Lakers owner Jerry Buss sets the standard for winning
Nearly every interview with Lakers owner Jerry Buss featured similar background settings, with it either taking place in his luxury box suite, in a Westside restaurant that provided a picturesque view of the beach or in the locker room where the good times and champagne both were shared.
Nearly every interview with Buss revolved around the continual theme of winning, including his explanations on why he's so willing to spend what seems to be infinite amounts of money on a team, how he takes personal pride in the Lakers' success and why he holds on to some of his big-picture, albeit sometimes controversial, decisions in maintaining the Lakers' long-term dominance.
Nearly every interview with Buss also detailed a similar picture with him on how he defines the Lakers' penchant for performing with a Hollywood style. He wears colorful dress shirts and jeans, sits alongside a beautiful twentysomething and maintains his love for gambling.
It certainly comes as no surprise that Buss, 76, will be inducted today to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., after helping the Lakers win 10 of their 16 NBA championships under his watch. He will be inducted alongside fellow Lakers Magic Johnson (being inducted with the 1992 Dream Team) and Jerry West (with the 1960 U.S. Olympic team) and will become the third Laker to enter the Hall of Fame as a contributor, joining broadcaster Chick Hearn and Pete Newell. What's so revealing about Buss' success aren't necessarily his accomplishments, but how he reached those goals -- by following the same formula since buying the team in 1979. As I scoured the L.A. Times archives this week for Buss-related features, I noticed that Buss' settings and beliefs stayed the same even if the dates, bylines and circumstances varied.
It all came back to what Jeanie Buss, the team's executive vice president and Jerry's daughter, recently told The Times' Broderick Turner about her father's Hall of Fame induction.
"He knows the formula. He's committed to winning," Jeanie told Turner. "But he's smart because he runs it like a business. Usually people think that when you run something like a business, that means you can't win. But he's proven that you can be successful on the floor and off the floor, and that's a model that has brought him so much success."
That model led The Times' Bill Plaschke to argue during the 2007-08 season that Buss remains "the best owner in the history of professional sports." And the various interviews The Times has had with Buss over the years strongly indicate how his model has continued to work.
The Lakers entered the 2009-10 season about to spend a league-high $112.7 million, including $91.3 million in player salaries and an additional $21.4 million in luxury taxes. It is a statistic that didn't exactly make Buss want to celebrate.
"It doesn't thrill me," he told The Times' Mike Bresnahan. "I don't like to be singled out for that particular purpose, but I feel in this situation it was necessary. When it's necessary, we're going to do that."
When it comes down to alternatives, it's clear that Buss chooses winning over money concerns. He was talking to Bresnahan at the time only months removed from a prolonged negotiation process with Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who eventually agreed to a a four-year deal worth about $33 million, with a team option for the final year. The Lakers would then go on to sign Pau Gasol to a three-year contract extension believed to have been worth up to $64.7 million at the time. They then would secure Kobe Bryant to a three-year, $84-million contract extension, meaning the Lakers' core players in Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest would be locked into long-term deals. Even with the team entering the 2011 off-season anxious again over luxury-tax implications, the Lakers kept Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown, added Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff and drafted two rookies in Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, meaning the Lakers are well-stocked with 14 players in hopes they three-peat the 2010-11 season.
Buss maintained his forward-thinking approach when he bought the team, the Forum, the NHL's Kings and a 13,000-acre Kern County ranch for $67.5 million in 1979. "One of the biggest reasons I bought the Lakers was to beat the Celtics," Buss told Bresnahan in 2008. "If you were a Laker fan prior to my ownership, and you sat there and watched the Celtics whip us so many times, and how close we came -- one shot in one particular series -- you just got it into your soul that you couldn't stand the Celtics anymore."
And when he bought the team in 1979, he knew exactly what he wanted. The Times' Scott Ostler and Steve Springer detail in the book "Winnin' Times: The Magical Journey of the Los Angeles Lakers" how Buss envisioned Lakers games to resemble what Springer and Ostler termed "a grand-scale version of the Horn," a Santa Monica nightclub.
"It featured live entertainment, big names and new faces -- singers, musicians and comedians -- on a small stage surrounded by 150 or so patrons in cozy booths," Ostler and Springer wrote. "The Horn attracted an upscale clientele, L.A.'s hip Westside set. Jerry Buss, a budding real-estate tycoon, was a regular."
"The club's show always opened the same way. The lights would dim, and an entertainer planted at one of the tables would stand and begin to sing the establishment's signature tune, "It's Showtime." A singer at another table would rise, then a third, all harmonizing."
"Buss loved that opening -- it gave him goose bumps. Its theatrics created a mood and charged the room with expectation. He liked to sit back, a pretty woman at his side, and light a cigarette, sip his rum-and-Coke and let himself be swept up in a fantasy of lights, music and entertainment."
That's exactly what Buss replicated with bringing the Showtime Era to the Lakers, featuring plenty of superstars, Laker Girls and the Hollywood crowd. That vibe still remains strong, with Bryant defining the franchise, more than 200 people attending Laker Girl tryouts this July and Staples Center becoming the must-see attraction among Hollywood celebrities. Noted The Times' Mark Heisler in his book "Madmen's Ball: The Continuing Saga of Kobe, Phil and the Los Angeles Lakers": "Buss, whose lightbulb went off while reading The Playboy Philosophy, lived in the style of Hugh Hefner. Or maybe it was Hefner who lived in the style of Buss, it was hard to tell. Hef was more famous and the Playboy Mansion enjoyed a special place in the hearts of the rich and horny, but in L.A., nobody could challenge a Lakers game as the place to be and Buss as the host with the most."
That era started, as Turner observed, "when the team won a coin flip and selected [Magic] Johnson from Michigan State with the No. 1 overall pick in 1979."And indications that Buss is willing to shell out big money was strongly evident when he offered Johnson a 25-year, $25-million offer, gave Shaquille O'Neal a seven-year $120-million offer and by 1997, reported The Times' Scott Howard-Cooper, had spent $211 million in player salaries alone.
Buss always looked to add a new wrinkle. Though Lakers Coach Pat Riley was instrumental in helping the Lakers unseat the Celtics in the 1985 and 1987 NBA Finals, Buss parted ways with Riley after the Lakers were swept in the 1989 NBA Finals and then lost to the Phoenix Suns in the 1990 Western Conference semifinals. "It's kind of like when you're playing cards," Buss told The Times' Mike Downey in 1990. "You lose two or three times in a row, it's time to shuffle. Shuffle or ask for a new deck."
Though Shaquille O'Neal became a key component in restoring the Lakers' dynasty with a three-peat from 2000 to 2002, Buss decided to trade him to Miami in 2004, believing he was on the decline of his career. "It was not only a question of whether the man was going to be in shape, but what were his true salary demands going to be," Buss told The Times' T.J. Simers in 2005. "I was looking at the number of games he missed over his career, and if he missed this many when young, wasn't it more likely he was going to miss this many when he was old? It was my simplistic calculation, but coupled with his salary demands it put me in an untenable situation."
And though Bryant demanded to be traded in 2007, Buss held his ground, believing he just needed to add a few pieces around him. Soon after, the Lakers won two titles in the following three seasons. "I promised Kobe that if I could get the right material, that I had respect enough for his desire that I would pursue a trade," Buss told Plaschke in 2008. "But I didn't see that there was enough talent there, so we didn't do it. I was wishing he understood how difficult these things are, but I do love him."
And as Buss gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, there's plenty of reasons for the Lakers' front office, coaches, players and fans to love him. In a city that's defined with winning and style, Buss has continuously fit that description, even if the circumstances change.
"I'm overtaken by emotion because he is so deserving," Johnson told Turner "The league wouldn't be where it is if it hadn't been for Dr. Buss. If you talk about the fan experience, he was way ahead of the curve. He was way ahead of his time, with the team on the court, with the Laker Girls, with the band. He really understood fan experience way before it became common like it is now."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Jerry Buss, center, with the Laker Girls, after being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2006. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers owner Jerry Buss will be inducted today into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Photo: Kobe Bryant, with daughters Natalia, left and Gianna, is congratulated by Lakers owner Jerry Buss following a press conference Tuesday to announce Bryant being named the NBA's most valuable player in 2008. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times