Jerry Buss may have been the most unusual interview encountered in 40 years of journalism.
Today we read about how the Hollywood sports owner died at age 80 from kidney failure tied to the cancer he had been fighting for the past few years.
The talk, especially in the United States, is all about how Buss built a basketball dynasty with his L.A. Lakers, winning 10 National Basketball Association titles between 1980 and 2010.
Spare mention is made of his other team, the L.A. Kings of hockey, and rightly so, given that there were no Stanley Cups to show for his less-than-a-decade of ownership.
In January of 1980, however, he was as fired up about hockey as basketball, dreaming of how he might put together a team that would bring Los Angeles the Cup.
“If you can learn medicine in four years,” he told me, “you should be able to learn hockey in four years.”
It was not a blind boast. The man was unique. He had a PhD in physical chemistry – the media called him “Dr. Jerry Buss,” his friends and he preferred “J.B.” – and he and a cerebral friend used to play monopoly by memory.
Back in 1958, the two of them began setting aside $83.33 a month to invest in real estate. He used computer programming to choose the properties they would invest in. He once produced a mathematical equation that could determine how many footsteps it took to wear out a carpet.
"Other people think in words," he said. "I think in numbers."
Having built up a fortune worth $500-million, he began looking for a new challenge.
He found it in sports, master-minding a $67.5-million deal to buy the Los Angeles Forum, the Lakers, the Kings and a 13,000-acre ranch from Canadian Jack Kent Cooke.
Buss was 46 years old and drove to pick up the keys to the Forum in a Rolls-Royce Camargue.
I had been sent to California by Maclean’s magazine to do a story on Marcel Dionne, Buss’s prize player who was making noises about demanding an unheard-of $600,000 a year. Buss was nonplussed by noises being made by his star that he might go off and play hockey in Switzerland.
Dionne would get his deal and Buss would happily pay it.
“Look," he said, "you either subscribe to the crazy world we live in or you don't. I do. I have seen people get up on a stage, shuffle their feet, and get $100,000 a week. If you can get people to pay to see you, then I don't think we should interfere with that process ....
“So Marcel Dionne is worth whatever he can get from me."
In a week in Los Angeles, I spent time with Dionne, who was then chasing his long-time hockey nemesis, Guy Lafleur, for Dionne’s first scoring title. (He would get it, but ironically he would tie with a young upstart named Wayne Gretzky who would render NHL scoring titles moot for the next decade or so.)
But there was also a great amount of time spent with Buss, the multimillionaire owner who seemed to have endless time on his hands and nothing else to do.
He told me his life story. He had grown up poor in Wyoming, the son of a divorced waitress who had trouble making ends meet. He had excelled in school but looked and acted the opposite of an academic. Tall, lean and lanky, he liked open shirts, jeans and cowboy boots. He had, at one point, been asked to serve as the “Marlboro Cowboy” in an advertising campaign. He chain smoked and drank rum and coke at the games. He had a large office well supplied with, of all things, lollipops and jellybeans.
The strangest thing he showed me was a thick binder filled with colour glamour photographs of the many women he had “dated.” He went through all the pictures as carefully and lovingly as a young boy with his hockey cards.
He was, in fact, a collector.
His conquests he kept in the thick binder of photographs; the famous names he collected – Jack Nicholson, etc. – sat at courtside during the Lakers games. At the Kings’ game one night, his suite welcomed the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Canadian character actor Larry D. Mann.
While off in a corner, sipping a pinkish drink, sat a young satin-eyed, raven-haired beauty, waiting to go home with the team owner.
On her way, as well, to the collector’s binder.