LOS ANGELES — As has been reported across the Los Angeles area, Dr. Jerry Buss, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers, died on February 18, due to complications of cancer, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Buss was 80 years old.
“Dr. Buss was our partner, our mentor and our friend,” said President and Chief Executive Officer of the Anschutz Entertainment Group Tim Leiweke, who also serves as Governor of the Los Angeles Kings. “He was kind enough to allow us into his world, and much of the success we enjoyed at Staples Center and LA Live is directly attributed to him. I do not believe we will ever find anyone quite like him. Our prayers and thoughts are with Jeanie and the entire Buss family.”
Since the morning of February 18, fans across Southern California and elsewhere have been paying tribute to Buss, as well as mourning the loss of one of the greatest owners in the history of the NBA.
Buss became the owner of the Lakers, and the Forum in Inglewood, California, when he purchased California Sports, Inc., from Jack Kent Cooke in June 1979 for $67.5 million (the deal also included Cooke’s private ranch in Kern County).
At the time, the purchase was the largest sports transaction in history.
Very much overshadowed by Buss’ record with the Lakers is that his 1979 purchase also included the Forum’s other tenant, the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings.
“He’s going to be missed, in all of sports, because everybody knows him, everybody knows of him, and he was a very nice man, too,” said former Kings superstar goaltender Rogie Vachon. “He was very easy to talk to, a great businessman, and he had great vision.”
“He was a really nice man, an honest man, and very generous,” added Vachon.
Not long after he retired from the NHL following the 1981-82 season, Vachon began working for the Kings as a goaltending consultant. It did not take long for him to find out just how nice Buss was.
“I remember that we had a terrible start [to the 1983-84 season],” Vachon recalled. “Dr. Buss then fired the general manager (George Maguire) and the coach (Don Perry) at the same time. Then, I got a call from his office to go and meet him in Palm Springs.”
Prompting the change was the Kings’ abysmal 14-27-9 record at the time.
“I drove to Palm Springs, and that’s where he offered me the job as the new GM,” Vachon added.
Vachon took the job without any experience in the front office at all.
“I was surprised because I didn’t really have any experience at all,” he noted. “I had to learn on the job. I was surprised that he offered me the job right away. After that, I worked for him for six years, before Bruce [McNall] took over [as the owner].”
Vachon would serve as the Kings general manager from January 25, 1984 to June 25, 1992.
One of the first things Buss did as the Kings owner was to honor Vachon, the team’s first superstar.
“He was the one responsible for retiring my jersey,” Vachon explained. “When he first came in, that’s what he did, almost right away. He said, ‘OK, we’re going to retire your jersey.’ That was an incredible move, on his part.”
“He also said that, when I left for Detroit [after the 1977-78 season due to a contract dispute with the Kings, who were still owned by Cooke at the time], if he had been the owner at that time, he would’ve signed me right away,” Vachon elaborated. “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”
The story of Buss moving so quickly to retire Vachon’s jersey is another example of the loyalty, class and generosity, mentioned so often over the past couple of days in countless media reports. Another example involves former Kings left wing Charlie Simmer, a member of the famed Triple Crown Line, with center Marcel Dionne, and right wing Dave Taylor.
“I remember Charlie Simmer was playing for the Kings on the Triple Crown Line, and he broke his leg really badly,” Vachon noted.
As long-time Voice of the Kings Bob Miller described in his 2008 book, Bob Miller’s Tales of the Los Angeles Kings, on March 2, 1981, “…Simmer was chasing one of the Toronto players, and went to turn to go after the puck. Toronto defenseman Borje Salming just nicked him, but spun him around. As Simmer put it, ‘I skated around my foot.’”
Simmer had suffered a spiral fracture of his right leg. As his body moved, his skate remained planted firmly on the ice.
“Dr. Buss, not knowing if he was going to come back, able to play at the same level, he gave him a new contract, just like that,” said Vachon. “You talk about being generous—he respected what the Triple Crown Line was doing.”
The chance of something like that happening in today’s NHL is about the same as the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell.
“[Today], owners would wait and see if a guy is going to come back from his injury [before going] on to [re-sign the player],” Vachon stressed. “But while he’s in [a hospital] bed? That’s a little different.”
Under Buss’ leadership, the Kings were a very, very different organization.
“What I remember most about him is that when he took over, it was such a departure from the first owner, Jack Kent Cooke, who really was hands-on, and was involved in every facet of the organization,” Miller told LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen in an interview on February 18. “Jerry Buss—my feeling was that he came in and felt, ‘if I hire good people who are good at their job, I’ll leave them alone, and they’ll do their job.’ I think everybody appreciated that.”
“One outstanding factor of his ownership was that he didn’t come in, trying to let everybody know that he knows about this game, because I don’t think he did,” Miller added. “He did learn more and more, but he did that by talking to general managers who ran the team, and coaches, so that he could educate himself [about] the game, without saying, ‘I think we should do this,’ and make an ownership decision that hockey people knew, ‘that’s not the right way to go.’ He’d leave it up to you, because he hired you to do your job.”
Buss proved to be a wise, shrewd owner, but because of the success of the Lakers, and in stark contrast, the lack of success by the Kings, he was often criticized for only caring about the Lakers.
To be sure, Buss was much more of a basketball guy, and did not know much about hockey when he took over as owner. Nevertheless, the criticisms were unfounded.
“He was a very interesting man,” said Vachon. “I think he had a very bad rap, because a lot of people thought that he really [didn’t] care much about the Kings, that it was all about the Lakers, but that really wasn’t true.”
Like Miller, Vachon observed that Buss made a serious effort to learn the game.
“He went to all the games, and we spent a lot of time in my office after games, talking about hockey,” Vachon reminisced. “He wanted to learn just about everything about hockey, too. He really did care for the Kings.”
Buss wanted to make the Kings a winner, a champion, so much so that, contrary to popular belief, he started the ball rolling on bringing The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to the Kings. Even though McNall would complete the deal after purchasing Buss’ remaining share of the Kings in March 1988, it was Buss who came up with the idea and began the process.
“He’s the one who started it,” Vachon emphasized. “He was thinking about it. He called the owner in Edmonton, and wanted to make a deal. At that time, [Edmonton Oilers owner Peter] Pocklington bailed out on it, but [Buss] was very serious about bringing Wayne in.”
“He kept talking to Pocklington, making offers,” Vachon added. “When Bruce took over, he pursued it, and was successful. He was the type of guy who wanted superstars, and, a little like Dr. Buss did with the Lakers, bring actors and actresses [to] the games, to make it fun, a big event.”
Vachon indicated that Buss set the table, so to speak, for McNall.
“At that time, we were getting to be in pretty good shape, when Bruce bought the team,” said Vachon. “We had Luc Robitaille, [Steve] Duchesne, Jimmy Carson—all these kids were coming up. We started to have a very fun team.”
“When [McNall] took over, he saw that the Lakers had all the top stars, and sell-out crowds, and that kind of thing,” added Vachon. “He wanted to do the same thing, but he certainly learned from the master.”
Buss also gets a huge stick tap for being the driving force behind the creation of Prime Ticket in late 1985, bringing Kings home and road games into Southern California homes on cable television.
Prior to that, the Kings had to settle for the scraps of air time on the local over-the-air television channels, with the Lakers, Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), UCLA and USC eating up the majority of the air time available for local sports.
The result: only 15 Kings games, all on the road, were on local television each year. But all that changed when Prime Ticket came on the scene, with the Kings and Lakers as their flagship teams, broadcasting the majority of their home and road games.
“He’s the one who, [with Robert W. (Bill) Daniels], founded [Prime Ticket],” Vachon recalled. “If you remember, teams like Chicago—[Blackhawks owner Bill] Wirtz would never have televised home games.”
Prime Ticket was purchased by Fox, and they would end up splitting the programming among two channels, Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2, which later became Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket. The channel name has since been reverted to “Prime Ticket.”
“He was thinking that eventually, if you have a good enough team, you’re going to sell-out, and on top of that, people are going to see the home games and the away games,” Vachon noted. “At that time, we were the only team in California. The [Anaheim] Ducks were not there, and [the] San Jose [Sharks were] not there. Hockey started to get popular in the mid-70’s, when we had a pretty good team. When Dr. Buss bought the team, he wanted that to continue, and to put more people in the stands.”
Today, thanks, in large part, to Buss’ contributions and vision, hockey in Southern California has come a long, long way, especially in terms of youth hockey, television exposure and growth of the fan base.
“[Buss] had so many visions about how to operate teams, TV deals, and that kind of stuff,” said Vachon. “He just kept working on that, all the time. He had some good people behind him, to help him out, but he had incredible vision.”
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