In a town where misguided terms like celebrity and fame get thrown around about as often as a new stadium proposal is sent to the NFL, it’s not surprising that Los Angeles’ most successful living sports figure has been largely overlooked by a society more enthralled with activity than achievement.
Yet, if you were to ask Jerry Buss, that’s probably the way he prefers it.
Regardless of the USC alum’s contentment with living in relative obscurity, free from the praise and adoration bestowed upon his employees and renowned investment these past 31 years, it’s time we tip our caps, raise our glasses and applaud until our hands go numb, because — let’s face it — he is more than overdue for a good old-fashioned Hollywood spotlight.
In this 21st century world of sports, owners are no longer just wealthy, well-dressed, aging men looking to frivolously spend a few bucks for mere entertainment.
No, today’s breed of owners are convinced they are the entertainment.
Somewhere in the industry’s modern-day about-face, these dot-com billionaires, affluent bankers and real estate moguls have fled from behind the glass of their cozy luxury suites and into the front rows of an arena near you.
While for any franchise it’s important to have a face, an identity for the people to relate to, that representation should not be of a grown man flicking off fans or waving a foam finger or cursing out referees after a blown call.
For as long as I can remember there has been an established order in the world of sports: Players play, coaches coach, fans cheer and owners watch from afar as their investment grows. Sadly, that appears to be nothing more than a fleeting image these days.
However, just as I was about to say my final goodbyes and bury this now-indistinguishable concept, I found myself mesmerized by Buss, who just moments after the Lakers captured their 16th title in franchise history, took the time to remind me that some owners still value the age-old notion that whole is still greater than the sum of its parts.
When Buss first arrived in Los Angeles back in 1953, there were no dreams of ticker tape parades, no lofty goals of championship rings, no aspirations of overseeing one of the most powerful sports brands in the world. In fact, sports did not bring him to this place that would one day play host to his life’s masterpiece —education did.
Buss’s path to the pinnacle of the industry began with a master’s and doctorate from USC in, of all things, physical chemistry.
While he would ultimately make his life’s fortune in the housing market rather than a field that aptly suited his post-graduate degrees, his lasting impact on this city and its sports scene was ultimately the by-product of his uncanny ability to instill one central ingredient into the business of running a franchise: chemistry.
On paper, a chemistry major turned real estate entrepreneur looked like a bad match for an organization in need of an owner who could handle the pressure of pleasing championship-crazed fans in a town where success and pizzazz are yearly expectations, not over-sized dreams. But since his landmark purchase of the Lakers, Kings and the arena in which they would play in 1979 ($67.5 million was the largest sports transaction in history at the time), all Buss has done is put the title back in title-holder.
From drafting Ervin “Magic” Johnson, to hiring coaching icons Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, to reinvigorating the nightly fan experience with cheerleaders and A-list celebrities, to moving the team to a brand new, state-of-the-art arena in the heart of Downtown, every choice made during his 31 years of ownership has been a testament to his willingness to do what it takes to create an atmosphere conducive to organizational excellence — both in terms of banners hanging in the rafters and in the minds of those who walk through the turnstiles from October to June.
What makes the 76-year-old owner so rare, though, is not the statistics his franchise has accumulated in 31 years. Sure, it’s easy to get lost in the 10 NBA titles, the 16 Western Conference championships, the 29 playoff appearances and the astonishing amount of enshrinement ceremonies held for his former employees in Springfield, Mass., over the years.
These numbers never get old reciting if you bleed purple and gold, but it’s been done before in other sports, just ask George Steinbrenner.
But where Steinbrenner’s passion for winning at all costs has largely been criticized over the years as a detriment to the game, for Buss, the anti-Machiavellian figure, the thrill is as much about the means as it is the ends.
Although intermolecular forces and reaction kinetics have no place in a world dominated by eight-figure salaries and ego-filled athletes, the central principle remains the same: combining mixed parts to find the ideal formula. And in that regard, the chemist in Buss makes for the perfect owner — a man willing to defer responsibility and authority if it’s in the best interest of all involved.
His name may be attached to the deed of the franchise, but Buss recognizes that money has afforded him a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege that allows him the opportunity to share the blessing and the burden of overseeing a professional sports franchise with the thousands of names and faces unrecognizable to even the most die-hard of enthusiasts.
We tend to view sports on the surface, and in that sense, Buss’ finest leadership qualities go unnoticed. While it is easier to associate the Lakers with the high-arching hook of Kareem, the majestic no-look passes of Magic and the once-in-a-generation shot making abilities of Kobe, neglecting to value the significance of Buss’ imprint on the franchise’s historic rise to worldwide acclaim during the past three decades sends a chilling message — one that further promotes the declining values that have slowly permeated one of the most sought-after positions in the industry.
It is an industry wrought with divorce proceedings, YouTube drunken follies and men who view stature and title as an excuse to choose self-promotion over organizational preservation.
However, before you, too, say your final farewells to the games as you knew them, look no further than the astonishing journey that Buss took — and it all began at the gates of USC. It is a timeless success story that illustrates even in sports there is hope, that the mundanity of excellence and character can still prevail over the shock-and- awe value of scandal.
And this August, the former Trojan will make his way to another Hall of Fame ceremony in Springfield. Only this time, it will finally be a ceremony in his honor.
Odds are, during this moment of celebration, Buss will be quick to thank others, smile politely and then continue to walk off the stage back behind the anonymity on the other side of the glass — a fitting exit for man who hasn’t let fame and celebrity steer him away from upholding the integrity of the job.
“For The Love Of The Game” ran every other Wednesday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at