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William Oscar Johnson
June 18, 1979
Jerry Buss has always had a way with a chick, a cue and a buck. Now he'll have his way with the Lakers, Kings and Forum
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June 18, 1979

Jerry Is Never Behind The Eight Ball

Jerry Buss has always had a way with a chick, a cue and a buck. Now he'll have his way with the Lakers, Kings and Forum

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The deal is this: Buss and his partners will pay $43.5 million for The Forum and the Raljon Ranch near Bakersfield. Buss, on his own, will pay $24 million for the Lakers and Kings, and will own the teams personally. He and his partners will assume an approximate $10 million mortgage on The Forum. Cooke has a choice of taking the remaining $57.5 million in cash or $20 million in cash and $37.5 million in real estate, choosing his properties from a list drawn up by Buss' corporation, Mariani-Buss Associates. Cooke has a month or more to decide what form of payment to accept, but Buss says, "I would imagine he'll opt for a tax-free exchange and take the real estate. If he takes only cash, it could cost him an extra $9 million or so in taxes."

The deal is considered closed for all practical purposes, although there remains the ritualistic matter of official approval from the NBA and NHL for Buss to own the teams. No problems are anticipated.

Just what kind of an owner will Jerry Buss be? He is a full-fledged, heart-on-his-sleeve sports fan when it comes to his alma mater, USC, and he spends many sentimental hours recalling long-gone football games and track meets, reliving with almost misty eyes the broken-field runs of Jon Arnett and the 100-yard dashes of Mel Patton. Yet, when he talks about his newly acquired teams, Buss has no mist in his eyes, only dollar signs. "The Lakers are a good ordinary investment," he says, "nothing spectacular. In the past, they have probably averaged around $500,000 a year in operational profits, and the franchise value has appreciated $500,000 a year. You could get about the same return with high-quality bonds. However, if we get into some pay television there, that could add as much as $2.5 million in profits."

And the Kings? Less good. "With the Kings, you have the all-important question: Can hockey ever be a West Coast sport? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that. The Kings definitely lose money every year. In their very best year they lost $200,000. In the worst year they lost $1.5 million. They average about $700,000 a year in losses. However, in the first few operating years, the tax treatment would be such as to allow a breakeven situation as regards cash flow. To make money steadily, the Kings have to sell another 3,000 season tickets. If they can, great. If not, I've made a bad deal."

And The Forum? "I like to buy real estate that can't be replaced. The Forum is like that—30 acres of commercial real estate in a very desirable location. If anyone tried to build a Forum today, they'd have to charge $15,000 a night, not $10,000. So it's effectively irreplaceable. It's rented now about 220 times a year. If we got that up to 260 times, we'd have a very profitable venture. Also, we're in a controlling position for all pay TV out of The Forum. We get a piece of it for any concerts or boxing matches or whatever. That could also help make it a very profitable venture."

Buss insists he will be a strong influence on both of his teams. He intends to have a "long talk" with the often-aloof Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Within days after his purchase of the club was announced, Buss may have solved a potentially nasty situation by arranging to keep former Laker Coach Bill Sharman as general manager and at the same time offering Jerry West a front-office job of equal rank that will enable him to gracefully give up his coaching duties, which he has grown to abhor. Buss was kept constantly informed by Cooke of the negotiations that resulted in the signing of Earvin (Magic) Johnson.

Jerry Buss grew up in Kemmerer, Wyo., where J. C. Penney opened his first store. Fittingly enough for a man who would eventually be worth $50 million personally and be a partner in a real estate company with holdings of $350 million, Buss became a compulsive Monopoly player. "I played so much Monopoly that my friends wouldn't even go near a game with me," he says. "I got so I'd play alone, using 20 or 30 tokens and making all the decisions for all of them by myself. I finally got so I could play entire games with imaginary players using only a pair of dice—no cards or tokens or money. I'd keep track in my head of everybody's moves and deals and how much money they had and which properties they owned."

Buss' home life was not entirely happy. His mother, an accountant, and father, a C.P.A. who taught statistics at Berkeley for a time, divorced when he was a baby. His mother remarried, and they lived in Los Angeles during World War II. His high school years were spent in Kemmerer; at one point he left home to live over a pool hall. He became so adept at pool that a high school teacher once banked him for a night of $50-a-game competition. Buss won. "My secret ambition then was to be a gambler," he says. Instead, he decided to drop out of school and become a gandy dancer on the Union Pacific. It was a brutal life. "There'd be two, three fights a day," he says. "It was pretty exciting for a 16-year-old kid. You'd never know what those guys would do. I kept my mouth shut most of the time."

Then he spotted an employment list in the local post office for civil service chemists, a job that paid a bit more than the railroad. Buss returned to high school, graduated and went to Laramie, where he worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a chemist at the Bureau of Mines and attended the University of Wyoming during the day. He graduated with a degree in chemistry in 2� years when he was only 19. So impressive were his grades that he was offered scholarships at Harvard, Michigan, Cal Tech and USC, among other schools. Buss picked USC "because of football and the weather," and got his master's and his Ph.D.

At first, Buss decided that he wanted to be a college professor, "But what a shock. I had been making maybe $500 a month at odd jobs while going to school—and teaching paid $550. I finally got $750 a month at USC. It was O.K. for a while, but I finally decided to go East for a change."

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