Commentary

The answer man

Iconic Lakers owner Jerry Buss riffs on his team, USC and poker

Updated: March 24, 2010, 6:28 PM ET
By Steve Springer | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Jerry BussLori Shepler/ESPNLosAngeles.comAt 77 years of age, Jerry Buss' competitive fire still burns hot, especially when talking poker.
His reputation assured, his fortune secured, the reins of his organization in the hands of his offspring, but the ultimate power still in his grasp, Jerry Buss, at 77, could be content with life in the slow lane, enjoying the excellence of his Lakers from the vantage point of his luxury box.

The most successful sports owner in L.A. history, Buss has put nine championship banners on the walls of Staples Center. As owner of the defending NBA champions, Buss has been praised by Magic Johnson from the floor of the arena during the October banner-raising ceremony and by President Barack Obama in the White House during another event to honor the team.

But for this old lion, winter is still a time to prowl. There are young women to date and a new challenge to take on to satisfy the competitive juices that never seem to stop flowing.

Buss sat down recently with ESPNLosAngeles.com to discuss his passions, old and new, his family and his first love in sports, the USC Trojans.


Question: Are you comfortable with your current level of involvement with the Lakers?

Answer: I'm exactly where I want to be. Eighty percent of the basketball decisions are made by [my son] Jimmy and all of the business side is handled by [my daughter] Jeanie. I don't have anything to do with that.

I now have the time to pursue another profession. I'm going to become a professional poker player. Well, let's say I'm going to become a poker player. Whether I can earn a living at it is questionable. But I do play in the World Series of Poker all the time.


[+] EnlargeJerry Buss
Vince Bucci/Getty ImagesJerry Buss and his passion. Well, make that two of his passions in one photograph. (Actually, this is fellow player and actress Bai Ling.)

Q: There was a photo of you taken during last year's Lakers victory parade. You were watching it from the vantage point of a poker table in a casino. Some interpreted that as a sign you are no longer as involved or as interested in the Lakers as you once were. Is that a fair assessment?

A: Well, you know, parades aren't competitive. If you are talking about games, I'll be there. I'm very competitive and very involved in the team, but as for parades, I'm getting up there in age and those things are very exhausting, not really for people who are 77 years old.


Q: Why the fascination with poker?

A: The competition. I can't think of too many things I can do as easily as that and be competitive at my age.


Q: I'd be correct in guessing you are not in it for the money?

A: No, for the ego, for sure.


Q: Do you take as much pride in walking away from the table a winner as you do in seeing the Lakers walk off the court winners?

A: I probably do, but they are different things. When the Lakers win, I kind of feel Los Angeles wins. And my family, in particular, wins. But when I win in a tournament, I feel that's my individual accomplishment. I don't have that individual feeling for the Lakers.


[+] EnlargeAces
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThese days, many of Jerry Buss' dreams and aspirations include this vision.
Q: Are you getting better at poker?

A: This is a game that requires high mathematical skills. Early in my career, I wanted to be a mathematician. I have always wondered, how good could I have been as a poker player? Now I have time to do it. Of course, I am kind of a slow learner at this stage, but I have had some success and that makes me very happy. I have been on TV quite a few times as a poker player.


Q: How often do you play?

A: About twice a week.


Q: Where do you play?

A: Mostly at the casinos here in L.A., but sometimes at the Indian casinos and sometimes Vegas.


Q: How does it feel to watch your children sitting in the seat of power you have so long occupied?

A: I text them at least once a month, saying, "Do you have any idea how proud of you I am?" What makes me feel that way is not only that they are running the organization, but that they are doing so well, perhaps better than I would do.

There is also a sense of relief knowing you are able to turn your back on your business and still be happy with it. And confident things will go well.


Jeanie Buss

Buss

Q: Jeanie was in New York last weekend to attend a league meeting. At this point, how closely do you monitor those gatherings of your fellow owners?

A: She'll call to give me a rundown. I'm always curious to know what her contribution was. After I talk to her, I feel like I was actually there because she does such a good job of reporting.


Q: Do you coach her about what to watch out for from some of the older owners that you are more familiar with?

A: I do. I tell her, this is a person who is going to feel this way about so-and-so, because some of these people I've known for 15 to 20 years. Then Jeanie and I discuss it and sometimes we disagree.

It's rough for a woman. She's often the only lady in the room. One always wonders, is she going to be tough enough because most of those guys came up the hard way and are hardened businessmen. But quite honestly, I've talked to [NBA commissioner] David Stern and he says she holds her own. She may do it in a more gentle fashion than some of the others in the room, but she gets her points across.


[+] EnlargeLakers Banners
Noah GrahamThe Lakers have won 15 NBA championships as a franchise, nine with Jerry Buss as the owner.
Q: Looking at your own accomplishments as Lakers owner, when you bought the team 31 years ago, did you envision even in your wildest imagination, just how big the team would become in this city?

A: That was certainly my ambition. I guess everybody kind of reaches for the stars if they have some confidence in what they do. Why dream if you don't think you can succeed?

My dream really was to have the Lakers and Los Angeles identified as one and the same. When I was just a fan, I used to really object when I would go to see the Lakers playing New York and most of the crowd would be ex-New Yorkers cheering for the Knicks. Then the next time, it would be the same with some other team. When you think New York, you think Yankees. I wanted that to be the case here as well. That when you think L.A., you think Lakers. I believe I've accomplished that.


Q: Any regrets about the last 31 years?

A: Some of the trades have been tough on me. When Nick Van Exel left, that was hurtful. The Norm Nixon trade was very hurtful, but he made it easy for me because he understood and, still today, Norm and I hug as much as any two guys. So I feel good about that. Firing Paul Westhead was a very, very rough thing because, as a man, I really admired him. When Pat Riley and I realized it was time to part ways, that was sad, the end of an era.


Q: And would you say the worst moment came in 1991, when you learned Magic Johnson was HIV positive?

A: That was devastating, one of the shocks of my life.


Magic Johnson

Johnson

Q: When he stood up at his press conference and said he was going to beat this disease, most people thought he was in denial. Did you believe him?

A: Well I must admit, I probably believe in Magic more than anybody. And, of course, it was HIV. It was not full-blown AIDS. And I knew he was always in great condition. Earvin is not someone who has a cognac here and there. So I had hopes for him.


Q: There was a claim in a recent Internet story that, because of the failure of the Lakers to offer Phil Jackson a contract extension to this point, there is a tension among members of the Buss family. Is that true?

A: We really want to get through the year and then take a deep breath and see where we are. If I were to go to Phil right now and say, "Will you coach next year?" he'd say, "Well, let's wait until the end of the year and see how I feel." So, I don't think it causes any tension. I know I have to wait until season's end before a discussion begins.


[+] EnlargeTim Floyd
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesJerry Buss knew Tim Floyd even before the coach came to USC.
Q: Before purple and gold was in your life, there was cardinal and gold. You have attended the games of your alma mater, USC, since 1953 and have donated money to the college's athletic, music and chemistry departments. What are the feelings of a loyal supporter such as you about the scandals involving Reggie Bush and Tim Floyd?

A: I know Tim pretty well because he was in the NBA before he came to USC. He's a very good coach. Ron Artest told me that Tim was the one who taught him how to play defense. It's kind of a shame because, having talked to Tim about it, I know he personally had nothing to do with athletes allegedly receiving money.

These spectacular athletes are hounded by agents and the money just flows in some form to them. People think it's the university, but I don't think that is the case at all. I think it's overzealous alumni, and, in some cases, just well-wishers.


Q: Well, whoever it is, how tough is it to see the program hit with all these allegations and sanctions?

A: It's very hurtful. The NCAA has never been kind to USC. Cutting the number of scholarships, it seems to me, just denies some kids an education. I don't get it. At other universities, the tuition is cheap enough, so that it's not a big thing. To go to USC without a scholarship is next to impossible. I've always felt the NCAA should be a little more sympathetic to schools like USC and Stanford.


[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireLifelong USC fan didn't know who Lane Kiffin was before USC hired him as a head coach.
Q: There was a story on the Internet that you had paid the $800,000 that Lane Kiffin, the Trojans' new football coach, was required to come up with to buy out his contract at Tennessee. Is that true?

A: I heard about that story. There is absolutely zero truth to it. I had never even heard of Lane Kiffin until I picked up the newspaper and saw he had been hired.


Q: Were you surprised Pete Carroll left?

A: I was and I wasn't. You know, he was not terribly successful in the NFL, then he has this huge success at USC and I think he would probably go to bed thinking, "I wonder if I could do it at the NFL level?" A lot of us are wondering if he can do it at the NFL level. So we'll be reading the sports pages to see how he does.

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

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