Dr. Jerry Buss is an American success story; a uniquely Western American success story. On the East Coast, there was always a sense that Old Money, family connections, and traditional Wharton business methods were the formula to success.
The 1849 California Gold Rush changed all of that. Eastern failures could re-invent themselves out West. Old Money was no greener than new money. In the West land speculation, entrepreneurial capitalism and New Ideas were allowed to flourish. It was this way of thinking that spurred Jerry Buss towards the attainment of his dreams. Jack Kent Cooke wanted people to think he was a blue blood aristocrat. Buss embraced the fact that he was not.
Buss grew up disadvantaged in Southern California, then moved to the big sky country of Wyoming. His stepfather treated him poorly. The family fell into poverty. He broke the rules, but always made good grades.
Buss dropped out of high school, worked odd jobs, then returned to get his diploma. Told by his counselors that he had academic skills, he went to the University of Wyoming, where he excelled. He decided to expand his horizons in Los Angeles, returning to the land of his youth. Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California and went to work in the aerospace industry. This is a sector of the Los Angeles economy virtually invented by Howard Hughes. It stretches roughly from Westchester to Long Beach along the 405 corridor. Buss used his education, credentials and experience to land a professorship at USC.
At USC, Buss followed the Trojan football team with intense enthusiasm. He and his pal Hampton Mears went to every game. Buss dreamt of owning a sports franchise. He constantly strategized on how to use his skills in the marketing of a successful sports operation. Deciding to become an entrepreneur, a natural for somebody with his background, Buss began to buy real estate in Southern California at just the right time; while he could still afford it. His selling of it made him a millionaire. Married with four children, he divorced and became a player in the swingin’ Southern California singles scene. His reputation as a playboy grew, as did his real estate empire.
In 1972 Buss entered professional sports as owner of the L.A. Strings of World Team Tennis. That venture failed but it did fuel his desire to own a major franchise. In 1975 he began to negotiate with Jack Kent Cooke, beginning with a cooperative effort between the two to promote the Strings at the Forum. Over the next few years Cooke and Buss talked about Cooke’s professed desire to sell the Forum. Cooke did not really want to sell, but in the late 1970s he was going through what eventually became a record-setting divorce, forcing him to liquidate his holdings.
“There were times when I felt I’d gotten in a little over my head,” said Buss. “Jack Kent Cooke is remarkably charming when he wants to be, and he’s a very, very tough-willed man. He may have the toughest will I’ve ever seen. It’s like iron. And he was very quick to take advantage of turns in the negotiations.”
As Cooke’s settlement negotiations got out of hand, he realized he needed to sell everything in order to satisfy the greed of his wife and her divorce lawyers. Everything he had worked for, all he had accomplished; he would not be allowed to keep it.
A complicated agreement involving the Forum, the Lakers and Kings, Buss’s real estate holdings and the Chrysler Building in New York, apparently “thrown in” to soften the tax blow, was worked out. But Cooke always came up with a twist at the last minute, which was a negotiating tactic of his. First he wanted to sell his ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and then Buss had to scramble for an additional $2.7 million to cover the Chrysler Building.
It was about a $70 million deal, and one of the most complicated financial transactions in U.S. history. Reporters and accountants tried to track down the money but could not do it. It involved 15 or 20 limited partnerships, real estate transactions and sales, plenty of "other people's money,” and a lot of lawyers.
It was the kind of deal that Cooke thrived on. He seemed to have gotten the best of it. Buss may well have been “in over my head.” In order to make it succeed from his end of the bargain, he would have to oversee successful operations of the Lakers, Kings and the Forum. In this respect, his vision, hard work and perhaps a little bit of luck, paid off. He enjoyed wild success beyond anything Cooke – who was no failure – had experienced.
Buss oversaw the Showtime Lakers. He eventually sold the Kings but made the franchise successful enough to eventually lure Wayne Gretzky to L.A. He initiated many marketing ventures. His deal to change the Forum to the Great Western Forum, for better or worse, helped begin the trend of naming stadiums after corporations.
He also was an innovative champion of cable sports television. Prime Ticket begat Fox Sports, the expansion of ESPN, and all their variations. Buss maintained a strong affiliation with USC. His daughter, Jeannie Buss, graduated from USC and followed in her father’s footsteps with the Lakers, where she became an executive vice president.
Buss started another trend, in that he was one of the first “playboy owners,” an open-shirt and jeans guy known for having beautiful women around him long before the Maloof brothers and other sports owners of that stripe.
Hall of the Very Good
Mitch Kupchak was an All-American at North Carolina. He became a vital member of the Lakers in the mid-1980s, and after retirement became one of the leading executives in the game. He has won five NBA titles as a member of the Lakers front office, becoming general manager and head of basketball operations.
Jeannie Buss got her start as general manager of the Los Angeles Strings of World Team Tennis.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism