Jerry Buss’ entre to professional sports was not his ownership of the Lakers. It was the Los Angeles Strings, a franchise in the fledgling World Team Tennis league, that gave him the credibility he needed to pursue his dream of owning the Lakers, one of the NBA’s most powerful franchises.
In 1974, the year he bought into the WTT and became a founding owner of the Strings, Buss ran a flourishing real estate business in an upstairs office on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. But sports ownership was his true interest.
At the time, I was a kid out of college working my first job as a sports writer for the long departed Santa Monica Evening Outlook, my hometown newspaper. Meeting Buss was something of a coup since he hadn’t discussed the Strings with anyone else – not that bigger papers cared much about a lower-tier sports franchise coming to L.A.
But in my town, this was big news – and Buss’ name was recognizable enough that it was a story worthy of attention. So at his invitation, I made an appointment to talk about his new team and his plans to put team tennis on the sports map.
Buss was friendly and engaging, even to a young, fresh reporter who may have been in awe of the moment. His office was small and his desk was cluttered with paperwork, but his plans for the Strings were detailed and orderly. He loved tennis, and he wanted to see the team win, he said. He brought in established players such as Dennis Ralston and Charlie Pasarell. He set up a radio deal to broadcast the matches, with former UCLA basketball star Lynn Shackelford as his play-by-play man. He offered to bring me along as a beat writer for my newspaper, and I covered several of their first matches.
The league lasted only a few years before Buss was forced to fold the Strings, but he gained inroads into the LA sports market by playing at the Forum, the home arena of the Lakers and the Kings. In 1979, he purchased the Lakers, Kings and The Forum from Jack Kent Cooke.
There’s little doubt that his ownership of the Strings paved the way for him to make a play at buying the Lakers and Kings from Cooke. But I’m convinced he also wanted to see team tennis succeed, and he made every attempt to make it happen.
It didn’t. Buss passed away Monday at the age of 80 leaving a significant sports legacy. But his first failure as a sports owner eventually became his path to becoming one of the most successful figures in professional sports.