Jerry Buss

Jerry Buss was all smiles while receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / October 30, 2006)

The frozen fields of Wyoming came first. Long before the championship trophies. Before the glitz and glamour. Jerry Buss was still a teenager, digging ditches beside his stepfather, when he dreamed of bigger things.

It was youthful ambition — a hunger for excitement — that led him to Southern California, where he amassed a fortune in real estate, traded it all to buy the Lakers, then became the man who transformed pro basketball from sport into spectacle.

"I really tried to create a Laker image, a distinct identity," he said years later. "I think we've been successful. I mean, the Lakers are pretty damn Hollywood."

The same could be said of Buss, who died at age 80 on Feb. 18 of complications from cancer. Fans will remember him not only for his success — 10 NBA titles in three-plus decades — but also for showmanship.

His teams became known for big names and fast-paced play, the owner valuing superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard. He was also smart enough to hire future Hall of Fame coaches in Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.

As the Lakers sprinted from one championship to the next, Buss cut an audacious figure in the stands, an aging playboy in blue jeans, often with a younger woman by his side.

This persona fit perfectly with the movie stars he invited to games and the pretty dancers he hired to entertain during timeouts.

"Jerry Buss helped set the league on the course it is on today," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "Remember, he showed us it was about 'Showtime,' the notion that an arena can become the focal point for not just basketball but entertainment. He made it the place to see and be seen."

As Buss put it: "I've worked hard and been lucky. With the combination of the two, I've accomplished everything I ever set out to do."

Hardscrabble roots

A Depression-era baby, Jerry Hatten Buss was born in Salt Lake City on Jan. 27, 1933, although some sources cite 1934 as his birth year. His parents, Lydus and Jessie Buss, divorced when he was an infant.

His mother struggled to make ends meet as a waitress in tiny Evanston, Wyo., and Buss remembered standing in food lines in the bitter cold. They moved to Southern California when he was 9, but within a few years she remarried and her second husband took the family back to Wyoming.

His stepfather, Cecil Brown, was, as Buss put it, "very tightfisted." Brown made his living as a plumber and expected his children (one from a previous marriage, another son and a daughter with Jessie) to help.

This work included digging ditches in the cold. Buss preferred being a bellhop at a local hotel and running a mail-order stamp-collecting business that he started at age 13.

Leaving high school a year early, he worked on the railroad, pumping a hand-driven car up and down the line to make repairs. The job lasted just three months.

Until then, Buss had never much liked academics. But he returned to school and, with a science teacher's encouragement, earned a science scholarship to the University of Wyoming.

Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, when he was 19 he married a student named JoAnn Mueller and they would eventually have four children: John, Jim, Jeanie and Janie.

The couple moved to Southern California in 1953, when USC gave Buss a scholarship for graduate school. He earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1957. The degree brought him great pride — Lakers employees always called him "Dr. Buss."

He was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in February 1958, part of a team that developed rocket fuel and other classified material. But the idea of a career in the aerospace industry did not appeal to Buss. As the 1950s drew to a close, he and a Douglas colleague, Frank Mariani, decided to try their hand at real estate.

They scraped together a few thousand dollars and took out multiple mortgages to buy a 14-unit apartment house in West Los Angeles and, to save money, did all the repairs themselves.