You all remember King Lear, Shakespeare's play about a
dysfunctional 12th-century family. Lear was a capricious
autocrat who alternately indulged and badgered his children. The
kids endured the old man's shenanigans until Lear, addled by the
prospect of his own mortality, carved up his kingdom and
parceled it out to them.
Then all hell broke loose.
Jerry Buss fancies himself a kind of benevolent King Leer. He
has snapshots of almost all the women he has ever dated, and he
stores them--the photos, not the women--in bound volumes in the
library of his Los Angeles estate. "It's quite a collection," he
says. "I'm up to album eight."
Women are just one of the collectibles in this extravagant
sensualist's life, competing for interest with rare coins, rare
stamps and rare comic books. Most important of all is his cache
of L.A. sports franchises. At the moment it consists of two
basketball teams, the NBA's Lakers and the WNBA's Sparks, but in
the past it has included franchises in ice hockey (the Kings),
roller hockey (the Blades), TeamTennis (the Strings) and indoor
soccer (the Lazers). To house these acquisitions, Buss bought
his own arena, the Great Western Forum.
While building his sporting kingdom, Buss sired a large family.
Before he embraced the Playboy philosophy in the mid-1960s, he
and his wife, JoAnn, had four children: Johnny, Jimmy, Jeanie
and Janie. After Jerry divorced JoAnn, in 1972, he had two more
kids--Joey, now 14, and Jesse, 10--with one of his girlfriends,
Karen Demel. Recently he has become a father figure to Demel's
24-year-old son Sean, who just changed his last name to Buss. No
word on whether he plans to change his first name to Juan.
Though Jerry is still sovereign, at 65 he may feel that time's
winged messenger is drawing near. Over the last few years he has
assigned more responsibility to his four oldest kids. "I want to
prepare them for the day they take over the operation," he says.
"I feel better having family members involved."
He has installed Johnny, a testy onetime race-car driver, as
president of the Sparks; Jimmy, a happy-go-lucky onetime horse
trainer, as assistant general manager of the Lakers; Jeanie, an
ebullient marketing whiz and onetime Playboy pinup, as president
of the Forum; and Janie, an earthy housewife and onetime
psychology major, as an executive in the Lakers' community
relations office. Even sweet-natured Sean, an employee in the
Lakers' season-ticket office who wears three hoops in his left
ear and two in his right, appears destined for big things. "Dad
is trying to get the L.A. franchise in Ted Turner's new summer
football league," Sean reports. "If he does, I'll be working
under the general manager. Down the road, if the opportunity of
being the G.M. were to arise, I hope Dad would consider me."
For now Dad envisions a triumvirate, with Jeanie in charge of
the Forum and the Lakers' business side, Jimmy in charge of
Lakers player personnel and Johnny in charge of the Sparks.
"There's room for each one of them," Jerry says.
He may be alone in that opinion. Though Johnny's team is one of
Jeanie's Forum tenants, the two siblings have barely spoken
since 1995 and don't acknowledge each other's presence in the
halls of the building. Johnny's relationship with Jimmy is
similarly strained: Their last conversation was more than a year
ago. And while Jimmy and Jeanie talk, they're not close.
"It's crazy," says one of Jerry's longtime business associates.
"Johnny dithers and broods. Jimmy is easily distracted and has
no instinct for the jugular. Jeanie is the most capable one, yet
she's overlooked by her loving dad. Does Jerry honestly think
this arrangement will work? I'm willing to bet--no, I
guarantee--that within three years he sells the entire operation
to Rupert Murdoch."
Jerry scoffs at this. "I like basketball too much," he says.
Still, his problem is not just that he has to give the kingdom
away someday but that he has to hang on to it long enough to
give it away. "He's one of the last of a dying breed," says NBA
commissioner David Stern. "In big-time sports the day of
individual owners like Jerry is fading fast. He's sort of
wealthy, but he's not extraordinarily wealthy like some of our
owners. Given the size and risk of the asset, we are moving
toward [an owner who is] a combination of the Forbes 400 and the
The payroll for the Lakers, the engine that drives the Buss
empire, is $40 million. The team salary cap is $37 million. "I
would like to increase the cap," Jerry says, "but if you project
out to what the players seem to be demanding, it would go up to
at least $70 million, which is ludicrous."
While Buss isn't carrying any debt, he isn't particularly
liquid. The combined value of the Lakers, the Sparks and the
Forum is estimated at $300 million, but says Buss, "just about
everything we make is pumped back into the business." However,
when the Lakers forsake the Forum and move into the new $300
million Staples Center in downtown L.A. toward the end of 1999,
Buss is supposed to get a windfall of $50 million to $60 million
from the sale of 25% of the team to Fox and the owners of the
Kings. That should keep him in pocket change for a while.
Buss was just your average self-made real estate mogul with a
Ph.D. in chemistry when he bought the Lakers in 1979. He quickly
made the team over to fit his profligate tastes. He brought in
the Laker Girls and live bands. He came up with the concept of
courtside seats filled with movie stars and other celebrities.
He spent mightily to put the show in Showtime by signing Magic
Johnson, James Worthy and, more recently, Shaquille O'Neal and
Kobe Bryant. The payoff has been five NBA titles in 19 seasons
(but none since 1988) and more than $100 million in annual
revenue. "What amazes me is that my father is always thinking 10
steps ahead of everyone else," says Janie. "Every deal he makes
is always to his advantage. He's just too smart."
Stabbing Marlboros into the corner of his mouth and hauling a
slight paunch, Buss cuts an imposing if not exactly regal figure.
His is more of a cowboy image: shabby jeans, rugged boots and the
slightly ragged look of a ranch hand in a spaghetti Western. But
don't be fooled; Buss is one of those public figures whose
presence is always slightly more important than the event he's
attending. "I live life energetically," he says. "I go out every
night, and I'm either dancing or playing poker or watching a
During the NBA season he holds court in a private box high above
the visitors' bench, the better to see plays unfold. Afterward
he can often be seen in the media lounge with the latest
addition to his calendar collection (Miss March, Miss April) on
his knee. "Just one out of a hundred says, 'Would you buy me a
fur coat or something?'" Buss says of his dates. "I usually
hear, 'Can you get Kobe Bryant's autograph?' I like people, I
really do. It's one reason I gave up chemistry. I was too lonely
in the laboratory."
Buss was lonely long before that. His dad, Lydus, was an
accountant who apparently loved numbers more than people. He
left his wife and only child in the Wyoming mining town of
Kemmerer during the Depression and ended up teaching statistics
at Berkeley. Jerry's mother, Jessie, barely made a living as a
waitress. "I was an infant when my father went west," says Jerry
evenly. "I saw him maybe two or three more times before he died
[in 1952, when Jerry was 19]. He was the studious type, into
Chinese dialects and ancient scrolls." Mathematics, Lydus
thought, was the purest creation of the human mind.
Young Jerry loved numbers, too--far more than he loved his
stepfather, a plumber named Stub Brown. Jerry was 12 when his
mother remarried, making him the oldest of four kids in a
decidedly unblended family. "My father was not accepted by his
stepfather," reports Jeanie. "He was a Buss living with the
Browns. He felt like an outsider. It made him a very
All Jerry's kids describe him as a generous father, even if he
spreads himself too thin. "Though he really doesn't have time for
us, he always has time for us," says Sean. "He understands what
it's like not to have a dad around."
So do Johnny, Jimmy and Jeanie. Though their parents divorced
without nuclear warfare, the emotional fallout was devastating
for the children. "It left us confused about who our father
was," says Johnny, who was 12 at the time of the breakup. "We
knew Dad only as the guy who came over on weekends and took us
to McDonald's. I could never understand why he'd want to go to
Las Vegas with the Playmate of the Year rather than take us to
Disneyland. Even though he provided for us wonderfully, we were
starved for the love of a father."
Johnny may never have recovered from the pain of his parents'
divorce, but he tries to hide his feelings behind a pensive
bearing. Like a military governor occupying an obscure province
in the country of Basketball, he issues fiats from his father's
bordello-red Forum war room. It has a worn leather sofa, a
massive, uncluttered oak desk and, on the credenza behind
Johnny, five gleaming NBA championship trophies.
It's a late afternoon in late July, and the fiat of the day
concerns Julie Rousseau, coach of the Sparks. "I just fired
her," says Johnny. "We've still got 10 games to play, yet we're
out of playoff contention. I offered Julie suggestions, but she
didn't follow them. Which confused me." A year ago, 11 games
into the Sparks' maiden season, Johnny became the first WNBA
owner to fire a coach (Linda Sharp). Now, 20 games into the
second campaign, he has become the first to fire two coaches.
Which puts him in the slightly embarrassing position of having
three head coaches on the payroll.
Johnny sits erect in his father's armchair, gazing at his Batman
watch. He is a mild, melancholy man of 42, prone to long
silences and dark anxieties. Johnny is Hamlet, a prince of
indecision, to his father's Lear. Small things plunge him into
despair. At Janie's 1992 wedding reception, he was undone by a
fellow guest. "Johnny got into an argument, stormed out of the
party and spent the entire evening sulking in the back of the
bus my dad had chartered," says Janie. "That's the way my
brother has been his whole life."
That may or may not have anything to do with the Sparks' failure
to ignite. The team has yet to have a winning season, and though
L.A. is the WNBA's second-biggest market, the Sparks' average
attendance this season was the second lowest in the 10-team
league: 7,653 fans. That was 1,300 fewer than the Sparks
attracted last year, some 3,000 fewer than the league average
and less than half the attendance averaged by the Washington
Mystics, an expansion club that won three games all season.
What's more, Johnny's general manager, Rhonda Windham, is a
fellow USC alum whose main qualification for the job was seven
years in the Lakers' public relations department. Windham signed
Sharp, her college coach, to a three-year deal and then--with
Johnny's approval--replaced her with Rousseau, who had coached
only in high school. "I hired [Sharp] because she knows so much
about basketball," says Johnny. "She just needs to hone her
skills and develop more knowledge." What kind of knowledge?
"About how to coach in the pros. We'd certainly like to see her
back." Coaching in L.A.? "Well...not this team."
Johnny sounds no less confused explaining his reluctance to
promote the team to L.A. lesbians, an obvious fan base: "I know
the lesbian community is showing up, so I leave them alone. I'd
rather focus on pulling in more males. Would it hurt if most of
our spectators were lesbian? That's hard to say. Right now, 67
percent of our fans are women, 8 percent are men and 25 percent
are kids. I doubt that every woman who comes to our games is a
lesbian. If, say, half were, then to have a lesbian majority,
more than half the kids would have to be, too."
Johnny doesn't have a natural affinity for the business. He was
just born to it. "Originally, I wanted to be president of the
United States," he says. "But I wasn't much of a student, so
that option was out." He wasn't much of an athlete either. He
quit the Pacific Palisades High football team two plays into the
first day of tryouts. He got kicked off the gymnastics squad for
not cutting his hair, and he was kicked out of school for
cutting class. Johnny finished up at another high school and
enrolled at Santa Monica College, where his record was equally
spotty. He signed up for courses; he just didn't attend them.
In 1976, at age 19, Johnny became the boy toy of Australian
tennis player Dianne Fromholtz, then No. 2 on the women's tour.
He carried her gear and chauffeured her around for two years,
until she wrote him a Dear Johnny note. Unhappy in love, he
enrolled in the USC drama department. Unhappy in college, he
went to work for Dad. He was managing a real estate company in
Las Vegas when Jerry called him back to L.A. in 1982 to run the
fledgling Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League. But after
three seasons in which he felt he was being regarded as an
unnecessary evil by Forum executives--who in turn felt that
Johnny simply didn't understand that the Lazers did not deserve
the same treatment as the Lakers--he quit. "I had wanted to be
part of a team and make something of my life," he says. "I was
part of one, and failed."
Johnny, then 28, fell into a depression that lasted several
years. He developed asthma. He stayed in bed for days at a time,
surrounded by his comic books, Disneyland posters and talking
Pee-wee Herman doll. "I didn't think I had a chemical
imbalance," he says. "It had more to do with the frustrations of
being the son of a famous man and being unable to find myself on
To pass the time, he played the horses and began racing Formula
Three cars. "Racing gave me a sense of self-confidence," Johnny
says. That sense was shattered after two years, when Jerry
refused to bankroll his next step in the sport.
"Dad wouldn't buy Johnny the million-dollar race car he wanted,"
Janie says. "In Johnny's mind Dad was throwing up another
roadblock so he wouldn't succeed."
Jerry says he acted out of paternal protectiveness. "I had been
encouraging him," he says, "but when he started racing at faster
speeds, I looked at him like, You're my son. I don't want you to
So Johnny didn't. For the next eight years he cruised aimlessly,
a thirtysomething child of privilege trapped by his privileges.
"Growing up, we had everything we ever wanted," says Janie, the
psych major. "So what's the incentive to accomplish anything?"
Johnny wrote two unproduced screenplays and sang in an
uncelebrated country and western band, and one Friday night in
1990 he suddenly married his girlfriend. "On Saturday night," he
says, "she read me a list of the monthly expenses she needed to
maintain her lifestyle." Four thousand dollars' worth of
expenses, according to Johnny's tally, not to mention upkeep on
her new Ferrari, a gift from her wealthy ex-husband. On Sunday
morning they separated; on Monday morning Johnny called a
lawyer. A year later they were divorced.
In 1992 Johnny married L.A. Clipper Girl Christy Curtis.
According to Johnny, his father joked, "Are you sure no Laker
Girls were available?"
When the WNBA was created in 1996, Jerry passed over the obvious
choice for Sparks president--Jeanie, who had made herself
available for the job--in favor of Johnny. "I think he picked me
because he thought the league was going to be just a quiet
little summer thing," Johnny says. Of course, Johnny was
ambivalent: "I thought, Oh, my god, another minor league. I
can't be involved with another failure. I've failed at
everything I've done."
As if by self-fulfilling prophecy, the Sparks are widely
regarded as the WNBA's most ineptly run franchise. Johnny says
he keeps trying to make things happen promotionally but Jeanie
keeps standing in the way. She balked at his demands for more
dramatic lighting, for fireworks displays and for pregame
carnivals in the parking lot, though she ultimately agreed to
scaled-down versions of the last two. "All she thinks about is
liability," he grumbles. "All I think about is the success of my
team. I may fail this time, but it's going to be on my terms and
not because my sister is uncooperative. The Sparks are in my
blood, in the air I breathe. I feel I've been handed the Olympic
torch, and it's my responsibility to keep it lit. If the team
fails, I don't know what the consequences for me will be."
Jimmy Buss, 38, has a practical, politically savvy side that his
brother lacks. He's a guy whose guile and drive prove the fallacy
of the system of primogeniture.
Jimmy is all for his father's Team Buss approach--to a point. "A
great checks-and-balances system," he calls it. "I wouldn't mind
Jeanie having control over Lakers finances as long as I had
ultimate say over player personnel." He presses his hands
together and makes a tiny cathedral with his fingers. "Working
with my brother would be a different story, though. I don't know
that I'd want to." His feelings toward Johnny fall somewhere
between pity and contempt. "For him to base his life on the
Sparks is ridiculous," Jimmy says. "That's exactly what he did
with the Lazers. You felt he would blow up any second and quit."
Though Jimmy's life has been tinged with tragedy, contentment
radiates from him as if from a lighthouse. He's a slightly beefy
guy with a round, ruddy face that crinkles easily into a smile.
"Jimmy always seemed bigger and faster than me," says Johnny. "He
was the cute kid with blue eyes, the athlete, the one girls fell
A party animal with lots of friends, Jimmy got by on charm and
good looks. Curiously, he shares Jerry's keen interest in
numbers. "When I was little, my father would give me a bag of
M&Ms if I memorized the serial numbers on a dollar bill," he
says. Jimmy was no natural-born capitalist, though. As a boy he
was bent more on spending money than on acquiring it.
Before dropping out of USC, Jimmy majored in math and minored in
business, or at least invested in minor businesses--video
arcades, a bakery--with borrowed money. He and his best friend,
Bill Goldenberg, spent many evenings at the Forum studying the
Kings, in which Jerry Buss had a stake until he sold it 10 years
ago. In 1981 Jerry promised the players a postseason trip to
Hawaii if they amassed 100 points. They finished with 99, but
Jerry took them anyway. Jimmy and Bill went, too, and spent the
first day tooling around Oahu on mopeds. On one curvy stretch,
Jimmy pulled ahead and waited for Bill to catch up. Bill didn't
show, so Jimmy circled back and found him sprawled on the side
of the highway. A truck had fishtailed and killed him. Jimmy was
devastated. "It was left to me to call Bill's parents," he says.
"I was looking for sympathy from them, and all they did was
blame me for taking him to Hawaii."
Jimmy's saga gets worse. Brokenhearted over Goldenberg's death,
he met a girl and, in 1983, married her. He wanted a child; she
couldn't have one. So, going through an agency, they adopted a
boy from Florida, whom Jimmy named Jager, after another rolling
stone. Within months, however, the parents decided to separate.
They pretended to continue living together to mollify the social
worker who monitored the adoption. This charade lasted six months.
After obtaining a divorce in late 1985, Jimmy hired a nanny, won
sole custody of Jager as a single parent and began leading a
double life: playing house with two girlfriends in L.A. In early
'87 Jimmy learned that one of the two women had been decapitated
as she disembarked from a helicopter. "It was the first time in
a long time that I'd opened up my heart to anyone," Jimmy says,
sighing, "and she was taken away from me."
To heal his aching heart, he married his other girlfriend. They
separated more than a year ago. Since then Jimmy and Jager have
bounced among his father's various Southern California
bungalows. Last year Jimmy pulled Jager out of seventh grade to
home-school him. "They had mutually decided it would be good for
Jager," says Jeanie with obvious displeasure. "I don't know how
many 12-year-olds should be part of that decision-making
process." Or, in this case, 37-year-olds. "Jimmy stayed at it
for maybe a week before losing interest," says Jeanie. Jimmy
insists he stuck with it for a year and it was "a wonderful
experience." Jager is now back in school.
When Johnny quit the Lazers in 1985, Jimmy replaced him and,
unlike his brother, accepted the job's limitations. "Early on, I
learned not to question certain procedures," he says. He leaned
on the Lakers for support services and brought annual losses down
from $1 million to $500,000. "It was a hopeless exercise,
though," he says. "The league had no TV contract, and our salary
cap was twice what we were taking in." The team folded in 1989.
About eight years ago Jimmy decided to try his hand at training
horses. He had misspent much of his youth at the track, and
though he was 6'2", he had attended jockey school when he was
20. His father owned a half-dozen thoroughbreds, and he handed
Jimmy the reins. "He picks things up very fast," says Bob
Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, "and he
isn't afraid to ask questions." Although Jimmy had some success
with his father's horses, track insiders questioned his
dedication, saying he showed up at the track mostly when he felt
like it. "At least he wasn't a bad trainer," says Baffert.
In 1997, shortly after Jerry divested himself of the last of his
increasingly unprofitable horse racing stock, he asked Jimmy to
join the Lakers as a sort of Jerry West in waiting. (On Sept. 4,
West, 60, signed on for another four years as Lakers executive
vice president.) There is some intrafamily skepticism about this
move. "Jeez!" says Janie. "Jerry West is like a god. It's hard
to think of him and Jimmy in the same sentence."
Not for Jimmy. "I always wanted to be a G.M.," he says. He
thinks sizing up a player is no different from assessing a
stallion. "With a colt, you watch his stride and how he pops to
extension," he says. "I just have to learn the qualities to look
for in humans."
Jimmy's tutor, West, may be the shrewdest judge of talent in the
NBA, and Jimmy has tagged along with him and general manager
Mitch Kupchak on several scouting trips. "I've gotten a ton of
knowledge from him," Jimmy says of West. "For instance, that
watching how a player acts on the bench is as important as how
he acts on the floor. [West] looks at what a player does when he
comes out of a game and how he interacts with his coach. He'll
walk up to a prospect and say, 'How ya doin'? I've got word that
you beat up a woman.' And I'm sitting there thinking, Wow! Is
this legal?" Yet Jimmy thinks scouting is vastly overrated.
"Evaluating basketball talent is not too difficult," he says.
"If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate
prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to
those of the pro scouts."
That comment mystifies West. "I have great admiration for what
our scouts do," he says. "If the job is so easy, then why do some
teams always have more success than others?"
Jimmy doesn't take West's rejoinder personally. "I don't mind
criticism so long as I'm comfortable with what I'm doing," he
says. "No matter what I accomplish, I'm going to be ridiculed
until I win five championship trophies."
Jimmy's long-range plan is really a short-range plan. "Right now
my dad is Number 1 in the Lakers organization, and I'm Number
4," he says. "After another year of this apprenticeship, I'd
feel comfortable going from 4 to 1. But you'd have to worry
about the comfort level of the current 2 and 3." He need not
worry about 2. West plans to leave when Jerry Buss does. Ever
the diplomat, West says of the post-Jerry Lakers: "Power is one
of the things that scares you because of the way it's used. If
it's used correctly, no one will even sense it."
In a slinky blue cocktail dress, Jeanie Buss promenades to her
table at a smart Beverly Hills restaurant. A male diner turns
his head and stops eating, fork suspended midway to his mouth.
Jeanie blushes. And yet three years ago she posed for Playboy.
No dreamer or eager innocent, Jeanie is a realist, a sensible,
funny woman who knows what's what. She's a man's kind of woman,
with money in the bank, a passion for slasher films and a
profound appreciation of all sports. "Of all my kids," says
Jerry, "Jeanie's the one who turned out most like me." By which
he means she's the one with the business smarts, the one who
actually graduated from USC--with honors, no less.
"Jeanie has a complete knowledge of the interplay of sports
marketing, building management and TV," says David Stern. "If
she took over the Lakers from her father, I don't think anything
would be lost in the transition."
Jeanie has spent many of her 37 years quietly preparing for just
that. At 14 she would tag along with her father to World
TeamTennis board meetings. The league went under in 1978 but
resurfaced in 1981 as TeamTennis. Jerry once again owned the
Strings, and he named 19-year-old Jeanie their general manager.
"Basically, my dad bought me the team," says Jeanie. "It was a
very empowering experience." But not a particularly profitable
one. The Strings sputtered along before dissolving in 1993.
"I always felt the TeamTennis thing was hopeless," says John
McEnroe, who dated Jeanie for six months in the mid-'90s. "She's
been tossed lame sports by her father and yet made something of
each of them."
When the Strings went belly-up, Jeanie was also running another
dog-cart club, the L.A. Blades in the Roller Hockey
International league. "Jeanie's knowledge is second to none in
getting a second-tier sport off the ground," says Ken Yaffe, the
NHL's liaison to RHI. "Though the executive meetings were
male-dominated, Jeanie was very strong-willed and never caved
in." She was an outspoken opponent of propping up ailing
franchises, and though other owners overruled her on that issue,
it cost them dearly. RHI collapsed last year.
The Forum, Jeanie says, is more her home than any house she's
lived in. "My 21st birthday was there, I was robbed at gunpoint
there, I met my ex-husband there," she says. Jeanie and Steve
Timmons, the flat-topped, flame-haired U.S. Olympic volleyball
hero, met during a 1986 tournament she was promoting. "I saw
Steve as somebody who was very marketable," she says. "What I'd
thought was love was really my attraction to his magnetism."
By 1990 Timmons's magnetic field had started to lose its pull.
Or perhaps Jeanie had begun to feel a certain power of her own.
In any case, they found themselves yanked in opposite
directions. She wanted kids; he didn't. "I was always, 'Steve,
whatever you want, whatever you want,'" she says. "But whenever
I wanted something, he was always, 'You're compromising what I
want.' I probably should have been his manager instead of his
Jeanie's pal Magic Johnson laughs when he thinks about her
getting hitched. "She goes out with a million men, finally says
'I do' and how long does it last?" he asks. "A month or two?"
"Three years," says Jeanie. "Which is a lot longer than Magic's
While she never lost her sense of humor, she says she did lose
her self-esteem. As a rite of empowerment, she asked herself, Is
there anything I've always wanted to do but haven't? Her answer:
appear nude in Playboy.
"Very strange," says McEnroe. "It must have had something to do
with her unique relationship with her father."
He may be right. Jerry had once owned the Playboy Club in
Phoenix, and according to Johnny, Jeanie had always been
insecure about her looks. So she grabbed the phone and pitched
her assets to the magazine's editors. A six-page spread in the
May 1995 issue bares those assets in a Forum locker room, in the
Forum loge and--paging Dr. Freud!--on her father's Forum desk.
Jerry claims it's the only Playboy he's never looked at. "But I
hear Jeanie looked absolutely stunning," he says.