"It's crazy," says one of Jerry's longtime business associates. "Johnny dithers and broods. Jimmy is easily distracted and has no instinct for the jugular. Jeanie is the most capable one, yet she's overlooked by her loving dad. Does Jerry honestly think this arrangement will work? I'm willing to bet—no, I guarantee—that within three years he sells the entire operation to Rupert Murdoch."
Jerry scoffs at this. "I like basketball too much," he says. Still, his problem is not just that he has to give the kingdom away someday but that he has to hang on to it long enough to give it away. "He's one of the last of a dying breed," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "In big-time sports the day of individual owners like Jerry is fading fast. He's sort of wealthy, but he's not extraordinarily wealthy like some of our owners. Given the size and risk of the asset, we are moving toward [an owner who is] a combination of the Forbes 400 and the FORTUNE 500."
The payroll for the Lakers, the engine that drives the Buss empire, is $40 million. The team salary cap is $37 million. "I would like to increase the cap," Jerry says, "but if you project out to what the players seem to be demanding, it would go up to at least $70 million, which is ludicrous."
While Buss isn't carrying any debt, he isn't particularly liquid. The combined value of the Lakers, the Sparks and the Forum is estimated at $300 million, but says Buss, "just about everything we make is pumped back into the business." However, when the Lakers forsake the Forum and move into the new $300 million Staples Center in downtown L.A. toward the end of 1999, Buss is supposed to get a windfall of $50 million to $60 million from the sale of 25% of the team to Fox and the owners of the Kings. That should keep him in pocket change for a while.
Buss was just your average self-made real estate mogul with a Ph.D. in chemistry when he bought the Lakers in 1979. He quickly made the team over to fit his profligate tastes. He brought in the Laker Girls and live bands. He came up with the concept of courtside seats filled with movie stars and other celebrities. He spent mightily to put the show in Showtime by signing Magic Johnson, James Worthy and, more recently, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The payoff has been five NBA titles in 19 seasons (but none since 1988) and more than $100 million in annual revenue. "What amazes me is that my father is always thinking 10 steps ahead of everyone else," says Janie. "Every deal he makes is always to his advantage. He's just too smart."
Stabbing Marlboros into the comer of his mouth and hauling a slight paunch, Buss cuts an imposing if not exactly regal figure. His is more of a cowboy image: shabby jeans, rugged boots and the slightly ragged look of a ranch hand in a spaghetti Western. But don't be fooled; Buss is one of those public figures whose presence is always slightly more important than the event he's attending. "I live life energetically," he says. "I go out every night, and I'm either dancing or playing poker or watching a game."
During the NBA season he holds court in a private box high above the visitors' bench, the better to see plays unfold. Afterward he can often be seen in the media lounge with the latest addition to his calendar collection (Miss March, Miss April) on his knee, "Just one out of a hundred says, 'Would you buy me a fur coat or something?' " Buss says of his dates. "I usually hear, 'Can you get Kobe Bryant's autograph?' I like people, I really do. It's one reason I gave up chemistry. I was too lonely in the laboratory."
Buss was lonely long before that. His dad, Lydus, was an accountant who apparently loved numbers more than people. He left his wife and only child in the Wyoming mining town of Kemmerer during the Depression and ended up teaching statistics at Berkeley. Jerry's mother, Jessie, barely made a living as a waitress. "I was an infant when my father went west," says Jerry evenly. "I saw him maybe two or three more times before he died [in 1952, when Jerry was 19]. He was the studious type, into Chinese dialects and ancient scrolls." Mathematics, Lydus thought, was the purest creation of the human mind.
Young Jerry loved numbers, too—far more than he loved his stepfather, a plumber named Stub Brown. Jerry was 12 when his mother remarried, making him the oldest of four kids in a decidedly unblended family. "My father was not accepted by his stepfather," reports Jeanie. "He was a Buss living with the Browns. He felt like an outsider. It made him a very compassionate person."
All Jerry's kids describe him as a generous father, even if he spreads himself too thin. "Though he really doesn't have time for us, he always has time for us," says Sean. "He understands what it's like not to have a dad around."