Skip to content

Lakers owner Jerry Buss changed the very image of NBA

Feb 18, 2013, 11:42 AM EDT

Image (1) jbuss-thumb-250x140-15577.jpg for post 3061

Jerry Buss may have been in a hospital bed more than a thousand miles away, but his fingerprints were all over NBA All-Star weekend in Houston. There were Alicia Keys and Ne-Yo performing their music, more celebrities than there were seats courtside, there were dancers and entertainers during timeouts and between quarters. And there was some good basketball on the court (well, for an All-Star Game).

Jerry Buss changed the NBA to look more like that. He was the first owner to really embrace that he was not just putting together a team, he was marketing basketball. He understood that the steak needed sizzle.

Buss passed away at the age of 80 on Monday morning.

Buss purchased the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 for $67 million (that price included the Fabulous Forum arena, the NHL’s Kings and a ranch). Forbes estimated the Lakers worth recently at just over $1 billion. So you can add “smart business man” to the list of things he did.

What many basketball fans will remember him for is winning — the Lakers won 10 NBA titles under his ownership and made it to the finals 13 times. They produced legends of the game such as Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, plus welcomed others such as Shaquille O’Neal. Under Buss’ watch the Lakers grew into the center of the Los Angeles sports universe, and one of the most recognized brands in all of sport.

But where Buss was truly an innovator was off the court.

Back in 1979 most NBA owners treated basketball as, well, basketball. You came to the game, there was nothing else. Buss understood what he had purchased was an entertainment enterprise that sold basketball. He bought the steak, what he needed to add was sizzle.

First in came the Laker Girls, the first dance team unit in the league. Next was Dancing Barry — a guy in top hat and tails who would dance through the crown during timeouts, which seems quaint now but was a revolution in entertainment back in the day. Soon music was being pumped through the arena during breaks. Nobody else was doing that, but Buss started putting on a show with basketball at the heart of it.

Buss made Lakers games the coolest place to be seen in L.A., and the celebrities flocked (and still do). Buss established the Forum Club so celebrities had a place to throw back a few cocktails (and plenty of drugs, if we’re going to be honest) before, after and during the game. When they left the club those celebrities sat in very visible courtside seats. Jerry Buss lived that lifestyle, too — he was always seen with a beautiful young woman on his arm. He was part of the scene.

None of it would have worked if the team stunk, but in the Lakers first draft after Buss bought the team they got the No. 1 pick and selected Magic Johnson. He and Buss were a perfect fit — Magic wanted to entertain and had a bigger-than-life personality on the court. It was Showtime and it was fun to watch — plus they won. A lot. It was a captivating era of the NBA that lifted the league out of a time in the 1970s when NBA finals games were taped delayed and shown at midnight.

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

Mark Cuban has talked about what he did in Dallas to turn around what had been one of the worst franchises in the NBA was based in part on what Buss did. Today, every team — even the Boston Celtics — has dance teams. Every team pumps in the music in time outs.

Every team sells sizzle with the steak. And they can thank Dr. Buss for that.

  1. joshm5683 - Feb 18, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Can’t say the greatest owner, but definitely in the discussion. People who won’t give him credit due to being in Los Angeles and not a small market are just bitter their own teams don’t have the level of success this man has had. Market definitely helps, but its not all market and money or the Knicks and a few other large market teams would be just as good. Always entertaining till the end, he will be missed.

    • teehov843 - Feb 18, 2013 at 11:53 AM

      Well said!

    • teambringitstrong - Feb 18, 2013 at 2:44 PM

      I can say it. THE GREATEST OWNER. He made the Los Angeles market!!

  2. ron05342 - Feb 18, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Actually, they made it to the Finals 16 times, not 13. (During his ownership.)

    1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010.

  3. ron05342 - Feb 18, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Okay, Kurt, I am going to have set you straight on Dancing Barry. The real story is that the guy to become known as Dancing Barry started dancing on his own during breaks. He was a fan that just wanted to get excitement going. Buss struck a deal with Dancing Barry and soon he was doing the dance thing all the time late in the game. They later came up with some disagreement, and Dancing Barry left embittered.

  4. patsfan15 - Feb 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    Did you really have to insert the drug usage comment. Obviously that element may have been present this article is remembering Mr. Buss. He passed less than 24 hours ago. Have some respect.

  5. losanginsight - Feb 18, 2013 at 12:42 PM

    The Greatest Owner Ever.
    Other owners and cities should have been taking note.

  6. Mr. Wright 212 - Feb 18, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    No, you CAN say he is the greatest owner. Philosophy and results are unmatched. This is not open for debate or subjectivity.

  7. Clayton Bigsby - Feb 18, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    Grew up with the Showtime era and been following ever since. Lakers were practically a religion growing up in SoCal. It was always the one constant in LA sports, contending for and winning the championship. Nothing else mattered. Also met the man. Truly a very nice man and have touched many lives of NBA fans as well as Angelinos . I believe he should get the next statue in Staples, a street or boulevard named after him, etc.

    RIP…Dr. Buss you will be missed.

  8. omniusprime - Feb 18, 2013 at 1:53 PM

    Definitely Dr. Jerry Buss was the greatest sports franchise owner of all time. He brought more innovation to pro basketball and pro sports in general than any one else. Good article Kurt Helin praising a truly great man. You better believe that Dr. Buss brought the sizzle to more than just the NBA, he affected every sport as every sport has copied his brilliant marketing.

    Dr, Jerry will be sorely missed by more than us loyal Laker fans. I’m just glad Dr. Buss will not have to watch his devil spawn son destroy the great Laker franchise he built.

    Rest in Peace Jerry Buss!!!

  9. derekjetersmansion - Feb 18, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    I think people are underestimating Magic’s contribution to the Lakers. Celebrities aren’t going if the team isn’t good and/or exciting. Buss just happened to draft him. Magic gave Buss the ability to make basketball “entertainment”, not the other way around. They didn’t win because of Buss, they won because of Magic.

    • teambringitstrong - Feb 18, 2013 at 2:45 PM

      derekjetersmansion – Feb 18, 2013 at 2:08 PM

      I think people are underestimating Magic’s contribution to the Lakers. Celebrities aren’t going if the team isn’t good and/or exciting. Buss just happened to draft him. Magic gave Buss the ability to make basketball “entertainment”, not the other way around. They didn’t win because of Buss, they won because of Magic.
      Who drafted Magic? Who paid his salary?
      Good grief stupid people are ruining the world.

      • derekjetersmansion - Feb 18, 2013 at 2:58 PM

        Would the Lakers be the Lakers without Magic?

    • crtzinc - Feb 18, 2013 at 3:19 PM

      Previous Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke did not want to draft Magic in 1979, he wanted Cartwright or Greenwood. Dr.Buss told them flat out if the Lakers did not draft Magic that he would not buy the team. Dr. Buss revolutionized an NBA that was struggling in 1979 with his “Showtime” and entertainment models. Other owners tried to follow suit. All those pieces put in place – Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, Jerry West as GM, etc. would not be there if Dr. buss didn’t put them in place to succeed. He is the reason the Lakers became who they are, any former Laker player will attest to that.

      • 00maltliquor - Feb 18, 2013 at 11:54 PM

        Thank you for smackin’ that fool for me! ^ Some people man….

  10. justlife4me - Feb 18, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    Rest in Peace Mr. Buss, found it interesting that not many know about his other daughter Janie here sure we know plenty of his pretty daughter Jeanie, Janie is also involved in the Lakers.

  11. cdins - Feb 18, 2013 at 6:03 PM

    Yes, cuz the timeout music and dance team is so awesome. What an innovation.

  12. hojo20 - Feb 18, 2013 at 6:31 PM

    I would prefer NBA games with no blaring music.

  13. klownboy - Feb 18, 2013 at 7:22 PM

    RIP Jerry Buss. You will be missed in Lakerland.

  14. 1historian - Feb 19, 2013 at 5:58 AM

    There is no doubt that he brought a lot of people in with all the sizzle and dazzle and glitz and the (non-stop) noise.

    Neither is there any doubt that he drove away some people with this.

    Like me.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. D. Rose (2229)
  2. L. James (1936)
  3. K. Irving (1779)
  4. K. Bryant (1731)
  5. A. Davis (1501)