Important Lakers

Jerry Buss

 

Amid the pageantry of the Lakers' ring ceremony for their 2010 championship, Kobe Bryant wanted to make sure one man received the proper credit.

"None of this would have been possible," the superstar guard told the Staples Center crowd, "without the greatest owner in the history of team sports … Mr. Jerry Buss."

Certainly, no owner in team sports has been more successful.

Since Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, they have won 10 championships and been to the NBA Finals 16 times. Only twice in that span have they missed the playoffs.

While building the Lakers into one of the premier franchises in sports, he's done so with a certain flair.

"Right after I bought the team, I used to go into this little lounge in Santa Monica," Buss said in an interview with Times columnist Bill Plaschke in 2008. "The owner was also the musical director for MGM and they used to perform musicals there late at night, it was fantastic. Just before they would start, everyone would start shouting, 'Showtime! Showtime!' I remember thinking, this is how I wanted people to feel about their team."

Attending a Lakers game means not only watching the players, but also taking in the Laker Girls and the Hollywood stars sitting courtside. It's not just 48 minutes of basketball, it's a social event, the place to be. Buss' greatest accomplishment may be that the Lakers have passed the Dodgers to become the team in Los Angeles.

Buss purchased the Lakers, the NHL's Kings, the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 for $67.5 million, at the time the largest transaction in sports history.
Today, the Lakers are valued at about $600 million.

"If you talk about the fan experience, he was way ahead of the curve," Lakers Hall of Fame guard Magic Johnson said in August of 2010 on the eve of Buss, induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. "He was way ahead of his time, with the team on the court, with the Laker Girls, with the band. He really understood fan experience way before it become common like it is now."

Buss, an avid poker player, has never been shy to take a gamble with the Lakers. He has let go of three coaches (Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson) who won him championships. He traded Shaquille O'Neal two years after the center finished a three-season run as the MVP of the Finals.

Buss points out that the trade of O'Neal eventually led to the Lakers' acquiring Pau Gasol, who helped them win championships in 2009 and 2010. Gasol was an expensive pickup in terms of salary, but that's nothing new for Buss. The Lakers had the league's highest payroll in 2010 and have been paying a luxury tax for being above the league's salary cap for years.

But Buss knows that to have a winning team, you need to spend. In 1981, he gave Johnson a 25-year, $25-million contract, at the time the highest-paying contract in sports history.

"I’m the luckiest guy I ever met," Buss said in 2008. "I have the best job in the world. I’m very, very fortunate. I’m just happy running the Lakers."

In February, 2013, Buss was hospitalized with an undisclosed form of cancer and was visited by several former Lakers, including Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.

— Hans Tesselaar
Feb. 15, 2013

Jack Kent Cooke

 

Jack Kent Cooke did things on a grand scale.

He became a billionaire media and real estate tycoon after starting as a traveling encyclopedia salesman.

He married four women, three in the last 20 years of his life. The financial settlement from his first divorce was the largest in history at the time.

So it was no surprise that in his time as owner of the Lakers, Cooke continually made headlines, good and bad.
He purchased the struggling team in 1965 for a then-unheard-of sum of $5.175 million. Only eight years earlier, Bob Short bought the team for $140,000.

Cooke told the public commission that ran the Los Angeles Sports Arena that the lease terms for the Lakers to play there were unnacceptable. They would need to be changed or he would build his own arena. The commissioners laughed at him.

Cooke built his arena.

And so the Forum in Inglewood came to be in 1967, at a price tag of $16 million. It wasn’t just the Forum, but the Fabulous Forum, a classic colonnaded arena that was Cooke’s most famous real estate holding until he bought the Chrysler Building. It housed not only the Lakers, but the Kings, purchased as an expansion franchise from the NHL by Cooke in 1966. Cooke also staged everything from heavyweight boxing to midget auto racing at the Forum.

Cooke desperately wanted an NBA title and he thought he secured one when he traded for superstar center Wilt Chamberlain in June of 1968. The Lakers had lost six times in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics (including 1968) and Cooke was convinced that adding Chamberlain to a roster with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor would make the difference.

So confident was he that before Game 7 of the Finals in 1969, he planned how the victory celebration would take place. Balloons were placed in the rafters at the Forum. The Celtics found out about the plans and left the Lakers and Cooke with more heartache.

Cooke finally got his title in 1972, as the Lakers won a then-NBA record 69 games in the regular season and rolled in the playoffs.

In 1975, Cooke made another blockbuster trade, acquiring superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1979, Cooke and the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson.

But Cooke never got to enjoy the Magic-Kareem years as owner. He sold the Lakers and Kings in 1979 to Jerry Buss for $67.5 million, at the time the largest transaction in sports history. The sale helped Cooke pay off a divorce settlement of more than $40 million.

Cooke, who become majority owner of the Washington Redskins in 1974, enjoyed more success in football than he did in basketball and hockey. The Redskins won three Super Bowls during his ownership and he secured plans for a new football stadium in 1996.

He never got to watch a game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field), as he died in April of 1997 of cardiac arrest. The stadium opened five months later.

Cooke was 84, having enjoyed a life he once described as “better than any F. Scott Fitzgerland novel.”

— Hans Tesselaar
Feb. 12, 2011

Chick Hearn

 

There are three statues representing Lakers icons outside Staples Center. Only two of them are basketball players.

But it speaks to the importance of Chick Hearn that his likeness joins Magic Johnson and Jerry West in bronze perpetuity.

It was the spoken word that made Hearn such a part of Lakers history. He was the team’s only broadcaster in Los Angeles until his death at age 85 in 2002. When the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960, he was instrumental in introducing professional basketball to Southern California sports fans.

He called 3,338 consecutive games, a streak that started in 1965 and ended in December of 2001 after he had heart surgery. His distinctive high-speed delivery and inventive vocabulary made him one of the greatest play-by-play announcers in history.

Among Hearn’s phrases (his “Chickisms”) were "air ball," "slam dunk" and "yo-yoing up and down." A defender fooled by an opponent was “faked into the popcorn machine.” If a player mishandled the ball after an unnecessary move, Hearn was fond of saying, "The mustard’s off the hot dog."

And when the Lakers had secured victory, Hearn would say, "This game is in the refrigerator. The door is closed. The light is out. The eggs are cooling. The butter is getting hard. And the Jell-O is jiggling."

Hearn had a chance to say that often, as the Lakers won nine NBA titles with him at the mike. His last game was their victory over New Jersey that clinched a third consecutive championship in June of 2002. He was enshrined in the baskeball Hall of Fame in 2003.

Hearn also served as the Lakers’ assistant general manager for awhile and had one of five votes when the team made the franchise-altering move of acquiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwakuee Bucks in 1975. Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson led the Lakers to five championships in the 1980s.

When Hearn died a few days after a fall at his Encino home, Johnson summed up the feeling of many players: “I'll never forget all those times when I needed a hug, when I needed a high five, he told me, 'It's going to be all right.' He always uplifted me and uplifted other people, and I'll tell you something, basketball and the Lakers, without him calling the games, it would have never been the same.”

— Hans Tesselaar
Feb. 17, 2011