Lakers owner Jerry Buss dies at 80
Few have ever succeeded at making such a daunting climb, from the nightmarish depths of utter poverty and hopelessness to the soaring heights of unimaginable wealth and power.
At the age of 4, Jerry Buss was standing in a bread line on the frozen soil of Evanston, Wyo., a gunny sack in hand, waiting for the food that would keep him and his single mother, Jesse, alive for another day.
It was 1937, the lingering effects of the Great Depression still gripping parts of the nation.
By the time he had turned 6, Buss’ duties had expanded to include trekking around town in search of old telephone books or other paper products that could be stuffed into the fireplace to provide warmth in a house devoid of heat.
By the time he was 34, exactly three decades after he had stood in that bread line, Buss had made his first million.
By the age of 46, Buss and his business partner, Frank Mariani, had parlayed that million into a real-estate empire that was spread over three states – California, Nevada and Arizona – and was worth an estimated $350 million.
Buss died Monday at the age of 80. For most men, such a swift and impressive rise would have been enough to savor for a lifetime.
Not Jerry Buss. He had his eyes on bigger prizes.
That same year, 1979, he pulled off arguably the most complicated and lucrative transaction in sports history.
Buss’ savvy real-estate investments helped make him a fortune. (Getty Images)Supported by an army of approximately 50 lawyers and accountants, Buss purchased the Lakers, the Kings hockey team, the Inglewood Forum and the 13,000-acre Raljon Ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million. The deal broke down to $33.5 million for the Forum, $16 million for the Lakers, $10 million for the ranch and $8 million for the Kings.
Cooke, in exchange, received the lease to the Chrysler Building in New York, and properties in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland.
When the deal was done, 12 separate escrows finalized, Buss spent his first day at the Forum inspecting the crown jewel of his properties.
As the workday ended and the arena emptied out, he lingered, surrounded by only a few security people.
With no event that night at the Forum, Buss took a chair and walked down to the empty floor where he was surrounded by silence and darkness, except for a few scattered lights.
He sat down at what would be mid-court or center ice, took out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled the magnitude of his surroundings.
In his mind’s eye, he could see the seats packed, his Lakers and Kings moving up and down the floor or ice, his championship banners on the wall.
Smiling, Buss told himself, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
It was never an easy path.
When his mother remarried, Buss found himself in Kemmerer, Wyo., under the yoke of a tough stepfather, Cecil Brown, who ran a plumbing business.
“He was a very tight-fisted guy who had all kinds of weird ideas,” Buss once said. “He wanted me to get up at 4:30 in the morning [often in temperatures of 15 below] and go out and dig ditches in frozen ground so he could lay the plumbing. That was my contribution to the family. Then, after three or four hours of this, I was supposed to go to school.”
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