Southern California and the sports world are lamenting the death of Jerry Buss, the Los Angeles Lakers owner who died early Monday morning. He left a legacy beyond sports.
Buss started his empire with a $1,000 investment in a small Los Angeles apartment building. That grew into a successful real estate investment firm and into enough money for Buss to buy the Lakers.
Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says Buss is one of the few people: "To own a business for 30 plus years, and particularly a business that is so much in the public limelight, and beyond that a business about which everybody who follows it is passionate.”
Zimbalist says Buss was willing to take risks – chief among them, paying more than $67 million for the Lakers, the LA Kings and The Forum in 1979.
“It was a point in time when NBA teams were not terribly profitable. This was pre-Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan days," Zimbalist says. "The financial future of the league was up in the air."
Forbes now ranks the Lakers as the most valuable team in the NBA, worth nearly $1 billion.
The Lakers reached the NBA finals 16 times and won 10 titles in the nearly 34 years Jerry Buss owned the team. While some franchises have flourished – because of a few good drafts or nabbing superstars in their prime – few teams have won as consistently as the Lakers under Buss ownership.
Tony Knopp founded Calabasas-based Spotlight Ticket Management, which handles corporate tickets to pro sports events. He says Buss hired good general managers like Mitch Kupchak and Jerry West and created a brand that any company in any industry can admire.
"The cachet that is the Lakers not only wins championships, not only gets them on Christmas Day television on a regular basis, but it’s become a destination for stars," Knopp says. "It’s become synonymous with winning. That’s all driven from the very top down."
Knopp, who once worked for Anschutz Entertainment Group and the Dodgers, calls Buss a business genius who changed the sports culture of Los Angeles.
"Building the Forum into what it was in the 80s, moving to Staples Center in the late 90s and really turning this into a Laker town – which WAS a Dodger town for a VERY long time," Knopp says. "We’re going to start to realize that: 'Wow, there was a lot more that he was doing than we thought.'"
Speaking of the Dodgers, Knopp says that team’s history offers a good reason for fans to speculate about the future of the Lakers. For a while, nobody expected the O’Malley family to sell the Dodgers, but it happened.
Knopp figures the Buss children have a plan in place to keep the team's success going, but they’re in a tough spot right now, with a dismal season that may see them miss the NBA playoffs.
"The Clippers are one of the best teams in the NBA. The NHL Kings are the defending champions," he says. "And now, Jerry Buss has passed."