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The Rational Center | Commentary by John Zaring
| Tuesday, Feb 19, 2013

johnzaring2012I’d like to take a break from politics this week to memorialize a legend lost.

On Monday, Dr. Jerry Buss, who bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 for 30 percent less than the cost of this year’s $110 million player payroll, died at age 80 after a months-long battle with cancer.

With his passing, the Lakers, the NBA and Los Angeles lost a sports and cultural icon.

Like George Steinbrenner in Major League Baseball, Buss was a larger-than-life figure who transcended his team, its league and sports in general.  When he took over ownership of the Lakers, the NBA was in dismal shape; its finals weren’t even aired live on TV.  A courtside ticket to a Lakers game cost about $15; now it tops $2,000.

Unlike Steinbrenner, Buss stayed largely out of player personnel decisions, preferring to put his faith in his trusted basketball minds, first led by Jerry West and more recently current General Manager Mitch Kupchak.  Once a player joined the Lakers, he became part of the extended Buss family forever, and Buss’ open-door policy made the Lakers the team everyone wanted to play for, attracting one coveted free agent after another to Los Angeles – Hall of Famers like Shaq, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Dennis Rodman among many.

Buss wasn’t afraid to pay for these players, either.  For him, winning trumped everything else, including profits – a philosophy that gave Lakers fans 10 championships in just two decades, earning Buss the highest winning percentage among owners in any of the major U.S. professional leagues.  Of course, this “championship or bust” mentality inflated the organization’s worth which, according to Forbes Magazine, is second to only Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees as the sporting world’s most valuable franchise, at $1 billion.

Photo: NBA

Photo: NBA

The freewheeling, poker-loving owner was also known for treating everyone in the Lakers organization like family – not only his players, but also everyone from the coaches to the ball boys to the front-office staff, and according to friends in the organization, that loyalty made the Lakers a great place to work, too.  They have raved about the owner’s benevolence toward those in his “family.”

While Buss left the on-court decisions to the hoops experts, he focused on the business of the Los Angeles Lakers.

From Day One of his ownership, Buss knew instinctively that for the NBA to survive and the Lakers to thrive, the Lakers needed to do more than win games; they needed to put on a show.   He understood that in a town replete with movie stars and bountiful sunshine, the Lakers would have to become an “event” in order to attract jaded L.A. sports fans. So, an event is exactly what he delivered in his re-named “Fabulous” Forum in Inglewood.

Buss invited celebrities to sit courtside to watch his on-court Maestro Magic Johnson and then entertained them with the league’s first dance team – sexy cheerleaders he called Lakers Girls – during timeouts.  Music blared during any stops in the game, and instead of having local kids sing the national anthem before the opening tip, he sent superstars like Grammy-winning R&B singer Jeffrey Osborne to center court.

With Magic leading the fast break on the floor, Buss and the Lakers blurred the line between show biz and sports, and “Showtime” was born, leading to five NBA championships.

Many other pro sports teams added dance teams and elaborate entertainment around the game, but none did it better than the originator.

In the late 1990s, the Lakers entered the era of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol, and in 1999, they moved to the team’s new, luxurious home in downtown Los Angeles, the Staples Center.  Soon after, thanks to the hiring of super-coach Phil Jackson, Buss was able to raise five more banners to the rafters of Staples.  The parade celebrating the team’s last championship, won in 2010, wound from Staples down Figueroa Street to the Coliseum at USC and was witnessed by an estimated 1 million people in person and millions more on television.

In my opinion, very few people have brought more pure entertainment to Los Angeles, which is why Buss was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006.

Buss was arguably the most influential owner in NBA history, and Commissioner David Stern, who will retire from his position as head of the league next year and whose tenure overlapped Buss’ ownership, called him “a true visionary.”  Buss has been credited by Stern and others for helping foster the league’s expanded playoff structure, the evolution of its television coverage, and the world-wide growth in popularity of NBA basketball.

Magic Johnson told the L.A. Times: “The league was boring until Dr. Buss bought the Lakers and created the atmosphere that changed basketball forever.

“Before Dr. Buss,” Johnson said, “you just showed up and watched a game and went home. But he created a scene where you didn’t want to miss anything, the cheerleaders and the music and the show. He was a genius, way ahead of his time; the league owes him a lot.”

The Lakers are beloved largely because of the innovation that Dr. Jerry Buss brought to marketing NBA basketball, and while his influence on the league is undeniable, leading to his recent induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, his impact on Los Angeles and on Lakers fans everywhere is what he’ll always be remembered for.

The world is a better place because Jerry Buss was here. Go Lakers!

 

John Zaring describes himself as a reformed Republican turned moderate Democrat who believes democracy works best when its government actually functions because its leaders are working together. He serves on the Castaic Area Town Council’s Land Use Committee, Castaic Middle School’s Site Council, the Hart District’s WiSH Education Foundation, and he is the West Ranch High School representative on the Hart District’s Advisory Council. A self-proclaimed “New Democrat” a la Bill Clinton, he lives in Castaic with his wife of 21 years and their daughters, Fiona, 16, and Kylie, 12. His commentary publishes Tuesdays.

 

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