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Dr. Jerry Buss, the long-time owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, died this morning at the age of 79. Many people know Buss from his days as the owner of one of the premier sports franchise ion the planet, but those same people never realized what a fascinating guy Buss was.
Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss was born on January 27, 1934 in Salt Lake City, Utah. A Depression-era baby, his parents were divorced in his very early childhood. After that, his mother struggled to raise Jerry working as waitress in Evanston, Wyoming; Buss would often tell tales of standing in food lines in the bitter Wyoming cold.
Buss was an intelligent child, and he eventually earned a earned a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming. He majored in chemistry and graduated in 1955 with a B.S. degree after only two and a half years. While at the University of Wyoming, Buss met and married JoAnn Mueller, and they would eventually have four children: John, Jim, Jeanie, and Janie.
After graduating, Buss moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in graduate school at USC, where he earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in physical chemistry by age 24. Buss’ post-academia life began with him as a chemist for the Bureau of Mines. There were several stops along the way to his eventual success; he briefly worked in the aerospace industry, and spent some time on the faculty of USC’s chemistry department.
Buss eventually became a self-made multi-millionaire; his first step in what eventually became a real estate empire came in the 1960s when he purchased a West Los Angeles apartment building for $1,000, after which he and his wife renovated it themselves. By following this model, Buss grew a real estate juggernaut by investing in residential properties, hotels, and office buildings.
Once Buss had amassed a fortune, he became what is known today as a venture capitalist began investing in larger and larger projects. This lead to his involvement in professional sports.
Buss’ first foray into sports ownership came when he purchased the Los Angeles Strings of the World Team Tennis league. Buss came the the “big stage” in sports in 1979 when he purchased the Los Angeles Kings, the Los Angeles Lakers, The Forum (the building both team played in), and a 13,000-acre ranch in Central California from Washington Redskins’ owner Jack Kent Cooke for $67 million dollars. Buss eventually sold the Kings and the Forum, but the Lakers are estimated today to be worth somewhere around $900 million.
What gets lost in the talk of all that money is that Jerry Buss really was a savior of the NBA. Without him, it was quite conceivable the NBA was going to die a slow, lingering death. It is hard to imagine in the wake of the popular NBA All-Star weekend that in the late 1970’s, the NBA was the red-headed step-child of professional sports and several of it’s franchises were on the verge of bankruptcy.
But Buss saw an opportunity to make the NBA a great league. By building the “Showtime” Lakers around the league’ s biggest star at the time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Buss paved the way for the NBA’s rise in the 1980’s from obscurity to arguably it’s peak of popularity.
NBA commissioner David Stern probably said it best.
“Jerry Buss helped set the league on the course it is on today. Remember, he showed us it was about ‘Showtime,’ the notion that an arena can become the focal point for not just basketball, but entertainment. He made it the place to see and be seen.” This is why Jerry Buss was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Every current NBA player, coach, and owner owes a debt of gratitude of Jerry Buss. Not only did he save the NBA, he helped shape it into what it is today.
While this is a sad day for the basketball world in terms of what it has just lost, we must never forget all the great things which were given to not just basketball fans, but the sports world in general by Dr. Jerry Buss.