It is the biggest financial transaction in sports history. It involves $67.5 million paid for two major league teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings, and one of the nation's finest arenas, the 17,505-seat Forum. It includes, almost as an afterthought, a ranch in the California Sierras of 13,000 acres, about half the size of the city of San Francisco. The deal propels to center stage one of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs in sport—or in any other category of big dealing, for that matter.
He is Jerry Hatten Buss, 46, an amiable and intelligent Los Angeles multimillionaire who extravagantly admires, among other things, M & M candy, French existentialists, any and all USC football teams, any and all Playboy centerfold girls, rare coins, rare stamps, rare cars and rare bargains in real estate.
A man's books may not be a fair test of his personality, but Jerry Buss is a habitual reader and, thus, they are instructive if not definitive. Side by side on the same shelf in his office are Panic & Crashes and How You Can Make Money out of Them, Bruce Catton's Grant Takes Command, Irving Wallace's The Nympho and Other Maniacs, a textbook called Chemical Calculations and a slim volume titled Baldness: Is It Necessary? At home, Buss says, he is currently reading the Iliad.
His persona is an amalgam of Horatio Alger and Hugh Hefner; of sugar daddy, devoted father, accountant, real estate wheeler-dealer and aerospace scientist. Buss comes on in a manner that mixes cowboy swagger with movie star glamour, college professor smarts with pool hustler chic. He habitually wears a pair of almost disgustingly shabby Levi's, a Western shirt open to reveal the gray hairs of his chest, and shiny black cowboy boots. His hair is silvery, long and curly at the nape of the neck, with a thick-woven thatch on top, which proves baldness is indeed not necessary. He is tall and handsome in a way that is vaguely mindful of a ravaged Robert Redford crossed with a slightly rejuvenated Ronald Reagan. His smile displays perfect teeth, which are every bit as white and well made as the $127,500 Rolls-Royce Camargue he drives. He is, in a sense, the archetype of a certain breed of Bel Air millionaire—acquisitive, aggressive, restless, obsessed with good looks and rich in an assortment of playthings, playmates and possessions that ordinary men can only covet.
June 17, 1979
Yet Buss says he is a devotee of Camus and Sartre, and in his real estate office associates habitually call him Doctor Buss. This refers to a Ph.D. in physical chemistry that he earned at USC in 1957 at the age of 24. One of his doctoral dissertations was entitled "The Bond Dissociation Energy of Toluene," another, he says, dealt with "thermochemical prediction." For a brief time he taught chemistry at USC. But, he says, "Actually, I'm probably more of a mathematician than a chemist. To some people, numbers are as comfortable as words. They fascinate me, they're my passion. I'll notice the number of miles on the odometer of a friend's car, and I'll figure how much he drives. Then, maybe weeks later, I'll call him up and ask if I can go for a ride with him and watch while his odometer turns past 100,000 miles."
It wasn't the numbers on odometers that preoccupied Buss in recent weeks, however. The deal to buy the Lakers, the Kings and The Forum from the redoubtable Jack Kent Cooke was a complex and time-consuming project. Cooke and Buss first met three years ago when Buss rented The Forum in connection with his initial plunge into professional sports—the Los Angeles Strings of ill-fated World Team Tennis.
"We had all kinds of trouble at the L.A. Sports Arena," says Buss, "and Jack agreed to cut the usual rent way back at The Forum for us. It wasn't charity. He made money on the Strings. He also became a real mentor to me. He convinced me that superstars were worth the money they cost and, because of him, I got Ilie Nastase for the Strings and later Chris Evert. I think one reason he sold his teams to me is that he believes I will continue his legacy."
Cooke, 66, had come to Los Angeles in 1962 with a fortune earned in Canadian broadcasting and publishing. He bought the Lakers for the then exorbitant price of slightly more than $5 million from Bob Short. In 1966 he launched the Kings franchise for $2 million, and in 1967 he built The Forum for $16 million. Cooke increased his fortune mightily by purchasing a large interest in Teleprompter and 86% of the ownership of the Washington Redskins. He was a consummate fan of his teams; at one point he said, "I'd like to attend an athletic contest every night—365 days a year—and see a team I own. It's a personal indulgence. Money ceases to be an object after a while."
Unfortunately, money became about the only object in Cooke's life during a mean and costly divorce proceeding, which finally ended in March. It had dragged on for 2½ years and had involved 41 lawyers and 12,000 pages of documents. Cooke ultimately gave his wife an estimated $41 million—reportedly the largest divorce settlement in California history. Until the case was closed, Cooke's holdings were, in effect, frozen, but from the moment it was over he and Buss were huddling.
Buss had been interested in buying a major league franchise for years. As early as 1970 he considered purchasing the ABA's Los Angeles Stars. He once tried to trade half of his Ocotillo Lodge, a resort in Palm Springs, for a piece of the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors, and he has put out feelers about buying the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A's. Except for the defunct Strings, Buss came up empty every time, until he and Cooke came to terms three weeks ago.
The deal is this: Buss and his partners will pay $43.5 million for The Forum and the Raljon Ranch near Bakersfield. Buss, on his own, will pay $24 million for the Lakers and Kings, and will own the teams personally. He and his partners will assume an approximate $10 million mortgage on The Forum. Cooke has a choice of taking the remaining $57.5 million in cash or $20 million in cash and $37.5 million in real estate, choosing his properties from a list drawn up by Buss' corporation, Mariani-Buss Associates. Cooke has a month or more to decide what form of payment to accept, but Buss says, "I would imagine he'll opt for a tax-free exchange and take the real estate. If he takes only cash, it could cost him an extra $9 million or so in taxes."
The deal is considered closed for all practical purposes, although there remains the ritualistic matter of official approval from the NBA and NHL for Buss to own the teams. No problems are anticipated.
Just what kind of an owner will Jerry Buss be? He is a full-fledged, heart-on-his-sleeve sports fan when it comes to his alma mater, USC, and he spends many sentimental hours recalling long-gone football games and track meets, reliving with almost misty eyes the broken-field runs of Jon Arnett and the 100-yard dashes of Mel Patton. Yet, when he talks about his newly acquired teams, Buss has no mist in his eyes, only dollar signs. "The Lakers are a good ordinary investment," he says, "nothing spectacular. In the past, they have probably averaged around $500,000 a year in operational profits, and the franchise value has appreciated $500,000 a year. You could get about the same return with high-quality bonds. However, if we get into some pay television there, that could add as much as $2.5 million in profits."
And the Kings? Less good. "With the Kings, you have the all-important question: Can hockey ever be a West Coast sport? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that. The Kings definitely lose money every year. In their very best year they lost $200,000. In the worst year they lost $1.5 million. They average about $700,000 a year in losses. However, in the first few operating years, the tax treatment would be such as to allow a breakeven situation as regards cash flow. To make money steadily, the Kings have to sell another 3,000 season tickets. If they can, great. If not, I've made a bad deal."
And The Forum? "I like to buy real estate that can't be replaced. The Forum is like that—30 acres of commercial real estate in a very desirable location. If anyone tried to build a Forum today, they'd have to charge $15,000 a night, not $10,000. So it's effectively irreplaceable. It's rented now about 220 times a year. If we got that up to 260 times, we'd have a very profitable venture. Also, we're in a controlling position for all pay TV out of The Forum. We get a piece of it for any concerts or boxing matches or whatever. That could also help make it a very profitable venture."
Buss insists he will be a strong influence on both of his teams. He intends to have a "long talk" with the often-aloof Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Within days after his purchase of the club was announced, Buss may have solved a potentially nasty situation by arranging to keep former Laker Coach Bill Sharman as general manager and at the same time offering Jerry West a front-office job of equal rank that will enable him to gracefully give up his coaching duties, which he has grown to abhor. Buss was kept constantly informed by Cooke of the negotiations that resulted in the signing of Earvin (Magic) Johnson.
Jerry Buss grew up in Kemmerer, Wyo., where J. C. Penney opened his first store. Fittingly enough for a man who would eventually be worth $50 million personally and be a partner in a real estate company with holdings of $350 million, Buss became a compulsive Monopoly player. "I played so much Monopoly that my friends wouldn't even go near a game with me," he says. "I got so I'd play alone, using 20 or 30 tokens and making all the decisions for all of them by myself. I finally got so I could play entire games with imaginary players using only a pair of dice—no cards or tokens or money. I'd keep track in my head of everybody's moves and deals and how much money they had and which properties they owned."
Buss' home life was not entirely happy. His mother, an accountant, and father, a C.P.A. who taught statistics at Berkeley for a time, divorced when he was a baby. His mother remarried, and they lived in Los Angeles during World War II. His high school years were spent in Kemmerer; at one point he left home to live over a pool hall. He became so adept at pool that a high school teacher once banked him for a night of $50-a-game competition. Buss won. "My secret ambition then was to be a gambler," he says. Instead, he decided to drop out of school and become a gandy dancer on the Union Pacific. It was a brutal life. "There'd be two, three fights a day," he says. "It was pretty exciting for a 16-year-old kid. You'd never know what those guys would do. I kept my mouth shut most of the time."
Then he spotted an employment list in the local post office for civil service chemists, a job that paid a bit more than the railroad. Buss returned to high school, graduated and went to Laramie, where he worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a chemist at the Bureau of Mines and attended the University of Wyoming during the day. He graduated with a degree in chemistry in 2½ years when he was only 19. So impressive were his grades that he was offered scholarships at Harvard, Michigan, Cal Tech and USC, among other schools. Buss picked USC "because of football and the weather," and got his master's and his Ph.D.
At first, Buss decided that he wanted to be a college professor, "But what a shock. I had been making maybe $500 a month at odd jobs while going to school—and teaching paid $550. I finally got $750 a month at USC. It was O.K. for a while, but I finally decided to go East for a change."
Buss got a job with Arthur D. Little, a Boston business consulting firm. He was employed there for a year as a trouble-shooter working the snags out of a TV-set production line, solving problems in steel-beam construction and eliminating confusion over how to distribute Sears Roebuck catalogs. "This was all strictly a matter of kinetic equations and logic," he says. "The work appealed to me, but I'm strictly a Californian and I didn't want to stay in Boston." Back in Los Angeles, he went to work in the missile division of McDonnell Douglas and then quit ("We never talked about anything but weapons and war") and took a position at a space laboratory for a time. But the regimentation and enforced uniformity of the aerospace industry irked him. "I'd turn my head," he says, "and all I could see were 500 desks, 500 white shirts and 500 different-colored neckties—which was the only way to distinguish us. We were a herd of very educated cattle."
In 1959 Buss and a fellow employee, chemical engineer Frank Mariani (who is still his partner), pooled some money to buy a small apartment house in West Los Angeles, then another and another until, in July of 1962, Buss quit the world of science for good and went into real estate full time. Mariani followed a bit later. Their corporation deals mostly in residential buildings, but also owns three hotels.
Buss' firm prospered and he became very rich—rich enough to indulge himself in just about any whim. He goes to almost every USC football game—home and away. He is a candy fiend; his office is laden with jars, jugs and dishes of M & Ms and other chocolates. He began collecting stamps as a boy in Wyoming and now keeps his albums in a bank vault. As Buss turns the pages, he murmurs, "That's $250,000 worth on that page, about $150,000 on this one, damn near $100,000 here...." He also has what he calls the three rarest U.S. coins extant, which together are worth about $800,000: a 1913 Liberty Head nickel ("This is from King Farouk's collection"), an 1804 first-run silver dollar ("There were two million made, only six are known to exist") and an 1894 "S" dime.
As for cars, Buss now owns only the Rolls-Royce Camargue, but he once had a Jaguar XKE, a Lamborghini, a Maserati Bora and a Ferrari Daytona. "I guess the cars thing came from the fact that I never had an automobile in Wyoming," he says. "If I asked a girl to a dance, we'd have to walk—and 10-below weather is tough on corsages."
No one walks when Buss asks girls to go dancing these days. He dates them by the dozen. "When I have time, I date one for lunch and another for dinner every day," he says. Indeed, just as he is ready to show anyone his stamp and coin collections, so is he quick to offer a look at his girl collection. He brings out a thick photo album, which he pages through fondly, pointing at the pictures of myriad gorgeous young women. He muses aloud, page after page, "She was Miss something or other.... This one is a model, what a beautiful woman.... This one is a Ram cheerleader.... This was a Playboy foldout.... This is possibly the most striking girl I've ever seen...." When the last page in the photo album is turned, Buss pulls out a shoe box filled with perhaps hundreds of snapshots of other young women he has gone out with. "...This one was a foldout.... This one is an actress.... This one models bathing suits.... Rams cheerleader.... A foldout...."
Buss is obviously a man-about-town, but he insists that he doesn't seek—or enjoy—celebrity status. "I don't like the tinsel part of this town," he says. He is still close to his four children by his former marriage. They visit him often in his Bel Air mansion, and he says, "They're the most important thing in my life." Yet there is that aura of conspicuous consumption about Buss that seems to generate its own tinsel. Until now, as a mere real estate magnate and owner of a defunct tennis team that lost him $2.5 million, he has kept a fairly low profile out of choice—both his and the public's. Now, however, as the new owner of not one but two big league teams as well as an arena where he hopes to promote super-spectaculars, such as a heavyweight championship fight, he is going to be a highly visible public property around Los Angeles.
It's hard to imagine a place and a personality better suited to each other. It's also hard to see when Dr. Buss will have time to finish the Iliad.