From bread line to Lakers owner, Jerry Buss left a lasting impact on the NBA

Few have ever succeeded at making such a daunting climb, from the nightmarish depths of utter poverty and hopelessness to the soaring heights of unimaginable wealth and power.

At the age of 4, Jerry Buss was standing in a bread line on the frozen soil of Evanston, Wyo., a gunny sack in hand, waiting for the food that would keep him and his single mother, Jesse, alive for another day.

It was 1937, the lingering effects of the Great Depression still gripping parts of the nation.

By the time he had turned 6, Buss' duties had expanded to include trekking around town in search of old telephone books or other paper products that could be stuffed into the fireplace to provide warmth in a house devoid of heat.

By the time he was 34, exactly three decades after he had stood in that bread line, Buss had made his first million.

By the age of 46, Buss and his business partner, Frank Mariani, had parlayed that million into a real-estate empire that was spread over three states – California, Nevada and Arizona – and was worth an estimated $350 million.

[Related: Jerry Buss' legacy from those he influenced]

Buss died Monday at the age of 80. For most men, such a swift and impressive rise would have been enough to savor for a lifetime.

Not Jerry Buss. He had his eyes on bigger prizes.

That same year, 1979, he pulled off arguably the most complicated and lucrative transaction in sports history.

Buss' savvy real-estate investments helped make him a fortune. (Getty Images)
Buss' savvy real-estate investments helped make him a fortune. (Getty Images)

Supported by an army of approximately 50 lawyers and accountants, Buss purchased the Lakers, the Kings hockey team, the Inglewood Forum and the 13,000-acre Raljon Ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. The deal broke down to $33.5 million for the Forum, $16 million for the Lakers, $10 million for the ranch and $8 million for the Kings.

Cooke, in exchange, received the lease to the Chrysler Building in New York, and properties in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland.

When the deal was done, 12 separate escrows finalized, Buss spent his first day at the Forum inspecting the crown jewel of his properties.

As the workday ended and the arena emptied out, he lingered, surrounded by only a few security people.

With no event that night at the Forum, Buss took a chair and walked down to the empty floor where he was surrounded by silence and darkness, except for a few scattered lights.

He sat down at what would be mid-court or center ice, took out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled the magnitude of his surroundings.

In his mind's eye, he could see the seats packed, his Lakers and Kings moving up and down the floor or ice, his championship banners on the wall.

Smiling, Buss told himself, "You’ve come a long way, baby."

It was never an easy path.

When his mother remarried, Buss found himself in Kemmerer, Wyo., under the yoke of a tough stepfather, Cecil Brown, who ran a plumbing business.

"He was a very tight-fisted guy who had all kinds of weird ideas," Buss once said. "He wanted me to get up at 4:30 in the morning [often in temperatures of 15 below] and go out and dig ditches in frozen ground so he could lay the plumbing. That was my contribution to the family. Then, after three or four hours of this, I was supposed to go to school."

Buss also worked at a local hotel where he made $2 a day.

[Also: Jerry Buss helped build 10 championship Lakers teams]

Seeking a better life, he quit school after his junior year of high school to go to work for the railroad. After three months of up to 14 hours a day for little money, he returned to school and went on to the University of Wyoming and eventually USC where he earned a doctorate in physical chemistry.

That earned Buss a job at the Douglas Aircraft Company where he was paid $700 a month.

He decided to put aside $83.33 from that monthly paycheck in order to raise a thousand dollars in one year. Mariani, a fellow worker, did the same. Getting four other investors to join them, Buss and Mariani put down $6,000 in 1959 to buy a 14-unit apartment building in West Los Angeles for $105,000.

It was from that single structure that Buss and Mariani began amassing holdings that would eventually spread across the Southwest.

Buss always said with pride that he knew what he didn't know. He knew real estate, he knew economics and he knew how to sell a product, but he didn’t know basketball, not at a higher level than that of the average fan.

So when he took over the Lakers, he had no intention of being a Jerry Jones by meddling in the intricacies of personnel decisions. For that, he had Bill Sharman, Jerry West and a string of competent coaches.

Buss focused instead on marketing the team. Magic Johnson had already been drafted by the Lakers by the time Buss took over the club, but it was Buss who envisioned that the unorthodox point guard with the brilliant ball-handling skills, flashy style and ebullient personality could not only be the central figure in a championship run, but also for a unique brand of basketball that combined sports and entertainment.

Long a fervent supporter of his alma mater, USC, Buss took two successful elements from Trojan games – cheerleaders and a band – to build his brand.

Jerry Buss won 10 NBA championships as owner of the Lakers, including the 1985 title. (Getty Images)
Jerry Buss won 10 NBA championships as owner of the Lakers, including the 1985 title. (Getty Images)

Like any successful product, Buss' brainchild needed a name. For that, he reached back to his nights at a Santa Monica nightclub named The Horn. The evening's entertainment there would begin with one, then two, then three singers rising from tables spread around the room, each proclaiming, "It's Showtime."

So Showtime it would be for the Lakers.

"At that time," Buss recalled, "people were saying, 'Don't bother to go to the game. Just pop in on the telecast for the last three minutes and you can see the whole thing.' We wanted to change that, and one way was to have entertainment all the way through the game."

By making the Forum the place to be, Buss knew that he would attract the Hollywood crowd, and that, in turn, would guarantee that fans would come to see the stars as well as the show on the floor.

When Buss took over the Lakers, courtside seats were $15.

[Slideshow: Jerry Buss through the years]

"Originally, I wanted to free up some floor seats," he said, "so that not only myself, but my friends – a lot of attorneys and accountants who helped me put together the deal to buy the Lakers – could enjoy them.

"I had been trying to buy floor seats for perhaps 10 years before I purchased the team, but there were never any for sale. So, I thought, they must be underpriced. I figured I'd increase them from $15 up to $30. Nobody cancelled. I then decided to go to $60, figuring that, for sure, we would get eight or 10 cancellations."

Eventually, when the price went over $100, Buss found some seats for his friends. But not many were available – even today when those seats are more than $2,700 for the regular season and more than $3,000 for the playoffs.

Along with marketing and finances, Buss understood, as have few, if any, other owners, the importance of favorable press and the duties and obligations of the media.

Buss' first championship parade came after the Lakers won the 1980 title. (AP)
Buss' first championship parade came after the Lakers won the 1980 title. (AP)

When I wrote an investigative story in the Los Angeles Times concerning Buss' and Mariani's financial dealings, Buss didn’t hold a grudge. After joking that he would have paid me $100,000 not to run the story, he gave me all the time I requested for a book I was writing about him and his team. Buss understood that I had just been doing my job.

Speaking at a time when newspapers were king, Buss once said, "I never get in pissing matches with people who buy ink by the barrel."

Back when the Forum press lounge was the prime watering hole after games, he would sit there with media people until 4 a.m., soliciting their opinions and offering his own on the state of his team, the NBA in general and the L.A. market. But Buss knew, of course, that the glow of the entertainment elements he had instituted would soon dim if the excellence of the team wasn’t equally as bright.

So he spared no expense in building teams capable of plastering the walls with banners. The Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dynasty of the 1980s was followed by the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant championship teams at the turn of the century and the Bryant/Pau Gasol clubs that reached the NBA Finals three times and won two championships.

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"He is a master at building a team," said Johnson at the time of Buss' induction into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2010. "He has put the Lakers right up there with the New York Yankees as the top brands in sports.

"He has been able to do so because he is one of the shrewdest businessmen you will ever meet. With him, it's never been about putting money in his pocket. It's always been about putting it back into the team."

In all, Buss' Lakers have won 10 NBA titles, making him the single winningest owner in sports history.

And with that success has come the financial rewards. The team that he purchased for $16 million was recently valued at more than $1 billion.

Not bad for a kid who once considered success being a gunny sack full of food.

Steve Springer covered Jerry Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. He also has written five books on the Lakers.

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