league team," he said at the time. "And I intend to do so."

Jack Kent Cooke, who had built the Forum in Inglewood to house his Lakers and Kings, was in the midst of an expensive divorce and wanted to cash out. He began negotiating with Buss.

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