As Utah Jazz fans, particularly this season, we’re all familiar with the cliché “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.” Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss embodied this sentiment as well as anyone ever has.
The Jazz may not exist in Utah at all if not for the influence of Jerry Buss. Before Dr. Buss died after a battle with cancer, most of us probably didn’t realize he was born right here in Salt Lake City, Utah during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“At the age of four, Jerry Buss was standing in a bread line on the frozen soil of Evanston, Wyo., a gunny sack in hand, waiting for the food that would keep him and his single mother, Jesse, alive for another day. It was 1937 and the lingering effects of the Great Depression were still gripping parts of the nation.
By the time he had turned six, Buss’ duties had expanded to include trekking around town in search of old telephone books or other paper products that could be stuffed into the fireplace to provide warmth in a house devoid of heat.”
Like departed owner of the Jazz, Larry H. Miller, Dr. Buss came from humble beginnings, working hard to earn his way into upper echelons of the sports world. With little-to-no money, Buss would earn a scholarship to the University of Wyoming for a winning science project, parlaying that small success into a master’s degree and Ph. D. from USC, then investing in real estate to make his first million by the age of 34. Buss originally bought the Lakers in 1979, the same year the Jazz moved to Utah from New Orleans, because he could never find any floor tickets for sale to the games.
The parallels to the Jazz don’t end there. With his first draft pick as the owner of the Lakers, Buss would take the now-legendary Magic Johnson, a pick acquired from the Jazz some three years earlier as assigned by the NBA as compensation for the New Orleans Jazz signing of free agent Gail Goodrich from the Lakers.
As a determined young businessman with a passion for sports and a goal of making it relevant to the world by way of Utah, Larry H. Miller took a huge gamble and bought into the Utah Jazz in 1985, a decision immediately questioned heavily by the NBA’s finance committee.
Called to a skeptical committee in New York City, the owner of the San Antonio Spurs at the time, Angelo Drossos, was giving Miller the third degree under the hot lights when Jerry Buss would step in and save the day for you, Utah.
Shortly after the death of his father, CEO of the Utah Jazz, Greg Miller, spoke with ESPN LA 710AM to tell the tale, one you can also find in Mr. Miller’s autobiography Driven.
“When my dad attended one of his first [NBA] board of governor’s meetings he was — I don’t want to say interrogated, but that’s what it feels like — by the other owners, and there were a lot of questions, and obviously there were a lot of egos in the room. It was a fairly stressful situation for my dad, and there was some banter going back and forth, and Dr. Buss basically befriended Larry at that moment. Dr. Buss basically said ‘Listen, this guy’s for real, he’s going to do good things for the NBA, so we need to support him in his ownership [bid].’ From that moment on my dad always had a great affinity and great respect for Dr. Buss.”
I love to hate the Lakers as much as the next guy, but there’s no denying how much Jerry Buss respected the game and did for not only the NBA, but the whole world of sports, and even our own Utah Jazz. We may not even be here today to speak so longingly of our Utah Jazz without Dr. Buss, the driving force behind putting a quality product on the floor for fans to boo or cheer as they choose, year after year, for so many decades, helping along the golden era of the NBA we’ve all enjoyed so immensely.
For that, sir, we salute you. Sleep the long sleep well, Dr. Buss. You finished strong. You earned it.