Jerry Buss died at the age of 80. Liam Day says that his legacy is simple. It’s about winning.
David Stern is often credited with creating the NBA’s global brand. Though I’m not Stern’s biggest fan, I’ve said as much myself on The Good Men Project. What is often overlooked, however, is the help he got from a particular owner, who, in shepherding his franchise through three distinct championship eras, won 10 NBA titles in the 34 years he owned the team. That owner was Jerry Buss, who passed away this weekend at the age of 80.
Buss bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. The Los Angeles Kings and the arena where the two teams played, which would become known as the Fabulous Forum, were part of the deal, estimated at roughly $70 million, then the largest sports transaction in history.
At the time he bought the Lakers, many of the pieces of the team’s future success, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were in place, but the team had not yet captured Southern California’s imagination. Courtside tickets could be had for $15, and the team’s regular season performance could often be desultory. In the first draft of the Buss era, however, the Lakers selected an underclassman out of Michigan State by the name of Magic Johnson and the franchise never looked back.
It wasn’t just that the team would win 5 NBA championships over the next 9 seasons, it was how they did it. With Magic leading the break, hitting streaking teammates with no-look passes off the dribble, the Lakers became known as Showtime. As owner, Buss added his touches of glamor, such as the Laker girls, and pretty soon his team was the hottest ticket in town and Hollywood celebrities, most notably Jack Nicholson, became courtside fixtures.
Now, some basketball purists will argue that the very touches Buss introduced to the game, or at least to its presentation, have spoiled the sport. However, one cannot argue that the NBA would have become the worldwide phenomenon it became without the Lakers’ glamour. The team’s rivalry with the Boston Celtics defined the NBA as it grew, but the Celtics on their own, as great as they were, were not likely to sell the game to international audiences. That required a product distinctly American, in the way our other great cultural export was and is distinctly American. That the two products emanated from the same city only helped to strengthen the team’s and the league’s brand.
The Lakers would go on to win 5 more championships under Buss. He often spent lavishly to do so. In this way, as in so many others, he was the reflection of baseball’s most flamboyant owner, George Steinbrenner, whose tenure overlapped Buss’s for 30 years. Fans of other teams might jealously claim that all of the championships were bought, not earned, but, whatever else might be said for them, they loved their teams and wanted nothing more than to win. They are what Matthew Yglesias at Slate has argued is the epitome of a sports franchise owner—someone who sees his team not as an investment, but as a labor of love.
Compare Jerry Buss to, say, Florida Marlins’ owner Jeff Loria, who stripped his own team for parts, knowing full well that baseball’s new television revenue sharing agreement would guarantee him a tidy profit. No matter how pure a purist, no matter how jealous of the Lakers’ success, you have to admire how much Jerry Buss wanted to win and, in professional sports, isn’t that the bottom line?
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes