Jimmy Buss, 38, has a practical, politically savvy side that his brother lacks. He's a guy whose guile and drive prove the fallacy of the system of primogeniture.
Jimmy is all for his father's Team Buss approach—to a point. "A great checks-and-balances system," he calls it. "I wouldn't mind Jeanie having control over Lakers finances as long as I had ultimate say over player personnel." He presses his hands together and makes a tiny cathedral with his fingers. "Working with my brother would be a different story, though. I don't know that I'd want to." His feelings toward Johnny fall somewhere between pity and contempt. "For him to base his life on the Sparks is ridiculous," Jimmy says. "That's exactly what he did with the Lazers. You felt he would blow up any second and quit."
Though Jimmy's life has been tinged with tragedy, contentment radiates from him as if from a lighthouse. He's a slightly beefy guy with a round, ruddy face that crinkles easily into a smile. "Jimmy always seemed bigger and faster than me," says Johnny. "He was the cute kid with blue eyes, the athlete, the one girls fell over."
A party animal with lots of friends, Jimmy got by on charm and good looks. Curiously, he shares Jerry's keen interest in numbers. "When I was little, my father would give me a bag of M&Ms if I memorized the serial numbers on a dollar bill," he says. Jimmy was no natural-born capitalist, though. As a boy he was bent more on spending money than on acquiring it.
Before dropping out of USC, Jimmy majored in math and minored in business, or at least invested in minor businesses—video arcades, a bakery—with borrowed money. He and his best friend, Bill Goldenberg, spent many evenings at the Forum studying the Kings, in which Jerry Buss had a stake until he sold it 10 years ago. In 1981 Jerry promised the players a postseason trip to Hawaii if they amassed 100 points. They finished with 99, but Jerry took them anyway. Jimmy and Bill went, too, and spent the first day tooling around Oahu on mopeds. On one curvy stretch, Jimmy pulled ahead and waited for Bill to catch up. Bill didn't show, so Jimmy circled back and found him sprawled on the side of the highway. A truck had fish-tailed and killed him. Jimmy was devastated. "It was left to me to call Bill's parents," he says. "I was looking for sympathy from them, and all they did was blame me for taking him to Hawaii."
Jimmy's saga gets worse. Brokenhearted over Goldenberg's death, he met a girl and, in 1983, married her. He wanted a child; she couldn't have one. So, going through an agency, they adopted a boy from Florida, whom Jimmy named Jager, after another rolling stone. Within months, however, the parents decided to separate. They pretended to continue living together to mollify the social worker who monitored the adoption. This charade lasted six months.
After obtaining a divorce in late 1985, Jimmy hired a nanny, won sole custody of Jager as a single parent and began leading a double life: playing house with two girlfriends in L.A. In early '87 Jimmy learned that one of the two women had been decapitated as she disembarked from a helicopter. "It was the first time in a long time that I'd opened up my heart to anyone," Jimmy says, sighing, "and she was taken away from me."
To heal his aching heart, he married his other girlfriend. They separated more than a year ago. Since then Jimmy and Jager have bounced among his father's various Southern California bungalows. Last year Jimmy pulled Jager out of seventh grade to home-school him. "They had mutually decided it would be good for Jager," says Jeanie with obvious displeasure. "I don't know how many 12-year-olds should be part of that decision-making process." Or, in this case, 37-year-olds. "Jimmy stayed at it for maybe a week before losing interest," says Jeanie. Jimmy insists he stuck with it for a year and it was "a wonderful experience." Jager is now back in school.
When Johnny quit the Lazers in 1985, Jimmy replaced him and, unlike his brother, accepted the job's limitations. "Early on, I learned not to question certain procedures," he says. He leaned on the Lakers for support services and brought annual losses down from $1 million to $500,000. "It was a hopeless exercise, though," he says. "The league had no TV contract, and our salary cap was twice what we were taking in." The team folded in 1989.
About eight years ago Jimmy decided to try his hand at training horses. He had misspent much of his youth at the track, and though he was 6'2", he had attended jockey school when he was 20. His father owned a half-dozen thoroughbreds, and he handed Jimmy the reins. "He picks things up very fast," says Bob Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, "and he isn't afraid to ask questions." Although Jimmy had some success with his father's horses, track insiders questioned his dedication, saying he showed up at the track mostly when he felt like it. "At least he wasn't a bad trainer," says Baffert.