Buss leaves big legacy with Lakers, NBA
FEB 18, 2013 11:58a ET
Gerald Hatten Buss, majority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, basketball Hall of Famer and one of the greatest winners in professional sports history, died Monday. He had battled an undisclosed form of cancer for the last year, and succumbed to kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
The Lakers released a statement shortly after his death:
"Dr. Jerry Buss, longtime owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed away today at 5:55 a.m. after a long illness. He was 80 years old.
"We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community," a statement released on behalf of the Buss family said.
"Dr. Buss had been hospitalized much of the past 18 months in a battle which 'showed his amazing strength and will to live. It was our father's often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy,' the statement concluded.
"He is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California; eight grandchildren; former wife JoAnn of Las Vegas; half-sister Susan Hall of Phoenix; half-brother Micky Brown of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyo.
"Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Lakers Youth Foundation or a charity of the donor’s choice."
Buss' first foray into pro sports ownership came on a less-than-grand scale. In 1974, he bought a franchise in World Team Tennis and named it the Los Angeles Strings. The first existence of the league ended in 1978, and soon after Buss hit the big time with his purchase of the Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, The Forum and the Raljon ranch from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979.
Cooke — who also owned part of the Washington Redskins — needed to sell the team as part of a then record-setting $42 million divorce settlement with his ex-wife Barbara. Buss and Mariani started California Sports Inc. as the parent company for the purchase.
The NBA was floundering at the time, with rumors of massive drug use among players was destroying its image. NBA Finals games were being broadcast on a delayed basis, and there was a major disconnect between the game and its former fans.
Buss helped change that with the drafting of Michigan State spectacular sophomore point guard Earvin " Magic" Johnson, who had just led the Spartans to an NCAA championship. Paired with all-time great center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the two ushered in the "Showtime Era," the game becoming much more exciting to watch. And Buss also proved his marketing genius, forming the Laker Girls, which quickly became the most well-known dance troupe this side of the Rockettes.
The Lakers won five NBA titles in the 1980's and led the resurgence of the league into the multi-billion dollar entity it is today. Buss said many times that beating the Boston Celtics for the title in 1985 was one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.
The Lakers had lost eight previous Finals series to their hated rivals, and following the clinching win in Boston Garden on June 9, 1985, Buss uttered one of the most unforgettable sentences in Los Angeles professional sports history: "This has removed the most odious sentence in the English language. It can never again be said that the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics." The Lakers again defeated the Celtics for the 1987 championship, and once again in 2010.
After going title-less from 1988 to 1999, Buss approved Jerry West’s hiring of Phil Jackson to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, which immediately led to three consecutive championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002. With O’Neal traded in 2004 after a contract disagreement with the team, Bryant and Jackson eventually led the Lakers to consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010 that made it a total of ten titles under Buss' ownership.
Buss was also a fixture at local poker clubs and participated in many high-stakes tournaments, including the World Series of Poker, in which he finished third in the seven-card stud category.
Buss had been battling health problems since 2010 and had not attended a Lakers game that year. It was revealed just a week ago that he was battling cancer, and the Los Angeles Times reported that many current and former Lakers players had visited Buss, fearing that he had just days to live.
Buss was born in Salt Lake City on January 27,1933 and raised by his mother in Kemmerer, Wyoming. It wasn't an easy life for Buss and his mother, as Jessie Buss had to work multiple jobs to support her family. Jerry eventually went to the University of Wyoming on scholarship and earned a Bachelor’s degree in just two and a half years. He then moved to Los Angeles and finished his formal education at age 24 with an M.S. and Ph.D in physical chemistry from the University of Southern California.
Following a job with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he joined the staff at USC as a chemistry professor, and in the early 1960's made his first real estate investment — $1,000 dollars to buy into a Los Angeles apartment complex. He was an immediate success in the real estate field, which became his full-time occupation. He and longtime friend Frank Mariani started Mariani-Buss Associates, making hundreds of millions of dollars with shrewd investments.
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