The Los Angeles Lakers basketball team has produced a lot of household names. Kareem, Magic, Kobe. Now, thanks in part to a new television series, we can also add to that someone not known for his skill with a basketball, Dr. Jerry Buss. Buss was the owner of the Lakers from 1979 until his death in 2013 and is credited as a major reason for the team’s athletic and financial success. With his wide-collared shirts unbuttoned halfway down his chest and a comb-over hairdo, he was a larger than life figure who helped transform the NBA into the international spectacle that it has become today.
But before Buss became the iconic figure deserving of his own HBO miniseries, he was a successful real estate investor. His path to riches was not an easy one. He had a single mother who worked as a waitress. They moved around a bit until they eventually settled in Kemmerer, Wyoming, a town on the border of Utah that today still has less than 3,000 residents. Buss did well in school but did better in after hour endeavors. “My secret ambition then was to be a gambler,” he said. His game of choice was pool and became so successful at it that once a high school teacher banked him for a night of $50-a-game competition, which he won.
Eventually, he decided that laboring during the day and gambling in pool halls at night was not enough for him. He moved to Laramie so he could attend university, working the midnight to 8am shift as a chemist at the Bureau of Mines and attending the University of Wyoming during the day. He graduated with a degree in chemistry in two and a half years when he was only 19. He went on to be a Chemistry teacher at USC, where he fell in love with the city of Los Angeles.
Buss knew that teaching was not going to get him to where he wanted to be financially so he saved his money to buy an investment property. His strategy was simple, work hard and save. When asked about it he said, “You have to get a part-time job on Saturday and do it for 10 years […] wait 15 more years and you’re a millionaire. It’s an easy calculation and it’s true.” So save he did, $83.33 every month to be exact, until eventually he and a group of his teacher friends were able to buy a 14 unit apartment in West Los Angeles for $105,000. Twenty years later his property company was worth $350 million.
Then he turned his sights towards sports. He bought a pro tennis franchise and its success led him to make a bid on the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings, and the stadium where they played in Inglewood called The Forum. The offer didn’t happen overnight. He heard that the then owner of these assets, Jack Kent Cooke, was thinking about selling in order to pay for his divorce (which was the most expensive divorse in history at the time). Buss flew out to visit Cooke at his home in Las Vegas regularly for over a year before he made a handshake deal to buy the franchises.
In order to avoid taxes from the sale, Buss suggested that they trade some of his real estate. But Cooke was not interested in Los Angeles apartment buildings. Instead, he wanted a number of East Coast properties including one of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Chrysler Building. Luckily for Buss, the Chrysler Building had recently been bought out of foreclosure by Mutual Life Insurance who, after putting an estimated $58 million into it, were ready to offload. So Buss bought and then immediately sold the building’s lease (the ground beneath the building is owned by Cooper Union For the Advancement of Science and Art) to Cooke and bought the stadium, the teams, and a 12,000 acre ranch in the Sierras from Cooke.
What happened to the Lakers is now part of the world’s collective history. They went on to become one of the winningest teams in basketball and one of the most recognizable (and therefore valuable) franchises in all of sports. But what happened to the collateral used to buy it is not as well known. When Cooke died in 1997 the building was once again thrown into foreclosure where it was purchased for $220 million by Tishman-Speyer. The Chrysler Building continues to be an icon, an inseparable piece of the identity of New York. But many of those that visit it in Midtown Manhattan have no idea the role it played in launching the Lakers franchise and changing the game of basketball, all thanks to an inventive real estate mogul with a comb-over and a penchant for unbuttoned shirts.