The Lakers lost their way right around the time Dr. Jerry Buss started dying. This wasn’t a coincidence. Within NBA circles, everyone respected Buss so deeply that something relatively impossible happened. Here was the greatest professional basketball owner who ever lived, an influential power broker who controlled one of the league’s wealthiest franchises only word never really leaked about Buss’s grave condition. He spent the past year fighting cancer in a hospital bed, somehow keeping his privacy (and his dignity) in our Twitter-fueled, rumor-soaked media climate. Nobody would write about it. Or mention it. Everyone respected him too much.
Like every other NBA fan, I believed for years that Buss was a renegade playboy billionaire, someone who almost seemed like a parody of a sports owner. After he dropped $67.5 million for a Los Angeles winter sports monopoly in 1979, the ensuing Sports Illustrated feature carried the subhead, “Jerry Buss has always had a way with a chick, a cue and a buck. Now he’ll have his way with the Lakers, Kings and Forum.” What else did you need to know? Over the next few years, his Showtime Lakers captured the 1980s better than just about anything — smoking-hot cheerleaders, courtside celebrities, flashy fast breaks, genuine star power, excess, excess and more excess. They were the hottest ticket in town, the best basketball team of that decade, a team that partied almost as extravagantly as their owner did.
The Lakers remained relevant for three solid decades (and counting), reinventing themselves three different times and winning Dr. Buss 10 championships along the way. Thanks to Dr. Jerry’s vision, the experience of attending Laker home games over that stretch had nothing in common with any other sports fan experience, as I tried to capture in a column three springs ago. He also never received enough credit for recognizing the NBA’s most important currency: star power. Not just finding those stars and building around them, but empowering them, even making them feel like they were part of the team’s decision-making process. Even as the league’s salary cap and luxury tax worked against him, Buss kept stacking the Lakers with superstars, knowing that Los Angeles remained his biggest weapon — the weather, the beach, the celebrities, the ladies, the ritzier neighborhoods, the privacy, the Hollywood connections. Players wanted to play for the Lakers. They wanted to play for Dr. Jerry Buss.
When it became clear that Dwight Howard was pushing his way out of Orlando, an inordinate number of NBA fans just assumed the Lakers would get him, if only because that’s what always happened. That’s what Buss built in Los Angeles. Maybe he had his way with a chick, a cue and a buck, but owning a professional basketball team? Nobody was better.
I first learned of Buss’s declining health in London, during the Summer Olympics, when league officials were already using the word “when” and not “if.” Within NBA circles, there was real fear about a post-Jerry world — not just for what it meant for the Lakers (one of the league’s crown jewels), but what it meant for the league itself. We forget sometimes that 30 owners run the NBA, for better and worse, with David Stern and Adam Silver carrying out their wishes. Their influence drifts into three different groups (old guard, new guard and totally useless) and three different economic realities (small market, big market and middle class). From what I’ve been told by multiple people who have participated in those owners meetings, Buss might have been the single most respected person in the room. Maybe he was a big-market/old-guard guy, but he cared about the league as a whole, and he was willing to discuss any idea as long as it made sense. He had a knack for staying quiet for hours, then somehow making the most salient point of the day.
One time within the last couple of years, when the small-market owners were pushing hard for revenue sharing, Buss waited for everyone to make their case before weighing in. He mentioned how one owner had juggled multiple businesses over that time — making hundreds of millions beyond basketball — whereas Buss had thrown his life into running the Lakers. Now that owner wanted Buss to share his NBA profits with him? Buss maintained that he wasn’t against revenue sharing; if anything, he believed the idea made sense. But could they at least agree that, had the other owner devoted all of his time and resources to his team like Buss did, his franchise would be doing better? What if they struck a deal — all the full-time NBA owners shared their NBA profits, but only if the part-time NBA owners shared the profits from their other businesses with the full-time NBA owners?
The room fell silent. He had totally defanged the other owner — not to embarrass him, but to prove a point. If the league was gravitating toward revenue sharing, he just wanted to make sure it was for the right reasons, not because a handful of unsuccessful, part-time NBA owners were trying to game the system their way. And yes, Buss eventually agreed to revenue sharing. But he made everyone think about it, too.
So over these next few days, when you hear other NBA people talk reverentially about Dr. Buss, it wasn’t just about titles for them. It was about those moments behind closed doors, when something happened and everyone realized, “Oh yeah, that’s why he’s been so successful.” That’s what the NBA is losing — not just a shrewd billionaire who transformed the Lakers into a perennial contender worth billions, but a visionary, a thinker, someone who made the league better and smarter and bigger and richer and, over everything else, a little more interesting. Nobody tapped into the sweeping potential of a professional basketball franchise quite like Dr. Jerry Buss did.
His final major decision ended up being his worst: Jerry passed the Lakers off to one of his sons for sentimental reasons, not logical ones, and now that same son is running Jerry’s beloved franchise into the ground. For only the third time since 1976, they might miss the playoffs. They might lose a marquee free agent (Howard) for the first time in the history of the franchise, which would really mean that an All-Star looked at the NBA landscape and said, “All things considered, I’m better off not playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.” And if it happens, just know that it never would have happened on Dr. Jerry Buss’s watch. I believe these next few years will cement his legacy. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.