Rags To Riches: How Jerry Buss Became The Greatest Owner In Sports
Dr. Jerry Buss was a larger-than-life character whose impact on US sports can still be felt today, nearly a decade after his passing.
Buss was an American businessman and the majority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 until he died in 2013.
Following his death, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant called Buss “the greatest owner in sports ever.”
High praise indeed, coming from one of the greatest basketball players ever, who also tragically lost his life seven years after Buss.
In this article, we look at the story behind the success. How did Jerry Buss make his fortune, how did the teams he owned perform, and what is his lasting legacy? Keep reading to find out.
From Humble Beginnings
Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on January 27, 1933, at the height of the great depression era in the US.
His father, Lydus, abandoned Buss and the rest of his family when Jerry was a young child. This left his mother, Jessie, to raise Buss and his three younger siblings.
The family moved to Los Angeles when Buss was nine before relocating to Kemmerer, Wyoming, three years later when Jessie married a plumber named Stub Brown.
Brown would make a massive impression on the young Jerry in business and personality traits.
After moving to Wyoming, Buss started working for his stepdad’s plumbing company while still in school. Jerry would wake up at 4.30am to dig ditches for hours before heading to school.
This undoubtedly formed the strong work ethic that was the platform for his later business success. Still, they weren’t happy times for the future Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
According to Jerry’s daughter, Jeanie, Buss felt like an outsider in Wyoming and was never accepted by his stepfather.
In a 1998 interview, she explained this lack of acceptance “made him a very compassionate person.” This compassion and care for others were evident in Buss’s generosity later in life.
By the time he’d reached high school, Jerry had secured a job in a local hotel, where he would make two dollars a day. Despite his extracurricular work commitments, Jerry never took his eye off the ball academically.
Like his biological father, who went on to teach statistics at Berkeley, Jerry loved math and science.
He earned a scholarship to attend the University of Wyoming, graduating two and half years later with a Bachelor of Science degree.
He left Wyoming to return to LA, where he continued his studies at the University of Southern California (USC).
By the age of 24, Buss earned an MS and Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was ready to truly make his mark on the world.
Businesses And Investments
Jerry Buss’s first job out of college was working as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines. He also held early positions in the aerospace industry and USC’s chemistry faculty.
Successful First Investment In Real Estate
Everything changed for Buss when he took the $1,000 he had saved and made his first property investment in West Los Angeles in 1959. This was the start of a lifetime of outstanding business success.
In the early 60s Buss and his business partner, Frank Mariani, established Mariani‐Buss Associates.
By the end of the 70s, Buss said the company owned around 700 properties across California, Arizona, and Nevada.
It was estimated his real estate investments helped him achieve an empire worth $350 million.
Dr. Buss Buys LA Strings
Buss entered the sports world when he became the owner of the Los Angeles Strings in 1974.
The franchise competed in World TeamTennis, a mixed-gender tennis league that featured global superstars like Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Björn Borg, and John McEnroe.
The league eventually closed in 1978 (although it has returned since), and Jerry Buss would make another LA sports investment the following year.
This one, though, would change the face of US sport as we know it.
Success With LA Lakers
In 1979, Buss purchased the NBA’s LA Lakers, the NHL’s LA Kings, The Forum indoor arena, and a 13,000-acre Sierra Nevada ranch in a deal worth $67.5 million.
This was the beginning of a golden era for Los Angeles sports, and Buss’s public profile rose with the success of the Lakers, in particular.
Laker fans didn’t have to wait long for the trophies to start rolling in.
They won the NBA championships in 1980, led by the established center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 20-year-old rookie point guard Magic Johnson.
The team was dominant throughout the regular season and the playoffs, finishing with a combined record of 72-26.
This was the first of 10 championships the Lakers would secure during Buss’s ownership. No other team can come close to matching that number since 1980.
The Jordan-led Chicago Bulls are the next best with six wins and were one of the reasons the Lakers (and pretty much everyone else) were starved of success in the 90s.
The Lakers would rebuild another all-time great team following the acquisition of the then 17-year-old Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic in 1996.
Between 2000 and 2002, the Lakers, who were then coached by Phil Jackson, became just the fifth team in the history of the NBA to achieve a ‘three-peat’.
By winning the championship three years in a row, the Lakers became the first team to achieve the feat since the Chicago Bulls, who did so from ‘91-‘93 and ‘96-‘98, also coached by Jackson.
But it wasn’t just success on the hardwood that defined Buss’s ownership of the Lakers; he revolutionized basketball in terms of entertainment too.
Buss introduced cheerleaders, added music during breaks, and even recruited a house band to play live at Laker games.
Because of Buss, watching sports is no longer just about the sport.
Anyone can attend an NBA match and be entertained because Buss had a vision that sports should give an all-around experience for spectators.
LA is a city full of stars and celebrities. Jerry Buss took advantage of this and is part of the reason why you will see different A-list celebs from any industry courtside at an NBA game.
He turned a former restaurant in the Forum into a nightclub, bringing glitz, glamour, and celebrities to the league at a key time in the late 70s.
He also redefined the concept of premium seating when he created the Forum Club. This VIP club allowed celebs and the mega-rich to attend games, enjoy refreshments and entertainment beforehand, then take courtside seats for the action.
Not only were the Lakers the team to watch, but the Forum was the place to be in Los Angeles in the 80s.
Less Success With LA Kings
There is a reason why Jerry Buss was known primarily for being the owner of the LA Lakers.
The LA Kings, the other sports team he acquired in 1979 didn’t have nearly the same success as the Lakers under his ownership.
That’s not to say it was boring – nothing ever was with Jerry Buss – but the Kings did not win any Stanley Cups before he sold the team to Bruce McNall in 1988.
The Kings were okay during Buss’s tenure; they made the playoffs most years but never troubled the later rounds.
Arguably the best thing to happen to the LA Kings for decades happened shortly after Buss sold the team.
They traded for the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who had just been named the NHL playoffs MVP on the way to winning the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers.
This made more headlines than anything Jerry Buss ever did with the Kings, and there is no doubt that basketball and the Lakers were his priority.
Buss Empire Grows With LA Sparks
WNBA team, the LA Sparks, was owned by Jerry Buss from 1997 to 2006. He became the owner of the Sparks when the WNBA formed for its inaugural season in ‘97.
Like the Lakers, the Sparks enjoyed a lot of success under Jerry Buss’s ownership, winning back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002.
Ex-Lakers player Michael Cooper took over the Sparks as head coach in the 2000-01 off-season, and success soon followed.
For the second year in a row, the team posted a 28-4 record in the regular season, the best in league history.
But, this time, they carried their regular season form into the playoffs, winning the WNBA title and dropping just one game throughout.
The Sparks’ 2002 season was another memorable one, as the team clinched their second successive championship, and Lisa Leslie made headlines as she became the first woman in WNBA history to dunk in a game. Air Leslie!
The three-peat was not to be in the 2003 season, where the Sparks made the Finals but were beaten by the Detroit Shock.
Still, the two WNBA championships won back to back made 12 basketball championship wins in total for Jerry Buss’s teams.
The Buss Family
Jerry Buss has six children. Johnny, Jim, Jeanie, and Janie with his wife JoAnn Mueller (divorced in 1972), and Joey and Jesse with his girlfriend Karen Demel.
All six of his children worked for the LA Lakers when he died in 2013.
Buss owned a majority 66% share of the Lakers and passed this down equally to his children, who now own 11% each.
Since his death, there has been some success, most notably the championship win in 2020.
The Laker tradition of bringing the biggest players to LA has continued, too, most notably with Lebron James – who has taken home a salary of around $40 million per year with the Lakers since joining in 2018.
Jeanie Buss, who worked in numerous roles for her father over the years, has taken the most prominent role of all Jerry’s children.
She was named team president and Lakers representative on the NBA Board of Governors following her father’s death.
She became the first female controlling owner to win an NBA championship when the Lakers clinched their first title since Buss died in 2020.
It’s not all been smooth sailing, though, despite Jerry’s wishes.
Jeanie fired her brother, Jim, as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations in 2017, causing a significant power struggle in the organization.
She also terminated the contracts of two other senior Lakers staff, partly because they kept Magic Johnson (then-named President of Basketball Operations) in the dark on some trade decisions.
Jeanie accused Jim and Johnny Buss of ‘trying to bust the [Buss family] trust’ and leave the rest of the family in minority ownership.
This would have meant some siblings selling their 11% stake in the team (valued at $3 billion at the time) and preventing Jeanie from continuing as the controlling owner of the Lakers.
Following some hefty legal battles and boardroom politics (including a restraining order) Jeanie Buss and her other siblings, who were still on board with their father’s vision, prevailed.
The Buss family still maintains the controlling stake in the Lakers today.
According to Janie Buss, Jerry’s dying wish was ‘to leave the Lakers to all of us, and that we would all get along. He would be sickened if he saw what was going on with my brothers.’
It seems, for now, Jerry’s wish is being fulfilled. Well, except for the getting along part.
A Lasting Legacy
Jerry Buss died on February 18, 2013, aged 80. It was later revealed that he had been hospitalized for cancer treatment in 2012.
He eventually passed away due to kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
His death brought widespread reactions from the sports world and beyond.
NBA commissioner David Stern said, “The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come.”
Many friends and colleagues also commented on Buss’s personality and generosity in their tributes.
NBA legend Dennis Rodman said Buss was ‘like a Dad’ to him and sportscaster John Ireland said Buss was ‘nice to everybody at the bottom and the top because he had been to both places.’
This is a common theme when people comment on Jerry Buss.
He was universally liked as a person because, despite his enormous wealth, success, and celebrity standing, he treated everybody the same way, regardless of their status.
This isn’t to say he was an angel. Buss was booked for driving under the influence when two Highway Patrol officers saw him driving on the wrong side of the road in San Diego County in 2007.
He was also a well-known playboy and used to host his birthday parties at a brothel.
But, despite questionable behavior in his private life, Jerry Buss’s legacy is two-fold. He will go down in history for the outstanding success of the Los Angeles Lakers and its impact on sports entertainment.
The NBA and US sport, in general, owe him a debt of gratitude. Without his vision, the sport would undoubtedly be a less vibrant, less wealthy industry.
RIP Jerry Buss – the greatest owner in the history of American sport.
Lead image: Twitter/LAKERFANATICS