If there’s anyone in the world who could best tell the story of Dr. Jerry Buss, who died on Feb. 18 at the age of 80, it would be Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic had the unique perspective of being on Buss’ side for 34 years, and he probably knows the man just as well as Buss’ children.
“I was like a son to him and he was like my second father. He allowed me to be one of the Buss boys,” Johnson said on ESPN’s SportsCenter hours after the longtime Lakers owner, Los Angeles entrepreneur, and NBA visionary passed away.
Magic entered the NBA around the same time Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, a $67.5 million mega deal that also included the L.A. Kings and The Forum. At the time it was considered one of the biggest business moves in sports history. Buss had a great eye for talent and used that to his advantage. He had a feeling this Earvin Johnson guy from Michigan State was going to be a star in the NBA, and felt so strongly about it that he was willing to nix the Laker purchase unless then owner Jack Kent Cooke would agree to select Magic with the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft. Kent Cooke chose Johnson, Buss got his man, and 10 NBA championships later the Lakers are now considered the Camelot of basketball.
Johnson relieved all the great memories he had with Buss, and gave a sneak peek at what made the man affectionately known in Southern California as Doc Buss so successful.
“Dr. Buss was just a fun-loving guy. But the man was very competitive. He wanted to bring championships and he brought all of us in together to do that. And at the same time he wanted to be friends to the players,” Johnson said of his mentor, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at USC and was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Johnson credits Buss for a lot of the entertainment we see today at NBA games. From the Laker Girls to the extravagant halftime shows, Buss gave casual fans plenty to cheer about. The Hollywood-type atmosphere brought celebrities to Laker games, as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington, Andy Garcia, Arsenio Hall, and Dyan Cannon became fixtures at courtside.
“He was the first owner who actually cared about entertainment … doing things we haven’t witnessed at a basketball game. He made it an event and he made it fun. He changed the whole scope of basketball. Everybody started [doing it]. He was a pioneer and at the forefront of all of that.”
Aside from his eye for basketball talent, Buss also had an eye for women. Oh, he loved his women and wasn’t afraid to flaunt them every chance he could.
“Dr. Buss loved the Lakers. He loved to play poker. And he loved his women,” Johnson said. “He loved being around beautiful women. That was his thing. Dr. Buss lived a great life. He told me, ‘Earvin, nobody should feel really sad for me because I’ve had a great life. I did everything I wanted to do.’ Here is a guy who grew up dirt poor and had a chance to own the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Johnson added: “He was just a great guy. He would always meet you at the same places, the same Italian restaurant. People don’t know this but he was a great dancer. We used to go out to the nightclubs when I was a lot younger when I could dance all night. We should to go to this club called Pips and he loved to dance, and we would just dance all night. He could outlast me.
“He was just a different owner than anybody in a lot of ways. He was a common guy owner.”
As for the product on the court, Johnson said Buss gave the Lakers “everything we needed” in order to win a championship. “We stayed at the best hotels, we had the best trainers, we had the best equipment, on and on and on. It started with him,” Johnson said.
Buss envisioned a dynamic pairing of Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would produce multiple titles in the 1980s, and his vision came true.
The winning began in the 1979-80 season when Magic led a gimpy Laker squad with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with an ankle injury to Philadelphia in Game 6 and clinched the first of five championships in the ’80s. When Buss fired Paul Westhead and hired Pat Riley in the 1981-82 season, “Showtime” was born and the Lakers have never looked back since.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.