It is the biggest financial transaction in sports history. It involves $67.5 million paid for two major league teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings, and one of the nation's finest arenas, the 17,505-seat Forum. It includes, almost as an afterthought, a ranch in the California Sierras of 13,000 acres, about half the size of the city of San Francisco. The deal propels to center stage one of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs in sport—or in any other category of big dealing, for that matter.
He is Jerry Hatten Buss, 46, an amiable and intelligent Los Angeles multimillionaire who extravagantly admires, among other things, M & M candy, French existentialists, any and all USC football teams, any and all Playboy centerfold girls, rare coins, rare stamps, rare cars and rare bargains in real estate.
A man's books may not be a fair test of his personality, but Jerry Buss is a habitual reader and, thus, they are instructive if not definitive. Side by side on the same shelf in his office are Panic & Crashes and How You Can Make Money out of Them, Bruce Catton's Grant Takes Command, Irving Wallace's The Nympho and Other Maniacs, a textbook called Chemical Calculations and a slim volume titled Baldness: Is It Necessary? At home, Buss says, he is currently reading the Iliad.
His persona is an amalgam of Horatio Alger and Hugh Hefner; of sugar daddy, devoted father, accountant, real estate wheeler-dealer and aerospace scientist. Buss comes on in a manner that mixes cowboy swagger with movie star glamour, college professor smarts with pool hustler chic. He habitually wears a pair of almost disgustingly shabby Levi's, a Western shirt open to reveal the gray hairs of his chest, and shiny black cowboy boots. His hair is silvery, long and curly at the nape of the neck, with a thick-woven thatch on top, which proves baldness is indeed not necessary. He is tall and handsome in a way that is vaguely mindful of a ravaged Robert Redford crossed with a slightly rejuvenated Ronald Reagan. His smile displays perfect teeth, which are every bit as white and well made as the $127,500 Rolls-Royce Camargue he drives. He is, in a sense, the archetype of a certain breed of Bel Air millionaire—acquisitive, aggressive, restless, obsessed with good looks and rich in an assortment of playthings, playmates and possessions that ordinary men can only covet.
Yet Buss says he is a devotee of Camus and Sartre, and in his real estate office associates habitually call him Doctor Buss. This refers to a Ph.D. in physical chemistry that he earned at USC in 1957 at the age of 24. One of his doctoral dissertations was entitled "The Bond Dissociation Energy of Toluene," another, he says, dealt with "thermochemical prediction." For a brief time he taught chemistry at USC. But, he says, "Actually, I'm probably more of a mathematician than a chemist. To some people, numbers are as comfortable as words. They fascinate me, they're my passion. I'll notice the number of miles on the odometer of a friend's car, and I'll figure how much he drives. Then, maybe weeks later, I'll call him up and ask if I can go for a ride with him and watch while his odometer turns past 100,000 miles."
It wasn't the numbers on odometers that preoccupied Buss in recent weeks, however. The deal to buy the Lakers, the Kings and The Forum from the redoubtable Jack Kent Cooke was a complex and time-consuming project. Cooke and Buss first met three years ago when Buss rented The Forum in connection with his initial plunge into professional sports—the Los Angeles Strings of ill-fated World Team Tennis.
"We had all kinds of trouble at the L.A. Sports Arena," says Buss, "and Jack agreed to cut the usual rent way back at The Forum for us. It wasn't charity. He made money on the Strings. He also became a real mentor to me. He convinced me that superstars were worth the money they cost and, because of him, I got Ilie Nastase for the Strings and later Chris Evert. I think one reason he sold his teams to me is that he believes I will continue his legacy."
Cooke, 66, had come to Los Angeles in 1962 with a fortune earned in Canadian broadcasting and publishing. He bought the Lakers for the then exorbitant price of slightly more than $5 million from Bob Short. In 1966 he launched the Kings franchise for $2 million, and in 1967 he built The Forum for $16 million. Cooke increased his fortune mightily by purchasing a large interest in Teleprompter and 86% of the ownership of the Washington Redskins. He was a consummate fan of his teams; at one point he said, "I'd like to attend an athletic contest every night—365 days a year—and see a team I own. It's a personal indulgence. Money ceases to be an object after a while."
Unfortunately, money became about the only object in Cooke's life during a mean and costly divorce proceeding, which finally ended in March. It had dragged on for 2� years and had involved 41 lawyers and 12,000 pages of documents. Cooke ultimately gave his wife an estimated $41 million—reportedly the largest divorce settlement in California history. Until the case was closed, Cooke's holdings were, in effect, frozen, but from the moment it was over he and Buss were huddling.
Buss had been interested in buying a major league franchise for years. As early as 1970 he considered purchasing the ABA's Los Angeles Stars. He once tried to trade half of his Ocotillo Lodge, a resort in Palm Springs, for a piece of the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors, and he has put out feelers about buying the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A's. Except for the defunct Strings, Buss came up empty every time, until he and Cooke came to terms three weeks ago.