Jerry Buss brought "Showtime" to Inglewood and turned the town into the City of Champions. | PHOTOS
From the time he purchased the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979, Buss built the team into one of the most successful franchises in sports, signing Magic Johnson, creating the Laker Girls, replacing organ music with a live band, and turning the Fabulous Forum and its exclusive Forum Club into a celebrity hangout.
The Lakers won five championships in Inglewood's famed arena under his leadership before winning five more after the team moved to Staples Center near downtown. (The 11th NBA title for the Los Angeles franchise came under previous owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1972.)
Although the team moved from Inglewood in 1999, the signs on some of the city's streets still proclaim the town as the City of Champions.
"We went from being a city that was confused with Englewood, N.J." to a city everyone in the country knew, Inglewood Mayor James Butts said.
"When people said Inglewood, they knew you were talking about Inglewood, the home of the Lakers. We had Dyan Cannon and (Jack) Nicholson and we were on the map. We had ambiance and we had a swagger and as a city we felt really, really good about ourselves."
Year after year as the Lakers made the NBA finals through the 1980s, broadcaster Brent Musburger would famously declare: "You are looking live at the Forum in Inglewood, California." It meant everything to the city.
The Lakers - and Buss' other team, the Los Angeles Kings - brought millions of dollars of revenue into the city. Buss, who died from cancer Monday at 80, was the first owner to sell naming rights to his arena, changing his orange-colored building to the Great Western Forum and painting it blue.
"The Lakers were part of a business enterprise when Jack Kent Cooke ran the Forum and I would compare Jerry Buss to a riverboat gambler who would bet everything on a hand of poker," Butts said.
Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis starred in the 1980s. And before they left the Forum for downtown Los Angeles, Buss' Lakers added Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to keep the fans coming back for more.
Police officers regularly worked overtime at Kings and Lakers games, protecting the public and players. As a younger officer and sergeant, Butts worked on the Lakers floor.
He met the Lakers owner during those years. He described Buss as gregarious and sociable.
"Obviously he loved living life.
Buss regularly gave back to the city, especially to programs that helped its children. Buss sent his players to speak in Inglewood's schools, encouraging them to stay away from drugs and finish their education.
"He made sure that his organization was a good neighbor to the community and his players were ambassadors to the community," Butts said.
Retired Inglewood police Sgt. Bill Thompson met Buss numerous times as he worked Forum events and served as president of the Inglewood Exchange Club, a community organization that focused on raising money for children's charities, especially the fight against child abuse. Buss always helped the cause.
"That was a big thing to Jerry Buss," Thompson said. "Every time we did some sort of a fundraiser, we would just send a card over. He would always follow up with support, whether it was buying tickets or sending a donation."
Buss lent his Forum grounds to the Exchange Club to hold its pancake breakfasts and wrote notes on his donation checks. The notes suggested club members call him again whenever they organized a fundraiser for the city's children or for scholarships for Morningside and Inglewood high students.
"If it had to do with the kids, youth, education, that was one of his main focuses, and we could always count on him," Thompson said. "We enjoyed that relationship for years."
Thompson said he often supervised teams of officers working Lakers and Kings games at the Forum. That meant he sometimes checked in at the Forum Club, where Buss entertained guests from Jack Nicholson to Paula Abdul to Hollywood moguls and millionaire businessmen.
Still, Buss had time for the city's police when he would see them.
"He always would come over and shake our hands," Thompson said. "That relationship was so great. Jerry Buss knew so much about what we were doing on the outside or inside. He always wanted to know if people were getting into the Forum safely, if they were leaving safely, if there were traffic problems. He wanted to know."
Although it was a blow to the city when the Lakers and Kings moved to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in 1999, Buss' legacy remains in Inglewood.
"The Lakers and Inglewood were a love affair," Butts said. "How often do you get to be a city of about 119,000 people, 9 square miles, and you have the highest-valued franchise in the NBA in your city in an iconic building, and kids who went to high school in your city end up playing for that team."
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