Few sports owners—maybe none—have been as right for their time and place as Jerry Buss. Buying the Lakers in 1979 (having long since parlayed a $1,000 investment into a Los Angeles real estate empire), Buss went to work building a glamorous team for glamorous people during a glamorous era. With as much flash in the seats as on the court, the Lakers became one of the most successful franchises in sports, winning 10 NBA titles with a panache that was appropriate to their Hollywood fan base. It wasn't just basketball; it was Showtime.
Buss, who died on Monday of cancer at the age of 80, was a careful curator of talent and a pretty good delegator, letting onetime Lakers great Jerry West pick the players and, for a lot of those championships, allowing the quirky Phil Jackson to coach them. And who would argue that Buss, at the point of sale, wasn't gifted with one of the game's great centers when he inherited Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in that original transaction? Or that he wasn't lucky to get Magic Johnson in his very first draft (which led directly to his very first championship, in 1980)?
But Buss brought something more to the team than managers and players. He immediately understood that basketball—even the fast-paced, in-your-face, busting-upcourt play for which his team became famous—was only a part of the attraction. Buss knew he had to account for the values of his clientele, to give the game a veneer of celebrity, make the Fabulous Forum a high-testosterone man cave—somewhere, say, Jack Nicholson could stretch his legs at courtside.
The wonder is that this Ph.D. in physical chemistry hailing from Wyoming—where he and his mother sometimes stood in food lines—turned out to be the right man for the job. But Buss, who had traveled to L.A. to eventually work in the aerospace industry during its heady heyday (and who, along with a coworker named Frank Mariani, saved for that first 14-unit apartment building in West Los Angeles and thus funded the Lakers purchase), was a quick study, or else just an eager émigré. If Hugh Hefner were to have a counterpart in sports, it would be Dr. Jerry Buss.
Though he was a family man to the extent that his children became involved in his enterprises (son Jim has been running the team for the last year; daughter Jeanie, who is engaged to Jackson, handles the business side of the operation), Buss nevertheless was something of a louche character, a caricature of an '80s playboy: shirt unbuttoned, babes half (a third?) his age at his elbows. It was disturbing to see if you happened to prefer your moguls in three-piece suits and wing tips; it was reassuring to see if you trusted the source of your fun to a man who gave at least a passing reference to hedonism. Showtime indeed!
Of course, Buss was no buffoon, not behind office doors. His decisions over the years—and they ultimately were his decisions—kept the Lakers atop the NBA through several different, and difficult, transitions. He cycled through that original Magic-led era, with five titles, into the Shaquille O'Neal--Kobe Bryant team that won three more. And then, even as he aged out of the Showtime demographic, Buss kept plugging away, giving Kobe just enough help for two more.
But the titles weren't the point, or not entirely. Buss institutionalized commotion and celebrity in Los Angeles, almost as much as he did championship basketball, giving the town all the show it had time for.