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Lakers owner Jerry Buss changed the very image of NBA

Feb 18, 2013, 11:42 AM EDT

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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.

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