Jerry Buss, longtime owner of Los Angeles Lakers, passes away

© AP
© AP

By George Jones - email

(RNN) – Jerry Buss, legendary owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and self-made millionaire real estate mogul, has died at the age of 80.

Buss had been hospitalized for the past few months at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles undergoing treatments for cancer, according to USA Today.

It would be easy to make the argument for Buss as the most successful owner in professional sports history.

For the past three decades the Buss name has been synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers. His teams have won 10 NBA championships and set the standard for perennial success in professional sports. No single owner in any of the four major sports has ever matched that number of titles.

Buss bought the team in 1979 when he was 46 years old, and his management helped turned the Lakers into a winning machine in virtually no time.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson was Buss' first draft pick as owner, and the superstar's presence set the tone for what the sports world knew as "Showtime." Their flashy, up-tempo style and ability to get top notch players, coaches and front-office personnel combined to form a dynasty that ruled the NBA throughout the 1980s.

The Lakers' championship in 1980 was the first of five the team won in the decade. After a 12-year drought, the team has won five titles since 2000.

A who's who of all-time greats have worn a Lakers uniform during that time – including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Dennis Rodman and others – as well as hall-of-fame coaches Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.

Buss was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 for "building one of the most successful organizations in the history of professional sports," according to the Hall of Fame's website.

Buss also assumed control of the WNBA franchise Los Angeles Sparks when the league formed in 1997. The team won back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002 before he sold it four years later.

The career of one of the most successful owners in sports began as far away from a basketball arena as a person could imagine.

He originally worked as a chemist for what is now the Mine Safety Health Administration and also worked for the aerospace industry after earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Wyoming. He obtained a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Southern California.

His initial foray into real estate investment turned profitable. He went into the business full-time and eventually became a multimillionaire.

Buss was also a high-stakes poker player who made appearances on the World Series of Poker, World Poker tour and various game shows.

But it would be unfair to say that Buss gambled with any decision he made. Whether it was running a team, his real estate business or a card table, Buss was usually the most well-informed and composed man in the room.

"He's just extremely, extremely smart going about it," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times. "It's very rare to find that kind of owner than can seemingly not make any mistakes. It's pretty impressive."

His purchase of the Lakers in 1979 was at the time was the largest transaction in sports history. Buss bought them – as well as the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and the teams' former home venue, The Forum – for more than $67 million. The deal also included a ranch, all of which he bought from Jack Kent Cooke.

"The Lakers are a good, ordinary investment – nothing spectacular," Buss aid at the time of the purchase in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers and Kings alone only made up $24 million of the total deal. That seems like peanuts considering the return on his investment and Forbes' current estimate of the Lakers' value at $1 billion.

Running the franchise has been a family affair for several years, so much that Buss fully intended to leave the Lakers in control of his six children.

All of them – Johnny, Jim, Jeanie, Janie, Joey and Jesse – have worked for their father's organization at some point. Jeanie is the team's vice president of business operations. Jim, a longtime assistant general manager, had been considered the likely replacement for his father. Johnny directed operations for the Sparks for eight years, including their championship seasons.

"I'm totally comfortable with them taking over," Jerry Buss said in a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview.

No matter who takes over, it will be hard even coming close to the type of leadership that gets a team to a championship nearly 50 percent of the time. The Lakers have gone to the NBA Finals 16 times in more than 30 years under Buss.

Gerald Hatten Buss was born Jan. 27, 1934 in Salt Lake City, UT. He grew up in Kemmerer, WY. His mother was an accountant, and his father was university professor of statistics.

He initially dropped out of high school to work for Union Pacific, and then went back to high school, graduated and earned his bachelor's in 2 ½ years.

After working various jobs, Buss and another chemical engineer invested in a Los Angeles house. They worked their way up the ladder until they started a firm that grew to a worth of more than $350 million at the time he bought the Lakers.

He was previously married to JoAnn Mueller and had his youngest two children with ex-girlfriend Karen Demel.

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