How Jerry Buss Brought Hollywood to the Lakers

Magic Johnson, left, and Jerry Buss
Magic Johnson, left, and Jerry Buss
 Getty Images

Jerry Buss brought his Los Angeles Lakers a long way. Although the team made the long trip from Minneapolis to Los Angeles decades before he owned it, the former real estate mogul and former chemist was the one who turned Hollywood's spotlights on a franchise worth at least $1 billion today.

Few had a better seat to observe the transformation of Gerald Hatten "Jerry" Buss, who died Feb. 18 at 80 of complications from cancer, than Lou Adler, the music industry legend who for decades has been actor Jack Nicholson’s wingman at Laker games as they sat together in courtside seats -- first at the Fabulous Forum and then Staples Center.
Adler on Monday joined others to praise Buss, who owned the Lakers for 34 years and became one of the most successful owners in the history of professional sports. Buss, notes Adler, turned the Lakers into a national brand in sports, as valued as the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics or Dallas Cowboys.
 
“He was more than a guy who sat behind a desk and signed contracts,” Adler tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He was out front. You could see him at the games. You expected to see him at the games. The lifestyle that he lived was L.A. and Hollywood. He brought that kind of showtime to the sport, and he appreciated his athletes -- who they were and how good they were. He made huge stars out of Magic [Johnson] and so many other players."
 
NBA commissioner David Stern memorialized Buss on Monday as “a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come."
 
Buss acquired the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 in a complicated $67 million deal involving cash and land swaps that valued the team at $16 million, or $50 million today. Including the sale of the Forum in nearby Inglewood, pro hockey's Los Angeles Kings and other assets, it was the biggest deal in sports history at the time.
 
When he arrived on the scene, the NBA was a distant third in pro sports viewership and revenue behind baseball and football. Buss was among the first to understand that while NBA basketball was a sport, it could also be entertainment -- and have much broader public appeal.
 
His challenge was huge. At the time, the rights fees went to broadcast NBA games were meager, and many games, even playoffs, aired on a tape delay outside primetime. Buss saw that the league needed a makeover to sell the sport on the same level as baseball and football, and he opened his wallet to do it for the Lakers.
The foundation for that enterprise? "Showtime." It was an idea borrowed from The Horn, a Wilshire Boulevard nightclub in Santa Monica that Buss frequented, which began each evening with a proclamation: “It’s showtime!” 
 
And Showtime it became, with Johnson -- a talented young guard who'd left college early after winning an NCAA title at Michigan State -- running the floor for Buss' team. The Lakers already had drafted Johnson with the first overall pick before Buss arrived, but the new owner saw more than a player. He saw an opportunity to entertain fans.
 
And he paid for that opportunity: After Johnson's second season with the Lakers, Buss gave him an unprecedented, unheard-of contract for $25 million over 25 years, then the richest contract for an athlete in all of sports. At the time, only the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Houston's Moses Malone were making $1 million a season.
 
Why pay astronomical prices for marquee players? Buss wanted to attract the Hollywood crowd who until then made the L.A. Dodgers their team -- and he knew they would only come if he put a winner on the floor. Many other superstar players would follow, all well-compensated: James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol -- right on through 2012 offseason acquisitions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
 
The Showtime effect transformed the sport from one where people watched the score and tuned out the action into one where they tuned in for the personalities who came to dominate the game. It wasn’t just Lakers vs. Celtics. It was Magic vs. Larry Bird
 
As a result, celebrities flocked to see and be seen. Nicholson was one of the first, but plenty now attend many home games: Billy Crystal, Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Hoffman, Penny Marshall, Denzel Washington and Dyan Cannon along with a parade of high-level industry executives including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ari Emanuel, Jerry Weintraub, Sam Gores, Norm Pattiz, Rob Moore, Avi Lerner and many others.
 
 
Those well-heeled customers pay handsomely. Courtside seats go for as much as $3,000 a game during the playoffs (and only a few hundred a game less during the regular season). Buss also created the Forum Club as a high-end restaurant for fans who could afford the tab for dinner before they took their floor seats. “He held court there,” Cannon tells THR. “He was like a king. His table kind of went a long way, and all the tables went the other way. … When you sat at the table with him, then you heard the latest.”
 
Buss brought in music (a live band at first) and entertainment that included the Laker Girls, a group of cheerleader-dancers whose first incarnation included a local college freshman named Paula Abdul. The idea took a page from his favorite college team, the USC Trojans.
 
Tellingly, he largely left player moves to the sports experts -- such as Jerry West, Bill Sharman and Mitch Kupchak -- but Buss handled marketing, selling and positioning his teams' images.
 
“He gave us everything we needed to win a championship,” Johnson recalled. “We stayed at the best hotels. We had the best trainers. We had the best equipment." And they quickly began to win championships -- starting with Johnson's rookie season in 1979-80.
 
And Buss' legacy is visible in the state of the modern NBA, which enjoys $930 million in broadcast licensing deals (which are separate from lucrative regional sports network licenses such as the L.A. Lakers new contract with Time Warner Cable worth $3 billion over 20 years), as well a vast number of licensing, merchandising and promotional deals.
 
 
To understand how Buss transformed sports, it helps to understand, as Adler says, how he lived his life. I interviewed Buss several times over the years and always found him surprisingly candid and convincing in his belief in his team. During the 1980s, Buss leveraged the fortune he made in real estate into a bigger fortune in sports. He still spent a lot of time in nightclubs, bars, restaurants and in enjoying his life, most often in the company of young women. A wag in the 1980s told me, “Buss may get older, but the girls never get older.”
 
When I first met him, Buss was close friends with Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder with a somewhat similar reputation. They would regularly party together at the Playboy Mansion and elsewhere.
 
Buss, a self-made millionaire who started out dirt poor, had a doctorate in physical chemistry, which he earned at USC at age 24. Everyone was encouraged to refer to him as Dr. Buss. He loved to gamble, especially when it came to playing poker. He had been married and had children – two of whom, Jeanie and Jim, now run his sports empire -- but he enjoyed the single life during his prime Laker years.
 
One way Buss showed his mental prowess was demonstrated in Monopoly games he used to play with Hefner. They did not use a board in front of them but rather kept everything in their heads -- all the positions and moves. Sometimes they played over the phone. For each game, someone else (out of their sight) kept the board.
 
“The amazing thing about him was when you spoke to him there was no distance,” Cannon recalls. “There was no valley; there was no gulf. He was so present. And he was such a genius. As far as his mind goes, he was a total genius. And a good friend.”
 
As Adler says, people began to come to see who was in the stands as much as they wanted to see the game. Buss understood and served all of his constituencies.
 
“He was the perfect owner,” says Adler. “He cared about the sport, he cared about the athletes, and he cared about the fans.”
 
Here are some other memories of Buss shared since news of his passing became public:
 
Statement from the Buss family: "We not only have lost our cherished father but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community,"
 
More from Cannon: “He was a good friend, he was probably the greatest owner in history … and he cared about people -- really, really cared. … He was a big thinker, with a heart bigger than his mind. And the combination of those two facets is what you saw. What you see, exemplified on that wall, in Staples. You know, in the Laker town. They won 10 [championship] rings during his tenure. That’s unheard of! That doesn’t just happen. The way he did that was because he trusted the people he hired. He trusted them to do their job. He didn’t get in there like some owners and say, 'No, I’m going to tell you how to play this game, and I’m going to tell you what to do.' He hired the best, and he trusted them.”
 
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, the AXS TV network and other businesses, tweeted: "RIP Jerry Buss. Your encouragement and support along with your stories of staying true to yourself had an enormous impact on me."
 
Shaquille O’Neal, who won three NBA titles with the Lakers from 2000-02, tweeted: "I'm deeply saddened over da loss of the great Dr. Jerry Buss. He was a dear friend, mentor, and brilliant business mind thank u 4 8 gr8 yrs."
 
James Worthy, a Hall of Famer who won three titles with the Lakers during the Showtime '80s and is now a broadcaster, tweeted: "Condolences to the Buss family. Dr Buss was not only the greatest sports owner, but a true friend & just a really cool guy. Loved him dearly."
 
Derek Fisher, who won five championships with the Lakers, tweeted: "Today the world lost a visionary and one of the most successful sports figures of all time. But today I lost a friend and mentor."
 
Said Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon: "The passing of Dr. Jerry Buss is a tremendous loss, not only for the Los Angeles Lakers but the NBA. I have known Dr. Buss since my brother and I bought the Pacers back in 1983, we have worked on things together as owners in the NBA and I have had the utmost respect for him."
 
Hefner: "Learned of Lakers owner Jerry Buss death to cancer. We've lost a longtime friend."
 
Bob Arum, boxing promoter who worked with Buss on championship fights: "He was very gracious even when his guy lost. ... Jerry loved to come to Vegas; he was a big card player. He was always very cordial. He invited me to the Forum for a Laker game. He always was extremely nice. He was a real fun guy."
 
Lakers radio play-by-play announcer John Ireland: "You would never know spending any time with Dr. Buss he was a billionaire. ... He was nice to people that were at the bottom and at the top because he was at both places. I don't think he ever forgot that."
 
Said Pat Riley, who coached the Showtime-era Lakers to four NBA titles and now is president of the Miami Heat:  "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 '80s 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. I was privileged to be part of that for 10 years and even more grateful for the friendship that has lasted all these many years."
 
Andy Lewis contributed to this report. 

 

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