“I don’t just want winners. I want champions,” Jerry Buss said.
That sums up the way he lived his life. The Lakers are the NBA’s winningest franchise under the guidance of Dr. Buss. He made the NBA finals 16 times, winning 10 titles during his 34 years of ownership. He was an innovator, a guiding light and set a standard of excellence that may never be duplicated again in any sport.
He didn’t start with a great deal of money, but through hard work and incredible risk, Buss developed a vast sports empire. His genius was perhaps recognizing incredible talent and seizing opportunity before anybody else. Like all legends, from any walk of life, he lived his life on his own terms.
He developed the Lakers family and incorporated faithful millions from all over the globe into his Lakers community. The Lakers came to symbolize all that was great about Los Angeles and Hollywood entertainment. Understanding the attraction for stars, he brought Showtime to Los Angeles, the NBA and the rest of the world.
As an innovator, he co-founded the Prime Ticket network in 1985, breaking the mold, televising Lakers basketball on basic cable. This is the single greatest innovation driving the value of sports franchises today. He sold the naming rights to the Forum making it the Great Western Forum. They were two innovative ideas, commonplace in sports businesses today, but both unique for their time. By combining entertainment and sports, he made Laker games the place to be in Los Angeles.
Basketball became entertainment. Basketball was fun.
I remember the old Forum Club within the Fabulous Forum on Avenue of Champions in Inglewood. Buss had the table in the back where he held court before every game. It was a statement and a badge of honor to be invited to his table. Sitting around 20 people total, anybody from President Ronald Reagan to the hottest Hollywood stars and singers would be there on a nightly basis. I was lucky enough to sit there many times and was always amazed at the people and conversation. Buss treated all at his table like his family and led the conversation with brilliant ideas not easily matched.
While most owners sat on the floor, Dr. Buss sat in the upper section of the old Forum. True to his humble beginnings, he insisted there was not a bad seat in the house. He wanted to be among his fans and to be able to watch a game with him in his section was always special. Many follow his model today, of high-priced seats around the floor but affordable pricing in the upper area.
As an athlete playing against the Lakers, you knew that you were playing against the best. I played against the Lakers many times during the 1980s in the Showtime Era and can honestly say that I won very few of those games. The Lakers had a special, almost unbeatable feeling. It was felt by everybody on the court and in the building, including the opposing players.
As a general manager of other teams, the Lakers were always viewed as the gold standard of how to run an NBA franchise. From my hero, Jerry West, to my good friend, Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers operated on a standard of excellence only to be admired by the rest of the league.
My father, Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, had a medical office right down the street from the Forum. He was the Lakers’ first team doctor and one of the first sports agents. He represented Lakers Spencer Haywood and Jamaal Wilkes, and advised Lakers Elgin Baylor, West and Gail Goodrich. I remember some of his early negotiations with Buss. He had the utmost respect for Buss as an owner, negotiator and a man. Many times my father would come home after a negotiating session with Dr. Buss full of admiration for his integrity, honesty and intelligence. He would often say that Dr. Buss was one of the most brutally honest but fair people he had ever met. My father’s admiration and praise for Dr. Buss knew no bounds.
Dr. Buss never forgot his friends. The loyalty that he showed to everyone was legendary. Even while owning one of the most successful sports franchises in the world, he never forgot ex-players who contributed to its success. His lifelong friendship with Magic Johnson and the Lakers stars is well known, but his generosity and loyalty to all Lakers is legendary. That is part of what defines the Lakers and made them one of the NBA’s most admired franchises.
Even after my father’s career as a physician and agent was over, Dr. Buss and his family treated him with utmost respect, something I will be eternally grateful for. Even though I never played for the Lakers, Dr. Buss and his family treated me like their family. Always making sure I had whatever I needed when I came to play the Lakers (except a win, of course), even inviting me to their home on a regular basis. Dr. Buss always took the time to listen and always seemed to have the right answers.
As part of the Buss and Laker extended family, I feel honored to have called him a friend and an adviser.
God must have needed someone to build a champion up in heaven. He got the right guy.