How Jerry Buss changed the face of sports in LA*

buss.jpgHe made L.A. a legitimate NBA town and helped turn pro basketball into a multi-billion dollar industry. Along the way, he brought the city 10 league championships. You can also argue that the arrival of the Buss era marked a turning point in the Dodger era. Some of this was happenstance: The Dodgers, even with a World Series in 1988, couldn't match the fast-moving, show-stomping, Lakers. Then came the O'Malleys' decision to sell, followed by a series of ineffective owners who were no match for Buss and his front office (the team has not won a series since 88). Of course, we might be in for another turnabout: While the Buss family remains in charge, it's certainly not the same franchise it was when Jerry was running the place. Buss was a classic L.A. success story: A regular guy lacking family pedigree who took advantage of business opportunities at a time when the city was rapidly expanding. He started in the late 1950s with the purchase of a West L.A. apartment building, and from there he capitalized on Socal's periodic real estate booms, cleaning up on apartments, hotels, and office buildings. When Jack Kent Cooke was looking to unload his Southern California sports portfolio (the Lakers, Kings, and the Forum), Buss swooped in. Looking back on the 1979 sale, he got quite the deal: $67.5 million. Today, the Lakers are valued at about $1 billion (Buss sold the Kings in 1987). "A person doesn't go into sports to make money," Buss told the Boston Globe, "but it's still a business." One of his first orders of business was bumping up courtside seats from $15 to $45. Buss ran into serious financial trouble in the 1980s, and there were reports that his lenders were considering seizing the Lakers and Kings. But selling off the Kings and selling naming rights for the Forum (renamed the Great Western Forum) helped him along.

More backstory on his purchase of the team:

At the end of the 1979 season, the Lakers were once again on the sales block. Reasons for the sale were varied. Cooke was concerned about his health, and he had also lost a sizable chunk of his fortune when his wife was awarded nearly half of his net worth--some $100 million--in a divorce settlement. Most importantly, however, as owner of the Washington Redskins, Cooke was also confronted with an NFL rule obliging him to divest himself of any interests in other professional sporting teams. On May 18, 1979, Cooke sold the team to Jerry Buss, a chemist turned real estate tycoon. The deal, characterized by the New York Times as "the largest single financial transaction in the history of professional sports" and "the most confusing, complex transaction in the history of sports," was valued at $67.5 million and included not only the Lakers but also the L.A. Kings hockey franchise, the Forum, and, reportedly, a lease on New York City's Chrysler Building. The deal almost fell apart the day before it was to close when Buss realized that he was $2.7 million short of funds. The money was raised through last minute phone calls to Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Sam Nassi, who would later purchase the Indiana Pacers.

*Updated post

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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