Even if you’re not a basketball fan, once you start reading about Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, it’s tough to stop. Buss died on Monday at the age of 80, ushering in a tidal wave of obits heralding his distinctive flash and ability to sell a basketball team as a “show” to Hollywood.
Buss bought the Lakers, The LA Kings, the LA Forum and a ranch for $67.5 million in 1979, after all of them had been losing money for years. He grew up in Wyoming and started his fortune with a $1,000 investment in an apartment complex. He turned it all into Showtime, putting on Laker Girl dance shows at halftime and encouraging celebrities to sit courtside, all on the way to winning 10 NBA titles and essentially reinventing the league with a mix of swagger and cool that is now status quo.
As Buss told ESPN in 2010, “My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same. When you think New York, you think Yankees. I wanted that to be the case here as well. That when you think L.A., you think Lakers. I believe I’ve accomplished that.”
But let’s step back for a second. This is a man who remembers standing in food lines with his mom as a kid, and had a resume that included digging ditches, working on the railroad, and a doctorate in physical chemistry. Then in the late 1950s, as the LA Times’ David Wharton writes, Buss and a business partner “decided to try their hand at real estate… They scraped together a few thousand dollars and took out multiple mortgages to buy a 14-unit apartment house in West Los Angeles and, to save money, did all the repairs themselves. They soon bought a second building and stumbled onto some good fortune. The partners — along with several relatives — won $12,000 at the racetrack, then bought yet another building, soon discovering oil on the property and receiving lucrative royalty rights.”
Seriously? The New York Times says if Buss didn’t exist in Hollywood, his story would be one even the scriptwriters out there would find hard to believe. Also, he made this his team’s theme song, which is also awesome.