How the Buss Family Came to Own the LA Lakers & Got So Rich

Jerry Buss went from working at a hotel for $2 a day to building one of the most-storied sports franchises in the LA Lakers.

The key word is “build” because the Lakers weren’t always the glamorous organization that they are today. The late Buss (1933-2013) transformed them from a simple basketball team into an all-around entertainment event that still captivates LA audiences today.

Daughter Jeanie Buss now calls the shots for the LA Lakers after winning a power struggle with her brothers, Jim and Johnny. You can read more on this family drama and how Jerry revolutionized the Lakers below.

Jerry Buss championships
Jerry Buss [Image: Twitter/LakersLead]

Jerry Buss: From Rags to Riches

Unlike some NBA owners, Gerald “Jerry” Buss didn’t grow up attending private schools and hanging out at country clubs. He lived through part of the Great Depression and struggled financially during childhood and early adulthood.

Buss was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1933. His father, Lydus Buss, an accountant, left the family shortly after Jerry turned one year old. This abandonment left Jerry Buss’ mother, Jessie, to raise he and his three siblings on a waitress’ salary.

Growing Up in Wyoming

Jessie Buss moved her family to Los Angeles when Jerry was nine years old. She got remarried to a plumber named Stub Brown, which inspired a move from the bright lights of LA to tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming (pop. 2,415).

It was here where Jerry Buss began developing his strong work ethic. He would wake up at 4:30 am to help his stepfather dig ditches for Stub’s plumbing business, before heading off to school.

Buss worked other jobs throughout high school too, including gigs at the Kemmerer Hotel, local bowling alley, and Union Pacific Railroad. He briefly dropped out of school for the railroad job, before returning on the insistence of his chemistry teacher, Walt Garrett.

Buss’ life wasn’t easy in Wyoming and not just because of the heavy workload. Jerry and Stub did not have the best relationship, and he generally felt out of place in the Cowboy State.

Despite these struggles, he still excelled academically and earned a scholarship to the University of Wyoming.

Becoming Dr Jerry Buss

Buss needed only two and a half years to graduate from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1953. He moved back to Los Angeles shortly afterward to continue studying at the University of Southern California. He earned an MS and PhD in physical chemistry in 1957—thus becoming Dr Jerry Buss, a title he was commonly referred to as owner of the Lakers.

After receiving his doctorate from USC, Buss began working for the Bureau of Mines (now the Mine Safety and Health Administration) as a chemist. He later worked for aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas, before quitting over annoyances regarding the lack of air conditioning and heavy-handed security checks.

Dr Jerry Buss
Jerry Buss at The Forum [Image: Twitter/Kingstorian]

Building a Real Estate Empire

Following his departure from McDonnell Douglas, Jerry Buss began working for another aerospace lab in LA and serving part time as a USC faculty member.

He also partnered with five others to purchase a 14-unit apartment building in West Los Angeles in 1959. The investment included $1,000 from Buss and $5,000 from his partners for a down payment. The group also took out a $100,000 loan to cover the bulk of the sale price.

This initial investment was the first step to Jerry Buss forming a real estate empire. However, he was far from set following this purchase. Buss put all the wages from his part-time USC faculty job towards real estate over a 10-year span before eventually making his first million from rentals.

He and an early investing partner, Frank Mariani, formed Mariani-Buss Associates in the 1960s. The company grew quickly throughout the sixties and seventies, amassing over 700 rental properties in Arizona, California, and Nevada. By 1977, Jerry Buss’ net worth hit $350 million primarily through real estate holdings.

Leading the LA Lakers to Success

Many know Jerry Buss as the legendary owner of the LA Lakers. But his first foray into sports involved purchasing the LA Strings professional tennis team in 1974. The Strings competed in the mixed-gender World TeamTennis league, which featured stars like John McEnroe, Björn Borg, and Billie Jean King.

World TeamTennis folded in 1978, but Buss was undeterred and moved on to an even bigger sports venture. He bought the following assets from broadcasting magnate Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5 million in 1979:

  • LA Lakers (NBA)
  • LA Kings (sold to Bruce McNall in 1988)
  • The Forum (now the Kia Forum) in Inglewood, CA
  • A 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

The $67.5 million sale price would be worth $285 million today when accounting for inflation. Buss got a steal given that the Lakers alone are currently worth $6.4 billion.

Jerry Buss Lakers
Jerry Buss Lakers [Image: Twitter/LakerFilmFoom]

Buss Makes the Lakers Iconic

The late NBA legend Kobe Bryant once called Jerry Buss “The greatest owner in sports, ever.” Buss is certainly a contender for this crown, considering that he not only revolutionized the Lakers but also certain aspects of the NBA.

Before him, pro basketball was all about the on-court action. Buss began changing this perception in 1979 through the following trailblazing moves:

  • Hiring cheerleaders (Lakers Girls)
  • Playing music during breaks
  • Enhancing the VIP ticket holder experience
  • Selling courtside tickets to fans (vs seating media members there)

Other league owners copied these moves to the point where they’ve become commonplace in today’s game.

Most Successful NBA Owner in History

Dr Jerry Buss wasn’t just a strong owner commercially but also in terms of wins. In fact, he’s the most successful owner in NBA history with 10 championships during his tenure.

Wins started rolling in almost immediately for Buss and the franchise. The Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1980, led by rookie Magic Johnson and 6-time league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Magic-Kareem duo powered the “Showtime” Lakers to four more titles in 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

Like other teams, the Lakers had little luck in the 1990s thanks to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls capturing six titles during this decade. But LA would put themselves in a position to win again after acquiring Kobe Bryant’s draft rights and trading for Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. Coached by Phil Jackson, Shaq and Kobe would lead LA to a three-peat from 2000-2002.

Buss’ last two titles as Lakers owner came in 2009 and 2010. Bryant, alongside Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, would lead the team to back-to-back rings.

Jerry’s winning formula included hiring skilled personnel like Jackson, Pat Riley, Jerry West, and Mitch Kupchak, then letting them do their thing. Unlike Kent Cooke before him, Buss didn’t micromanage his executives and coaches.

Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson
Jerry Buss / Magic Johnson [Image: Twitter/LakersGlobal]

The Buss Family & Lakers Ownership

Jerry Buss’ wife, JoAnn Mueller, also attended the University of Wyoming. The couple exchanged vows while they were still students in 1952. Jerry Buss’ kids from this first marriage include:

  • Lee Klose; born 1953 (put up for adoption)
  • Johnny Buss; born 1956
  • Jim Buss; born 1959
  • Jeanie Buss; born 1961
  • Janie Buss; born 1963

JoAnn and Jerry divorced in 1972 after 20 years of marriage. Buss had two more children with his then-girlfriend and future wife Karen Demel, including Joey (b. 1985) and Jesse (b. 1988).

Six out of his seven kids would eventually work for the LA Lakers. These same children have shared ownership in the team ever since Buss’ death in 2013.

Jerry Buss with his kids
Jerry Buss and kids [Image: Instagram/JeanieBuss]

Buss Family Trust Takes Over the Team

Jerry died of kidney failure on February 18, 2013. He was 80 years old at the time of his passing. Buss began battling cancer the year prior, with the kidney failure being the final result of this fight. Upon his death, Jerry Buss’ net worth was an estimated $700 million.

He passed his 66% controlling interest in the LA Lakers to six children (Jeanie, Jim, Johnny, Janie, Joey, and Jesse) via the Buss Family Trust. Each of the Buss children own an 11% stake in the team.

Family Feuds

While the Buss Family Trust may provide an equal 11% to six of Jerry Buss’ kids, the say in the boardroom is anything but equal. In fact, a Buss family feud erupted at one point over who would lead the Lakers.

Jim Buss was the odds-on favorite for a while, with his dad envisioning him taking the reins one day. Jim was on his way to making this a reality after becoming the VP of Basketball Operations in 2005.

Jeanie and Jim Buss
Jeanie and Jim Buss [Image: Twitter/SLAMonline]
Jeanie Buss also gained considerable power within the organization after becoming the team president in 2013. Her hard work and dedication to the team stood out to Jerry, who gave Jeanie his blessing to become the Lakers President shortly before his passing.

This seemed okay with the Buss family until the losses began rolling in. The 2013-14 through 2016-17 campaigns produced paltry win totals of 27, 21, 17, and 26. Jim and GM Mitch Kupchak failed to attract major free agents or produce game-changing draft picks during this ugly stretch.

Jeanie finally had enough, firing Jim and Kupchak in February 2017 and bringing in Magic Johnson to fill their collective roles. Jim did not go quietly, aligning with Johnny Buss to try and oust Jeanie from the team’s board of directors.

The situation got so bad that she accused the brothers of trying to dissolve the Buss Family Trust so that she would no longer control the team.

Jeanie Buss LA Lakers
Jeanie Buss LA Lakers owner [Image: Instagram/JeanieBuss]

Jeanie Buss – Controlling Owner of the Lakers

The Buss family drama eventually sorted itself out after a legal battle. Jim and Johnny failed to convince courts that Jeanie was unfit to be the team president. Her other three siblings backed her during the family tension, which helped stay Jeanie in power.

The 62-year-old has led the team as the controlling owner since 2013. She seems destined to retain this role for years to come, especially with success returning to the franchise within recent years.

The team lured LeBron James as a free agent in 2018. Although the Lakers missed the playoffs for a sixth straight season after getting LeBron, they signed Anthony Davis the following offseason. The LeBron-Davis duo led LA to their 17th championship during the 2019-2020 campaign. The Lakers also reached the Western Conference Finals in the 2022-23 season.

LeBron Anthony Davis Lakers championship
Lakers 2020 championship [Image: Twitter/LakersNation]

The Buss Family & Lakers Today

Jerry Buss’ legacy as the LA Lakers owner includes innovation and championships. He helped guide the team to 10 titles during his 34 years as owner. Buss also introduced the NBA to cheerleaders, music during breaks, and making basketball into an all-around entertainment event.

His children have run the show since his death in 2013. The Buss Family Trust got off to a rocky start after inheriting 66% ownership following Jerry’s passing. Jeanie even fired Jim Buss and had legal battles with him and Johnny Buss afterward.

The situation has smoothed out since, with big stars like LeBron and Anthony Davis joining the Lakers. The team even claimed a record-tying 17th NBA championship in 2020.

That said, the LA Lakers are once again a hot item on the basketball scene. They are drawing plenty of fanfare and attention at online sportsbooks, especially since the launch of sports betting in the US.

Speaking of the latter, you might be interested in learning how to bet on basketball if you’re not already familiar with doing so. The revived Lakers are even more entertaining to watch when you’ve got a bet or two on the line…

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Jeremy Olson

Jeremy has been writing about gambling since 2004, when he began covering poker and casino games. He has since written and ghostwritten thousands of pieces involving casino games, poker, and sports betting. While he's covered strategy and news in the past, his key areas of focus today include how-to pieces, promotions, and reviews. Jeremy has also written for BasketballInsiders, Gambling.com, OnlineUnitedStatesCasinos, and Props.com.