Lakers Owner Jerry Buss Dies at 80

Jerry Buss 1980 - H 2013
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Jerry Buss 1980 - H 2013

The former chemistry professor bought the team in 1979, presided over the Showtime era of Magic Johnson and spent freely for star players en route to 10 NBA championships.

Jerry Buss, the billionaire Los Angeles Lakers owner who time and time again spared no expense in making his NBA team a top-notch title contender -- not to mention a premier entertainment attraction in Hollywood -- has died. He was 80.

Buss, who purchased the Lakers and other assets in 1979 for $67.5 million -- the franchise is now worth $1 billion, according to Forbes -- died Monday morning, the Lakers announced. He had been hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with a form of cancer.

Buss underwent surgery for an undisclosed ailment in August and had been in the hospital several times during the past two years.

Reports indicated that several current and former Lakers stars, including Kobe Bryant, Magic JohnsonShaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, recently had visited the team owner. Once a regular at Staples Center, Buss did not attend a game this season.

The Lakers have won 10 of their 16 NBA titles since Buss purchased the team from Jack Kent Cooke. Also included in that deal, then the biggest in sports history: the Forum, the club’s former arena in Inglewood; the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, which he later sold in chunks to Bruce McNall; and a 13,000-acre ranch.

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“I went into it because I love the Lakers, and when you love the Lakers, you want them to win so badly that you will work tirelessly to make that happen,” he once said. “Essentially, I think that’s how we have been so successful.”

In other words, Buss -- a poker player who competed professionally -- was “all in.”

Buss was born Jan. 27, 1933, in Salt Lake City and raised near Kemmerer, Wyo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Wyoming and, at age 24, completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at USC in 1957. (He often was referred to as "Dr." Jerry Buss.)

He noted that the degree helped him succeed in the worlds of business and basketball: “In any science,” he said, “you’re taught to think logically, and that process has certainly helped me throughout my life.”

Buss served as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines, worked briefly in the aerospace industry and taught chemistry at USC.

A $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building in the 1960s eventually turned into a full-fledged career in real estate. In 1979, Buss purchased the Pickfair mansion in Beverly Hills, the 42-room estate of legendary actress Mary Pickford for $5.3 million. He sold it to actress Pia Zadora and her husband for $6.7 million in 1988.

Under Buss, the Lakers always were among the top-spending teams in player salary. This year, amid their struggles on the court, they have a $100 million payroll -- the league’s highest -- and face luxury-tax penalties of another $30 million. (The team’s average ticket price is tops in the league at $100.25, according to a recent study.)

When the Lakers needed a center in 1996, Buss OK’d a seven-year, $121 million deal that brought free agent O’Neal from Orlando to Los Angeles. He re-signed explosive guard Bryant for seven years and $136.4 million in 2004, then forked over $84 million for another three years in 2010. He brought back Phil Jackson in 2005 with a three-year, $36 million deal, making him the highest-paid coach in NBA history.

“When it comes down to it, Dr. Buss is a competitor,” longtime Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told the Los Angeles Times after the Lakers traded for All-Star center Dwight Howard in August. “And when it comes down to a decision about making a couple of dollars or a million dollars or $10 million or putting another banner up, he can’t help himself. He chooses to go for the banner.”

Buss the businessman helped pay for all this with such innovations as crafting one of the first naming rights deals in the history of sports -- rebranding the Forum as the “Great Western Forum” in a 1988 sponsorship pact with Great Western Savings & Loan. He roped off a section of the Forum and created Senate Seats, where waitresses came by take your order.

Buss in 1985 increased the value of the Lakers when he launched the Prime Ticket network in partnership with cable TV pioneer Bill Daniels to show games on basic cable. And this season, the Lakers are in the first year of a $3 billion, 20-year deal with Time Warner Cable.

With such popular, crowd-pleasing players as Johnson -- who was drafted by the team in 1979 as Buss arrived -- Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, Michael Cooper, Bryant, O’Neal, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol, the Lakers were almost always fun to watch.

As were the Laker Girls, the squad of cheerleader-dancers Buss organized shortly after taking control of the team because he wanted to replicate the college basketball atmosphere. The first group of Laker Girls included a local college freshman named Paula Abdul, who soon became head choreographer.

The Showtime era, led by the electrifying Johnson, proved to be a magnet that drew such celebrities as Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon to games. Buss, who pioneered the courtside seat in the NBA, was a great host and gained a reputation as quite the ladies man.

Asked about Buss' impact on the game, Bryant told reporters Sunday at the NBA's All-Star Game in Houston: "It's beyond measure. There's nothing you can do to really define it. What he's done consistently, it's tough to find a match for that in any sport."

In addition to all the Lakers titles, the Buss era also included the retirement of Johnson in 1991 after he contracted the HIV virus (he would return to play and coach); the death of beloved broadcaster Chick Hearn; and the move of the team to downtown’s Staples Center. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Buss’ son Jim (in charge of basketball operations) and daughter Jeanie (in charge of the business side of the team) now run the Lakers. Jeanie announced in January that she was engaged to Jackson.

Other survivors include children Johnny and Janie (like Jim and Jeanie, they are products of Buss’ marriage to ex-wife Joan Mueller, whom he divorced in the early 1970s) and Joey and Jesse, whom he had with former girlfriend Karen Demel.

Darah Head contributed to this report.