Dr. Jerry Buss (1933-2013)
There’s one thing everybody agrees on.
Dr. Jerry Buss was a very nice man.
He died today at the age of 80.
Dr. Buss was best known as the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers — which has been basketball’s most storied franchise for nearly four decades. The great irony of Buss’ tenure with the glamor team that won ten NBA championships during his stewardship was being so unlike the mystical and magical aura of his own team. Throughout the eras dominated by Jabbar, Magic, and Kobe — Dr. Buss was the “anti-Showtime,” opting to let others shine in the spotlight while he stood off in the shadows.
Indeed, Dr. Buss stood apart in the town of tinsel not because he epitomized Hollywood. To the contrary, he’s exactly what one might imagine when you hear that he grew up in a tiny town called Kemmerer, Wyoming. He always looked out of place, sticking out amidst the Armani suits strutting across red carpets and all the world’s prettiest people sitting in his courtside seats at Lakers home games. Instead, he opted for blue jeans and a simple cotton shirt, with the tails usually hanging out.
But as much as he tried to just be normal everyday guy, Dr. Buss came to discover those genuine qualities made him even more endearing to those who were privileged to know him. In contrast to megalomaniacal team owners who use their sports franchises like little girls playing with doll houses, Dr. Buss let his coaches coach and his players play. And more often than not, they answered their owner’s trust by winning.
But that didn’t mean Dr. Buss’ competitive instincts were satisfied. Well into his seventies, he competed regularly in events at the World Series of Poker and WSOP Circuit. His favorite tournaments were Seven-Card Stud events. He even cashed four times in gold bracelet events — not bad for a self-described recreational player who participated in no more than a dozen or so poker events over the course of each year.
Even when his beloved Los Angeles Lakers were winning what would he his tenth and final world championship three years ago, Dr. Buss was no where near the frenzied championship arena. Instead, Dr. Buss was in Las Vegas doing what he loved to do — play poker.
That night, as legendary head coach Phil Jackson was hoisting the championship trophy, Dr. Buss watched the game on television along with a packed room full of poker players. During one of the tournament breaks, I approached Dr. Buss and asked if he’d accept a brief announcement and congratulations from the crowd.
With his customary humility, Dr. Buss tried his best to decline the opportunity for fanfare. But when others around him asked that he take a well-deserved bow, the famed owner finally acquiesced to the demands of fame.
When I took the microphone at the Rio that night, everyone knew what was coming. The words weren’t out of my mouth and already everyone was cheering.
Dr. Buss had no choice but to rise from his seat, smile and wave. When the microphone was passed to him in order to say a few words, he delivered a line so utterly characteristic of the man with so much understated class.
“Thank you all so much. I have a lot of good friends here and this means a lot to me,” he said. “Now, let’s get back to playing poker.”
The room jammed with poker players and fans continued to clap and cheer. For Dr. Buss, there were continued pats on the back and quite a few handshakes. It had nothing at all to do with being Los Angeles Lakers fans. That special night, we were all Dr. Jerry Buss fans.