Monday, February 18, 2013

Jerry Buss: Remembering the Greatest Owner In Sports

Having achieved everything the average man couldn’t, Dr. Jerry Buss had the Midas touch and turned the Los Angeles Lakers into gold for much of his life.

Never has there been a greater person in LA and a more likable businessman who not only mixed business with pleasure, but amazingly built an empire that turned stars into legends in a diverse community. It was where the “Showtime Era” was born and where he cultivated the tenor of American sports.

And, of course, he won 10 championships, just from his intellectual maneuvers and business acumen that never were called into question. Not once.

We’ve seen him come to life, smile and celebrate with bliss in the 80s when Magic Johnson led the Lakers. We’ve seen him raise a number of Larry O’Brien trophies and we have seen images of him getting drenched in champagne while rubbing his burning eyes during a wild party inside the locker room with those he pampered and rewarded.

So suddenly, as Buss has been ailing for quite some time, he met his expiration date and will leave a priceless organization behind for his children to take over and hopefully keep the winning tradition alive. Buss, who died of cancer Monday at age 80, was the heart and soul of the purple-and-gold.

When he bought the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings, the Forum and the spacious ranch from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 — with ambitions in rising to a fruitful businessman — he became one of the most influential and successful owners in pro sports, if not the best to ever purchase a franchise.

He was defined more than anything by his character and cleverness, embracing and living a remarkable life for which his fame and fortune was indescribable.

Before he created a legacy in Los Angeles, where he came to as a young boy, Buss lived a life of misfortunes and hardships in Wyoming. Before he made his home in LA, Buss shined shoes at the old Kemmerer Hotel and worked on the Union Pacific railroad to make ends meet.

When he died, Buss reminded us that dreams can come true and that anything is possible, if one continues to thrive and give it their all. But once he resided in Los Angeles for good, as Buss was an endearing mentor to Johnson and most of the players he employed, he kissed a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and smiled with the trophy in his hands.

The death of Buss leaves behind an incredible legacy for the Lakers and a city that deeply respected what he did for Los Angeles when he was alive and well. He used his power and brains to build a flashy image in the realm of Hollywood.

The brand of basketball he produced for a long time manufactured an era of glamour and success. It must have been inspiring to Johnson, because he’s now the son of the city after establishing himself into a successful entrepreneur, opening up a Starbucks, T.G.I Friday’s restaurants and movie theaters in urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Buss, who was entering the final stage of his life after battling with cancer, spent time with his friend Johnson in his room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center not long ago. He lied in the bed fighting his battle and appeared to be low-spirited, but when Johnson entered the room and emotionally sat down by his good friend, Buss smiled and they both cried and shared memories for the last time.

While most of the fans in the second-largest city in the United States embraced the man for many years, Johnson and Buss had a bond that was unbreakable, the best relationship between a player and owner in pro sports.

At the end of his life, while friends and his kids remember him for building dynasties and teams into a form of excellence and professionalism, the Lakers will forever be known for winning 10 of their 16 NBA titles under Buss. Every time, we assumed it was business as usual when Buss, given his moral fiber and desire to win, invested and spent $67.5 million to buy the Lakers.

The team was his when he parlayed a $1,000 real estate investment to earn rights for the Lakers, for what is now a family-operated business. The game would be a cool experience for celebrities, but not for those who were unprivileged. Those courtside seats were too expensive, catering merely to folks who could afford to sit on the floor.

In looking to be original and unique, he hired an in-house band to perform during games, along with gorgeous women who dance during timeouts to entertain the audience. He called these cheerleaders the “Laker Girls”, and as we know, he was a shrewd merchant, almost like Hugh Hefner from the sports aspect of things.

This was some team, hotter than the females Buss dated. He was, to put it bluntly, a lady’s man, as he enjoyed partying with models and actresses. That, of course, was when he would be seen with women on his arms. Buss, as it was known, played high-stakes poker while he was the creator of the most entertaining pro basketball team.

It’s something everyone will remember about Buss. The folks of Prime Ticket tried to set up the network for cable premium packages, but Buss, since he co-founded the network, refused to allow that to happen and ordered that the network will be broadcasted from a basic package.

Buss and the Lakers were mentioned in the same breath as the late George Steinbrenner and the Yankees for what they accomplished as a beloved owner and team in a city where the Lakers embodied Los Angeles.

He was evidently intelligent from a young age, and applied it in the classroom. Buss earned his degree in just two-and-a-half years at the University of Wyoming, meeting his first wife there when he asked to borrow her textbook.

For Buss, it was never too late for education, so he received a Ph.D. in chemistry from USC and obtained an honorary doctrine in law at Wyoming in 2005. The best way to win is by spending and bringing in marquee players, especially in Hollywood. He knew what it took to win.

He assembled a winning product, following his own most valuable and workable traits, a palpable sense of anticipation every time he spent top-dollar to win championships.

It wasn’t strange to see such experiments. It was as if he was preparing for a science fair, exploring and trying to find the proper supplements to fit his talented roster. He seemed too powerful and too anxious. He was more likely to fire a coach if it didn’t work.

They’ve talked about the moment when Buss gave Magic Johnson a 25-year, $25 million deal in 1981, higher than what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was earning, all from the same man who chose Kobe Bryant over Shaquille O’Neal and traded the big man to Miami in 2004.

The Lakers’ formula has worked for years, no matter what Buss tried or weighed with his brilliance and diplomacy, gambling on players and coaches and pulling off unthinkable deals that not too many franchises in the league could make possible. Either way, he’s figured out ways to win, and in any sport, winning titles is all that really matters. And he did that over and over again.

The Lakers, as always, are in contention, particularly when Buss made changes at the right time. Such is the time he fired Paul Westhand and gave the coaching job to a young assistant in Pat Riley, who led the Lakers to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, winning all four times.

The worst thing he’s ever done was hire the sorriest coach in Lakers history in Randy Pfund, and again, it was only an experiment which barely lasted before he tried something that worked.

Like Johnson, Bryant became very close to Buss, despite his trade demands before the 2007-08 season. This has ought to be evidence that Bryant is a Laker for life, because not only is he a centerpiece of the Lakers, but he was Buss’ friend for life.

It’s officially the Jim Buss era now, though. Fans are probably wondering whether or not he can keep a winning franchise running strong, without advice and moves from his father.

The Lakers are in the hands of the Buss children, and after they were taught and experienced over the years on how to manage a business, we should only hope that they learned from their father to run the organization.

While his daughter, Jeanie, will run the Lakers’ business operations, Jim, who has been in charge of the team’s basketball operations, will continue to make personnel decisions.

Their father, Jerry, was a winner and will continue to be in heaven. The gates opened Monday morning for Mr. Buss, with layers of purple-and-gold carpet.