Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who died yesterday at 80 after a long fight against cancer, didn’t really reinvent basketball, as the Wall Street Journal headline suggests. Points are still scored by tossing an inflated orb through a “basket,” after all. But he did overhaul the way professional basketball is packaged and sold -- currently making his team the most valuable in the NBA, according to Forbes, after years of trailing the New York Knicks --and he transformed the exploding profession of “sports marketing” along the way.
Shortly after he bought the franchise in 1979, The Forum, where the Lakers played before the Staples Center opened in 1999, “became the stage for a new kind of sports-entertainment spectacle dubbed ‘Showtime,’” writes the WSJ’s Stephen Miller. “Hollywood stars cheered from courtside. Scantily dressed cheerleaders, the Laker Girls, danced during timeouts to loud music. And the flashy showmanship the Lakers displayed on the court, and on television broadcasts, raised basketball's profile nationwide.”
None of it would have mattered a whit if Buss hadn’t also put his money where his on-court talent was. He famously handed 22-year-old guard Ervin “Magic” Johnson a 25-year, $25-million contract extension in 1981 -- a quaint figure now but “the longest and richest contract in professional sports history when signed,” as ESPN.com Kevin Arnovitz pointed out when Buss was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
''Magic is a bright kid and I plan to make him my protégé, teach him the business aspect of sports,” Buss said at the time. Johnson, who called Buss a “second father” yesterday, has built a “multifaceted businessempire” over the years. But Buss –- who rose from poverty in the Depression to get a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and preferred to be called Dr. Buss -- was not just an altruistic mentor.
“Anybody who makes an outlandish salary obviously attracts attention,” Buss told the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2009, Richard Goldstein writes in the New York Times. “That was what was behind my contract with Magic. I think it created a lot of attention for the Lakers.”
He also shelled out big bucks for other marketable superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and signed charismatic coaches, Pat Riley and then Phil Jackson, to coach the team over long stretches of winning seasons. Goldstein’s obit concludes with Buss’ remark, “I don’t just want winners. I want champions.” His strategy took home 10 of them, but he squeezed more than victories out of the franchise.
“The enduring, clichéd myth of the Los Angeles Lakers — perpetuated mostly by envious fans in other cities -- is that the franchise owes its aura to its surroundings. That Hollywood made the Lakers cool…,” Howard Beck writes in the New York Times “Off the Dribble” blog. “The premise is false. Los Angeles did not make the Lakers great. Jerry Buss did…. [He] was among the first to recognize that basketball is a production, that sports can be glamorous and that nothing sells like star power.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern credits Buss with helping to “set the league on the course it is on today," in an obit by the Los Angeles Times’ David Wharton. “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.”
The NBA has compiled statements from players, friends and colleagues of Buss, including former Lakers star and GM Jerry West, who says: “Jerry was without a doubt one of the most humble men I've ever been around. His vision was second to none; he wanted an NBA franchise brand that represented the very best and went to every extreme to accomplish his goals.”
Asked earlier this month about Buss’ “imprint on the game,” current Lakers superstar Bryant told the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus and Ben Bolch: “There's nothing you can do to really define it. What he's done consistently, it's tough to really find a match for that in any sport.”
Buss made his fortune in L.A. real estate after a stint in the aerospace industry. His first foray into sports was with the Los Angeles Strings, a WorldTeam Tennis franchise, and he also owned the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks and the Los Angeles Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer league, among other interests.
Six children survive Buss; all are active in the Lakers. Known as a “playboy,” he had been divorced from the former JoAnn Mueller since 1972. Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending, according to the NBA. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Lakers Youth Foundation or a charity of the donor's choice.