A blizzard whipped off Lake Michigan on a February day in 1988 and managed to make even the Windy City shiver. This was crummy timing for Chicago because the NBA All-Star Game was that afternoon and the place suddenly felt paralyzed.
Inside the downtown Hyatt Hotel the storm caused a mild panic. Guests couldn't get out and workers couldn't get in. Folks were frustrated and some frazzled, with the noticeable exception of a grandfatherly guy wearing a shirt unbuttoned low enough to show a wisp of gray chest hair.
Jerry Buss was standing on the down escalator with identical twin blonde models on each arm. "Great day, isn't it?" he said once he reached the lobby and saw me. Oh yes, sir, Dr. Buss. Great indeed. Once again, the best owner in professional sports history somehow found a way to win without feeling a bit of jealousy from anyone.
And so, this officially marks the only time that Buss ever lost at anything. But did he really? Didn't Buss, who died on Monday at age 80, live the kind of life we would imagine for a visionary, a genius, a negotiator, a businessman and a playboy? And aren't we, as basketball fans, better off for having Dr. Buss produce and create a hoops culture that still influences the game for the better, to this very day?
Jerry Buss was maybe the only owner whom nobody hated. Fans loved him. Players loved him. Coaches, general managers, media, fellow owners, Buss won everyone's attention and affections as easily as the Lakers did the Nielsens on his watch. From the moment he cashed in his real estate holdings for a basketball team and an arena that became Fabulous, Buss knew what he wanted and how to get it.
The Lakers already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson when Buss took over in 1979 and made winning and entertainment the only priority. They only missed the playoffs twice in the 33 years Buss owned them, and only the Grammys and Oscars showcase more A-list stars. His decisions, in hindsight, were stupendously brilliant and timely. That's why the Lakers won 10 championships with Buss as owner and are now likely worth $1 billion.
He steered the organization toward drafting James Worthy with the first overall pick in 1982.
He hired Jerry West, generally regarded as the top talent evaluator in NBA history, to run the team.
After Magic led a player mutiny against former coach Paul Westhead, Buss green-lighted the appointment of the team's color analyst, who hadn't coached anywhere in any capacity: Pat Riley.
He signed Magic to a 25-year, $25 million contract, laughable now, but groundbreaking then.
He created the Forum Club, a plush and private sanctuary of the rich and famous, a concept that's now a staple in arenas and stadiums everywhere.
He wanted something that sizzled as much as Showtime basketball, so he developed the Laker Girls, often choosing the dancers every year, including one named Paula Abdul.
He opened courtside and floor seating to the stars and brought Hollywood and sparkle to the building, with prices to match.
He signed massive local TV contracts that fortified the franchise with the necessary funds to enhance the team's value and support the rising payroll.
While West was largely given credit for bringing Shaquille O'Neal to L.A., that doesn't happen unless Buss cuts a $121 million check.
When Shaq and Kobe Bryant forged a feud that couldn't thaw, Buss intervened and went with Kobe.
Buss successfully merged entertainment, sports and business and stayed on a hot streak with all three. The Lakers went to the NBA Finals, on average, almost every other year during his ownership. He sold 33 percent of his stake for more than he paid for the Lakers, Kings and the Forum in '79. And the Staples Center became the ultimate see-and-be-seen gathering in a status town whenever the Lakers play, a destination that ranks with Disneyland and Venice Beach.
What separated Buss from his peers was his connectivity. Not many owners had enough suave and nerve to mingle with their players in the clubs. Buss partied with them all, and even harder than some of them, and it seemed natural. Buss even managed to pull prettier starlets and practically lived at the Playboy mansion. The only issue of Playboy he never read, he once joked, was the one in which his daughter Jeannie appeared.
The only time he interfered with West was when he knew his gut instinct was right. Otherwise, Buss put the right people in the proper places and let them do their jobs. And even when the faces changed, Buss kept winning, after Riley, after West, after Kareem, after Magic and after Shaq.
Buss acquired money through hard work, intelligence through intense studying in and out of the classroom at Wyoming, and combined both to gain a great understanding of sports and the marketplace and how to provide a product that became addictive. It made him fabulously wealthy and famous, yet he remained sort of an everyday guy. He was never condescending, nor ever locked in a scandal, and he never overplayed his hand.
Just this weekend at the All-Star Game in Houston, Shaq said he looked forward to his jersey retirement ceremony next month not just for the ego stroke, but for the chance to see Buss and give thanks.
"I hope he holds on," said Shaq, who had a bitter falling-out with the owner, but recognized the mistake and quickly mended that fence. "No matter what happened in the past, it's in the past, and doesn't affect my admiration and respect for the man. I love Dr. Buss."
Who didn't? From the fans who gravitated to Showtime, to the supermodels who gravitated to his arm, to the players and general managers who won championships with his resources and the fellow owners who saw their money pile grow thanks to his ideas and visions, Buss had lots of admirers.
He led the life of his dreams. And yours.