Jerry Buss, whose Los Angeles Lakers teams won 10 National Basketball Association championships during an ownership that spanned more than three decades, died yesterday at the age of 80.
Buss, who was being treated for cancer, died yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to the hospital. ABC News reported the immediate cause of death was kidney failure, citing Buss’s assistant. Buss’s family said he’d been hospitalized the past 18 months.
A chemist and real-estate investor before becoming a sports franchise owner, Buss bought the Lakers for $67.5 million in 1979 as part what was then the richest transaction in professional sports history. Buss hired Lakers coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson and helped assemble teams with players including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. Under Buss, the team won five NBA titles in nine years in the 1980s, and five more from 2000 to 2010.
“In the world of sports, we have lost a true giant,” Riley said. “Jerry Buss was more than just an owner. He was one of the great innovators that any sport has ever encountered. He was a true visionary and it was obvious with the Lakers in the 80’s that ‘Showtime’ was more than just Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was really the vision of a man who saw something that connected with a community.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern also called Buss a visionary owner, one whose “influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come.”
An innovator on the business side of sports, Buss helped pave the way for NBA dance teams and courtside seating of celebrities. Forbes magazine in January valued the Lakers at $1 billion, second in the league behind the New York Knicks at $1.1 billion. The Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA won two titles while owned by the Lakers and the Buss family until 2006.
Buss bought the Lakers in 1979 from Jack Kent Cooke along with the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, the Forum sports arena in Los Angeles and a 13,000-acre ranch in central California. Buss sold the Kings to Bruce McNall in three stages in 1986 to 1988 for an estimated $20 million.
Buss in recent years began the process of turning the Lakers over to his six children. Daughter Jeanie is vice president of business operations, and son Jim is executive vice president.
“Dr. Buss’s legacy will continue on through his incredible children,” Johnson in a statement in which he called Buss a father figure and best friend.
Kobe Bryant, who has won five titles in 17 seasons with the Lakers, called Buss’s overall imprint “beyond measure.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do to really define it,” he said. “What he’s done consistently, it’s tough to really find a match for that -- in any sport. He’s been a model of consistency.”
Inducting Buss in 2010, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame wrote:
“Exercising leadership that brought together some of the greatest players in history, matching them with brilliant coaches, innovative management, and groundbreaking marketing, Buss helped set the ownership standard for NBA franchises.”
Gerald Hatten Buss was born Jan. 27, 1933, in Salt Lake City and grew up in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
He graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1955 and moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, where he earned master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry.
Buss took a government job as a chemist and worked in the aerospace industry before teaching chemistry at USC. He made his first real estate investment, a $1,000 stake in a Los Angeles apartment building in 1959, to supplement his teaching income. He made that investment with a co-worker, chemical engineer Frank Mariani, with whom he formed the real estate development firm Mariani-Buss Associates.
Buss’s first foray into team ownership was with the Los Angeles Strings of World Team Tennis in the mid-1970s.
By 1979, Buss’s company owned three hotels, two office buildings, 1,005 one-family homes and almost 4,000 apartment units, and he was chauffeured around Los Angeles in a $127,500 Rolls-Royce, People magazine said in 1980. The magazine called him “the driving force behind a $350 million real estate operation by day, a flamboyant man-about-town after dark.”
Former players said Buss always strove to reach greater heights without forgetting his community roots.
“During his stewardship, the Lakers exemplified his personal standards of excellence and became one of the dominant teams in the NBA and a force of good within the community,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.”
In addition to Jim and Jeanie, Buss is survived by sons Johnny, Joey and Jesse, and a daughter, Janie Drexel, all of Southern California; eight grandchildren; and his former wife JoAnn of Las Vegas, according to the Lakers.