In his best-selling book Good to Great, business consultant Jim Collins advises organizations to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. When it comes to Los Angeles, the Lakers and USC, Jerry Buss is either in the driver’s seat or sitting up front.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1934, Gerald Hatten “Jerry” Buss worked his way through the University of Wyoming in two and a half years before beginning his lifelong journey at USC. By the age of 24, Buss, always on the fast track, had earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.
Studying chemistry in USC Dornsife prepared Buss for work as a government chemist and then as an aerospace chemist. An educator at heart, he soon began teaching chemistry in USC Dornsife and, to support his life as a professor, began investing in L.A. property with longtime business partner Frank Mariani.
In the ’60s, Buss made the first of a string of smart investments in West Los Angeles real estate through the purchase of an apartment building with five friends for $6,000. He continued to buy and sell numerous properties including the Pickfair Mansion, the honeymoon home of actor Douglas Fairbanks and actress Mary Pickford.
In 1979 Buss purchased the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, the Forum, and a large ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million, which made the deal the largest transaction in sports history at that time.
“I was interested in buying the Dodgers and before that I had tried to buy a football team several times,” he said, “but teams don’t change hands often in a large community like Los Angeles.”
For basketball fans everywhere, it was fortuitous that Buss and the Lakers came together.
Applying an innovative style of ownership and an intuitive sense of marketing and promotion, Buss has changed the face of the league and been the indomitable force behind the Lakers’ 10 NBA championships.
As a testament to NBA changes through the decades, Buss said, “The first player contract I signed was for $240,000 and the last one I signed was for $25 million. The finals used to be taped delayed and played later at night. Now they are one of the highest-rated shows on television.”
Buss firmly believes that a structured university education and a degree in the liberal arts prepare students for the workplace and to communicate effectively with others. “You may not use a history major every day, but you know what’s going on in the world, you read papers, you watch television, you understand.”
Great mentoring is another quintessential gift of education that keeps on giving, said Buss.
Though some people may find the storyline of the popular film Pay It Forward overly sentimental and optimistic, Buss says it is his real life experience.
After becoming a success, Buss made a special effort to do something for his first mentor Walt Garrett, a high school chemistry teacher and the primary impetus for Buss’ decision to attend college. “I asked Walt what I could do to repay him for the guidance and confidence he bestowed on me, and in essence he told me to ‘pay it
While studying at USC, Buss encountered two more influential mentors who recognized his talent and intelligence: USC Dornsife professors of chemistry Sydney Benson and David Dows.
Buss said that mentors can play different roles in a life and can be inspiring in nuanced ways. “Sydney is a genius and I looked up to him like he lived in the clouds — he inspires you, and you decide you have to work harder to reach heights that he has attained himself.”
Buss waxed poetically on the topic of the importance of a good education. “Good teachers are where the good education begins, but they are not necessarily famous teachers but are good fundamental teachers,” he said. “Some take the job to have the ability to do research, but those who really enjoy teaching view it as a goal unto itself.”
Buss also values education for the doors it has opened up in his life. “Having a doctoral degree has given me an audience I might not have enjoyed, which is also the case when someone is introduced as a graduate of USC — you gain an immediate credibility.
“I love when someone asks me where he or she should go to school and I say ’SC. I love USC.”
In April 2010, Buss was named a member of the 2010 induction class of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and was formally enshrined as a contributor to the sport a few months later in a ceremony surrounded by family.
“Those who are professionals in that sport recognize your excellence, so it is exciting,” he said. “I am also still a kid and feel like asking for an autograph when I meet famous athletes.”
Jeanie, Buss’ daughter and executive vice president of business operations for the Lakers said, “My dad stands as the most winning owner of any professional league, not just basketball.
“What he has accomplished in his 30 plus years of ownership is a phenomenon and hopefully will stand the test of time.”
Another important and much prized accolade received by Buss is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “This meant a great deal to me because in addition to loving USC and the Lakers, I love Los Angeles and am very proud to be a part of its history.”
Laker legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson said that “Dr. Buss is Hollywood and has put his stamp on Los Angeles, no question about it.”
Claiming to be in semi-retirement now, Buss is busier than ever. In almost daily contact with all six of his children who play pivotal roles in the Lakers organization, he said, “It is unusual for someone with six kids to talk with their children as often as I do, but since they are intimately involved in the Lakers organization, we have this in common and I feel very lucky.”
But when it comes to his success, luck is not the main driver. According to NBA Commissioner David Stern, “He has owned the team 31 years and they have been in the NBA Finals 16 times — luck doesn’t last that long.”
Similar to most ardent Lakers fans, Buss said, “winning is addictive and once you get on that winning track you desire more than the last one. It’s almost unfortunate but it drives me.
“It’s hard to visualize me being in any other city than Los Angeles, which has it all as far as I am concerned with beaches and mountains. It pretty much had to be Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles, the Lakers and USC: it’s a formidable triangle defense, by any measure.