Commentary

In the room with Jerry Buss

A sports writer's nearly three-decade relationship with the Lakers' owner

Updated: March 24, 2010, 3:45 AM ET
By Steve Springer | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

[+] EnlargeJerry Buss
Lori Shepler for ESPNLosAngeles.comJerry Buss purchased the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979.
He knows his father is getting older, Jim Buss once said, but that's easy to overlook because the girls around him remain eternally young.

It's been 31 years since Jerry Buss purchased the Los Angeles Lakers along with the Kings and the Forum. Since then, other sports owners in this town have died, departed, sold out, or wound up in jail or divorce court or, in the case of Donald Sterling, never-ending chaos.

None of the above for Buss. With a babe or two on his lap, a checkbook in his hand and a vision in his mind, he has maintained the commitment to excellence that Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has only dreamed of, putting nine championship banners on the walls of the Staples Center and a steady influx of superstars on the court.

Buss has done so while never threatening to leave town, never fighting publicly with politicians and rarely, if ever, facing accusations of hoarding the team's coffers or ticket gouging.

Winning keeps the natives calm.

Buss has survived and prospered despite the departures of Jerry West and Pat Riley and the retirements of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It hasn't always been smooth. Buss was pounded with criticism when he traded Shaq, stuck with the temperamental Kobe and, upon West's departure, handed over the reins of the empire to an unproven assistant and former player named Mitch Kupchak.

Buss doesn't hear much from those critics these days.

While interviewing Buss in an empty Staples Center ballroom before a Lakers-Toronto Raptors game earlier this month, I was struck by how little has changed since I first interviewed him in the early '80s.

Oh, sure, at 77 he looks older, walks slower, talks softer. But he still answers questions directly and avoids corporate double-talk, still has that hearty laugh and still wears the wardrobe that identifies him with his Wyoming background -- the faded jeans, casual shirts and boots on occasion. No matter how many millions he makes, Buss will never go Hollywood.

He talks more about his kids than his players these days. Talks more about the poker table, where he satisfies his competitive urge, than about the Lakers, where that urge has been satisfied over and over again in the past few decades.

When the microphone was shut off after this interview, Buss kept talking, boasting about two of his sons, Joey, who runs the D-Fenders of the NBA Development League, and Jesse, a scout.

But Buss is hardly ready for the title of owner emeritus. Although the day-to-day operations have been handed over to the next generation, he retains the final say. The team's decision as to whether Phil Jackson will return after this season will be his call and his alone.

The frills no longer interest Buss. He said he has seen enough parades and didn't accompany the team on its January trip to the White House.

But one interest never seems to wane: He still enjoys the company of 20-something females.

After interviewing Buss several years ago, I hung around as he reminisced about one of his favorite moments, the night the Lakers had clinched the 1980 NBA title in Philadelphia.

"What are you guys talking about?" the young woman on his arm asked.

"Something that happened," Buss told her, "before you were even born."

Steve Springer is a freelance journalist and the author of eight books, the last three best-sellers. He was an award-winning sports writer with the Los Angeles Times for 25 years.

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