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
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
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
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
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
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.
Dr. Jerry Buss. [Image: Twitter/DantheLakersFAN]
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
It was estimated his
real estate investments helped him achieve an empire worth $350 million.
Dr. Buss Buys LA
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.
Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss. [Image: Twitter/LakersGlobal]
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.
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
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
Arguably the best thing
to happen to the LA Kings for decades happened shortly after Buss sold the
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
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 with his children. [Image: ACoachsDiary]
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.
Jerry with daughter Jeanie, CEO of LA Lakers. [Image: Twitter/JeanieBuss]
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
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
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
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
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.
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