On Feb. 18, one of the most legendary and famous owners of the National Basketball Association passed away due to kidney failure. The owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jerry Buss, purchased the team in 1979 and won 10 championships during his ownership.
Those teams include, of course, the “Showtime Lakers” of the 1980s, the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal teams of the early 2000s and the squad still led today by Bryant with help from Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest).
Buss is credited with building those teams, attracting celebrities to the arena to sit courtside at every game and hiring high profile coaches such as Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. His motto was to make basketball truly entertaining, which inspired the formation of the “Showtime Lakers.”
An owner of several different sports franchises in the Los Angeles area, Buss was referred to as “Doctor,” as he had a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Southern California. While he struggled to make enough income teaching, he pursued real estate investments on the side to make some extra money.
After pursuing this path full time, he purchased the Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League. He later sold the Kings in 1988 while maintaining ownership of the Lakers until the day he passed away. Buss moved the teams into the famous Staples Center in 1999 and played a major role in the acquisition of players and coaches. He was also inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2010.
While the Lakers continued to succeed consistently on the court, Buss was faced with an influx of pivotal decisions that defined the franchise. When he took over the team, their young star Earvin “Magic” Johnson didn’t get along with coach Paul Westhead even though they had won the 1980 NBA Finals together. Controversially siding with the irritated Johnson, Buss fired Westhead and hired Pat Riley, which fueled their dominance for the rest of the decade.
When interviewed by USA Today, Johnson spoke highly of Buss, stating, “He actually became my second father. He actually took me in. He took me to my first USC football game. We went every Saturday that they played at home.”
Indeed, Buss is credited with riling in the youngster and molding him into the face of the franchise, a position Johnson still holds today amongst basketball fans and media everywhere.
Another difficult decision Buss dealt with was the O’Neal and Bryant feud following their championships together. Controversy swept the nation as people argued over which player the Lakers should keep. Buss stuck with Bryant, sending O’Neal to the Miami Heat via trade. While the move initially seemed like a bad idea after the Heat won the championship the following season, Bryant matured and evolved into one of the greatest to play the game, powering the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
Bryant led an emotional tribute prior to the home game following Buss’ death, asking for a moment of silence. “He was a brilliant, incredible owner. He was even a better person with a great heart. His vision has transcended the game and we are all, all spoiled by his vision and by his drive to win year after year after year.” These were just a few of the words spoken to the Staples Center crowd.
Buss was a philanthropist, owner, father and friend to many of the people who knew him. His patience with his star players and ability to reign them in proved to be his most crucial asset, especially with Bryant, who persistently requested trades and voiced his disapproval of some mediocre teams that surrounded him during the mid-2000s. Buss decided to keep him, before adding Gasol and World Peace to fuel their resurgence.
Today, the NBA ushers in a new era as the “golden days” of the past start to disappear. Buss’ son Jim now runs the team as Jerry passed the ownership to a trust established for his six kids.