Jerry Buss, arguably the most successful of the colourful owners in modern sports history, died Monday at age 80 of cancer.
In addition to his flashy lifestyle and unconventional thinking, Buss was most closely associated with a Los Angeles Lakers squad that won 10 championhsips during his time as owner. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led a Pat Riley-coached bunch for the "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s, with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson the featured players in more recent triumphs.
But Buss also was majority owner of the Los Angeles Kings. Those times weren't exactly times steeped in glory, but they were interesting.
Paul Brownfield, in an essay published last year in the New York Times as the Kings were driving towards their first Stanley Cup ever, put it like this: "As a sibling of the Lakers in the ’80s, the Kings basked in Buss’s love in roughly the same way Fredo Corleone shared his father’s faith with brother Michael."
Sure, the Kings were second fiddle. But with a nightclub located at the Forum and Hugh Hefner among his close friends — more than a couple Kings took up with Playmates — you could do a lot worse. The Los Angeles Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League won about 40 per cent of their games over seven seasons at the Forum, playing to about 4,000 per match.
Some snapshots of Buss as owner of the Kings, culled from from contemporary newspaper reports:
Buss bought the Lakers, Kings and the "Fabulous" Forum in Inglewood in 1979 from Jack Kent Cooke.
Cooke, of course, grew up in Southern Ontario and said of the disappointing crowds for the Kings in 1973: "There are 800,000 Canadians living in the Los Angeles area, and I've just discovered why they left Canada. They hate hockey."
The breakdown of the sale to the real estate magnate/PhD chemist Buss is quite hilarious in retrospect: $43.5 million US for the Forum, $14 million for the Lakers and $10 million for the Kings.
The most recent Forbes Magazine valuations have the Kings worth $276 million (10th in the NHL), with the Lakers now pegged at $1 billion, tops in the NBA.
Upon taking the job, Buss fired a shot across the bow to Montreal and the Eastern clubs that the West would soon rise in the NHL.
"[The Kings] present a challenge to me and I want to see if I can turn them into a competitive club, one that can finish among the top five or six clubs in the league," he said of the Kings.
With his denim and cowboy boots, the often forward-thinking Buss soon found out that the didn't exactly fit in with an NHL ownership group that was mostly staid, with a dash of insane reactionary insanity thrown in (Harold Ballard).
"I've been told my ideas would probably draw one vote — my own," he told a reporter after just a couple of years worth of Board of Governors meetings.
Sometimes, Buss was on the side of good. In the middle of the decade, Phil Esposito was trying to launch a Masters of Hockey initiative, which would provide financial, health and life services for retired players. Esposito said at the time the only two enthusiastic responses he got from owners were from Madison Square Garden, his longtime bosses, and Buss.
Buss dangled enticements to his hockey players to improve their performance. A trip to Hawaii for all was on offer if they won the Stanley Cup.
During one season, he said he'd give them a grand apiece if they held the opposition over the next 10 games to 30 goals (Hey, it was the freewheeling '80s). There were further cash rewards for shutouts and for every goal under 30 that they could forestall.
Buss likely didn't endear himself to the tight-knit (some would say collusive) ownership group when just about a year into the job he signed Marcel Dionne to a six-year contract that made the Art Ross Trophy winner the highest-paid player in the NHL.
It was a management trait that Buss would advocate and adhere to — reward star players and remove the threat of free agency, whenever possible.
How much was Dionne pulling? About $600,000.
Yes, those were 1980 dollars, but just sayin' that Frazer McLaren — the lowest-paid player on the 2012-13 Maple Leafs — earns $632,000.
'What irritates me is I have come to the conclusion that I would have to be the first one fired in the hockey hierarchy.'—Kings owner Jerry Buss, in 1982-83
Not Berry good
Coach Bob Berry was behind the bench in 1980-81 as Los Angeles went 43-24-13, their best record during Buss's ownership and the second best ever since L.A. entered the league in 1967-68.
Berry and Buss could not get together on a new agreement after the team was upset in the first round by the New York Rangers. Berry moved on to coach Montreal.
With one notable exception (below), it would be all downhill from there for the Kings during Buss's time.
Miracle on Manchester
Despite talented players like Dionne, Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer and Larry Murphy, the Kings won just one playoff series during Buss's tenure, but it entered NHL lore.
Los Angeles famously upset Wayne Gretzky and the No. 1 Edmonton Oilers in five games in 1982. The highlight game was the third contest, in which the Kings fought back from a 5-1 deficit at the beginning of the final period in regulation to win in overtime 6-5 on a Daryl Evans goal. The comeback became known as the Miracle on Manchester (the Forum's address was on Manchester Boulevard).
Buss, by all accounts, left with a female companion at the beginning of the third, thinking it was a done deal.
Los Angeles won in five games but lost in the next round to a team writing its own magical spring story, the Vancouver Canucks.
Under coach Don Perry, the Kings followed up that spring surprise by winning 11 of the first 35 games in the fall.
But Buss didn't blame his coach or GM (George McGuire).
"Maybe I don't know what I'm doing," Buss said. "And that's a tough conclusion to come to. But at least it's an honest attempt at addressing one's performance. What irritates me is I have come to the conclusion that I would have to be the first one fired in the hockey hierarchy."
Buss became part of the story late in his tenure as Kings owner during when Kings coach Pat Quinn showed the type of canniness that more than a decade later would see him muscle out future politician Ken Dryden and others to essentially control the hockey side of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While still coaching the Kings in 1986-87, Quinn signed a deal to become president and GM of Vancouver the following season, receiving a $100,000 signing bonus from the Canucks.
The league fined Quinn and the Canucks, but also the Kings for waiting several days before letting the NHL in on the eyebrow-raising transaction.
Buss was apoplectic, but weeks later was assauged by what was believed to be a sizeable amount of compensation from the Canucks.
"We are extremely pleased and fully vindicated," Buss said as the controversy drew to a close. "The settlement enables us to put this issue behind us and get on to trying to win hockey games."
Winning hockey games with regularity would not come with Buss as owner.
That would wait until minority owner Bruce McNall took over control in 1988, the year Gretzky arrived in Hollywood.
But that's another tale.