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Jerry Buss: A showman who made Los Angeles a Lakers town

2:32 PM, Feb 18, 2013   |    comments
Jerry Buss, right, was on hand for the news conference introducing Mike Brown as the Lakers coach in May 2011. The love affair didn't last long, as Brown was fired early in the 2012-13 season. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
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LOS ANGELES -- Jerry Buss, in Los Angeles, was simply synonymous with championships.

He loved to party and gamble and travel and savor the many flavors of the world, but he also loved to win, and he did what he could to keep the Los Angeles Lakers adding to their NBA titles.

Buss, 80, passed away early Monday, after battling cancer for a long time, and his death will be felt deeply in the Lakers family and throughout the NBA. He was generous with players, and generally treated them like royalty during and after their careers.

"Dr. Buss loved the lakers," said Magic Johnson, one of Buss' favorite players, a rookie on the Lakers when Buss had just bought the team. "He loved to play poker. He loved his women, I've got to say that. He loved winning for the fans of L.A. He would do anything to win championships for the people of L.A."

Johnson, like many players, past and present, had been visiting him at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in the past weeks.

"The brand of basketball he implemented in Showtime carried the league," Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant said over the weekend at All-Star Game festivities in Houston. "When you think about the rivalry that placed between the Lakers and (Boston) Celtics and what that did for the global outreach of the game. It reached me in Italy, and I was only 6 years old."

Even when NBA rules put penalties on large payrolls, Buss kept adding to the Lakers' payroll, willing to pay the luxury taxes required for going over the salary cap if it meant a better chance to win another championship.

In all, the Lakers won 10 titles under Buss' ownership, featuring some of the biggest stars in the league's history - Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant.

"He gave us everything we needed to win a championship," Johnson said. "We stayed at the best hotels, we had the best trainers, we had the best equipment. ... Sure enough, we were able to win the championship my first year, his first year."

In a statement Monday on behalf of the Buss family: "We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community." He had been hospitalized for much of the past 18 months in a battle which "showed his amazing strength and will to live. It was our father's often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy."

At a certain point, Buss' Lakers became the dominant sports franchise in town, eclipsing the popularity of the venerable Los Angeles Dodgers. In its latest NBA valuations, Forbes last month listed the Lakers at $1 billion, second only to the New York Knicks at $1.1 billion.

"The first call I got when we bought the Dodgers was from Dr. Buss. I thought he bought the Dodgers, he was so happy," Johnson, an ESPN NBA analyst, said on ESPN, adding he hadn't stopped crying since hearing the news early Monday. "It was just a father being proud of a son. He would always ask me, 'What's your next move?' "

Reaction poured in:

*NBA Commissioner David Stern -- "The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come. More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend. Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time."

*Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- "RIP Jerry Buss. Your encouragement and support along with your stories of staying true to yourself had an enormous impact on me."

*Lakers legend James Worthy -- "Condolences to the Buss family. Dr Buss was not only the greatest sports owner, but a true friend & just a really cool guy. Loved him dearly"

*Boxer Oscar de la Hoya -- "Dr. Jerry buss, I will forever be grateful and appreciate all the support you gave me throughout my career. R.I.P."

*Playboy founder Hugh Hefner -- "Learned of Lakers owner Jerry Buss death to cancer. We've lost a longtime friend."

*Boston Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck -- "I had the pleasure of working with Jerry closely for the last 10 years on league matters. He was a wonderful business colleague, brilliant competitor and became a good friend. Although our teams competed in two Finals during that time, the friendship never wavered. He will be greatly missed and the entire Celtics organization offers condolences to the Buss family and Lakers organization."

*Lakers radio play-by-play announcer John Ireland -- "You would never know spending any time with Dr. Buss he was a billionaire. ... He was nice to people that were at the bottom and at the top because he was at both places. I don't think he ever forgot that."

Buss didn't speak much in public, but his shrewdness was evident in the choices he made for the Lakers - Jerry West as general manager, Phil Jackson as coach.

And when a tough decision reared its head - keep Bryant or O'Neal - Buss traded the aging O'Neal, kept Bryant and then watched Bryant lead the Lakers to two more championships.

"He means everything to me," Bryant said. "He took a chance on a 17-year-old kid coming out of Philadelphia when nobody really saw that potential. He believed in me the entire way.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find another owner who has had that kind of success. He's been able to construct championship teams, regroup, re-construct them again, regroup, reconstruct them again and build them in a very, very quick order. That's tough to find."

Buss loved the entertainment aspect of the team, and his team featured sexy dancers - the Laker Girls - long before that was a standard of the league. He also favored an entertaining style, and he was in his glory when Johnson orchestrated the fast-breaking Showtime Laker teams that won five titles in the 1980s.

Buss and Jackson occasionally clashed over Jackson's methodical triangle offense, which became boring when the Lakers were short of talent following O'Neal's departure. But he fired and re-hired Jackson, the so-called Zen Master, seemingly always keeping the business aspect of the deals separate from the personal. Jackson and Buss' daughter, Jeannie, were a steady item during the coach's two tenures with the Lakers.

Buss made his fortune in the run-up on real estate in California in the 1960s and '70s and bought the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979.

He won a title the next year, in 1980 - Johnson's rookie year - and the Lakers were off and running. They won four more that decade, then three in a row from 2000-02 with O'Neal and Bryant as the leading stars, then two more in 2009-10 with an aging Bryant teaming with Pau Gasol. The Lakers' championship total reached 16, one behind those won by the Celtics.

The Lakers, under Buss' son Jim, executive vice president of player personnel, made an impressive bid to tie the Celtics with a 17th title by acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash before this season and forming a roster that many observers felt was good enough to win a championship. But the mixture hasn't worked, and the Lakers went into the All-Star break below .500, several games out of a playoff spot.

Buss, who turned 80 last month, had not attended a Lakers game all season. He was hospitalized for a blood clot in 2011 and spent some time in a hospital last year with an intestinal problem.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Lakers Youth Foundation or a charity of the donor's choice.

Contributing: Jeff Zillgitt, in Houston

David Leon Moore, USA TODAY Sports

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