LOS ANGELES — Jerry Buss built a glittering life at the intersection of sports and Hollywood.
After growing up in poverty in Wyoming, he earned success in academia, aerospace, and real estate before discovering his favorite vocation when he bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. While Dr. Buss wrote the checks and fostered partnerships with two generations of basketball greats, the Lakers won 10 NBA titles and became a glamorous global brand.
With a scientist’s analytical skills, a playboy’s flair, a businessman’s money-making savvy, and a diehard hoops fan’s heart, Dr. Buss fashioned the Lakers into a remarkable sports entity. They became a nightly happening, often defined by just one word coined by Buss: Showtime.
Dr. Buss, who shepherded his NBA team from the Showtime dynasty of the 1980s to the current Kobe Bryant era while becoming one of the most important and successful owners in pro sports, died Monday. He was 80.
Under Dr. Buss’s leadership, the star-studded, trophy-winning Lakers became Southern California’s most beloved sports franchise and a signature cultural representation of Los Angeles. Dr. Buss acquired, nurtured, and befriended a staggering array of talented players and basketball minds during his Hall of Fame tenure, from Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy to Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Dwight Howard.
Few owners in sports history can approach Dr. Buss’s accomplishments with the Lakers, who made the NBA Finals 16 times during his nearly 34 years in charge, winning 10 titles between 1980 and 2010. Whatever the Lakers did under Dr. Buss’s watch, they did it big — with marquee players, eye-popping style, and a relentless pursuit of success with little regard to its financial cost.
Dr. Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Bob Steiner, his assistant and longtime friend. Dr. Buss had been hospitalized for most of the past 18 months while undergoing cancer treatment, but the cause of death was kidney failure, Steiner said.
‘‘When someone as celebrated and charismatic as Jerry Buss dies, we are reminded of two things,’’ said Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history. ‘‘First, just how much one person with vision and strength of will can accomplish. Second, how fragile each of us is, regardless of how powerful we were. Those two things combine to inspire us to reach for the stars, but also to remain with our feet firmly on the ground among our loved ones. . . . The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.’’
Ownership of the Lakers is now in a trust controlled by Dr. Buss’s six children, who all have worked for the Lakers in various capacities for several years. With 1,786 victories, the Lakers easily are the NBA’s winningest franchise since he bought the club, which is now run largely by Jim Buss and Jeanie Buss.
Johnson and fellow Hall of Famers Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy formed lifelong bonds with Dr. Buss during the Lakers’ run to five titles in nine years in the 1980s, when the Lakers earned a reputation as basketball’s most exciting team with their flamboyant Showtime repartee.
The Lakers made the Finals nine times in Dr. Buss’s first 12 seasons while rekindling the NBA’s best rivalry with the Boston Celtics. The rivalry heated up again in recent years. The Lakers beat the Celtics in the finals in 2010, two years after Boston took the title over LA.
“I had the pleasure of working with Jerry closely for the last 10 years on league matters,’’ Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said in a statement. “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.’’
Dr. Buss basked in the worldwide celebrity he received from his team’s achievements. His partying became the stuff of Los Angeles legends, with even his players struggling to keep up with Dr. Buss’s lifestyle.
The buzz extended throughout the Forum, where Dr. Buss turned the Lakers’ games into must-see events. He used the Laker Girls, a brass band, and promotions to keep fans interested during all four quarters. Courtside seats, priced at $15 when he bought the Lakers, became the hottest tickets in Hollywood.
Although Dr. Buss gained fame and another fortune with the Lakers, he also was a scholar, Renaissance man, and bon vivant who epitomized California cool his entire public life. He rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm.
Gerald Hatten Buss was born on Jan. 27, 1933, in Salt Lake City, but grew up in Kemmerer, Wyo., raised by his mother, Jessie, who was divorced and worked as a waitress. At times, the boy waited for food in Depression bread lines.
“I can remember standing in a WPA line with a gunny sack and I remember having to buy chocolate milk instead of white because it was one cent cheaper,’’ Dr. Buss told The Boston Globe in 1987.
After stints as a ditch-digger and a bellhop, Dr. Buss earned a doctorate in chemistry from USC at age 24, and had a career in aerospace,
With money from a real-estate ventures, Dr. Buss bought the then-struggling Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and both clubs’ arena — the Forum — from Jack Kent Cooke in a $67.5 million deal that was the largest sports transaction in history at the time.
Last month, Forbes estimated the Lakers were worth $1 billion.