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The Poker World Misses Jerry Buss Already

Lakers Owner, Poker Lover Dead At Age of 80

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Jul 01, 2013

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The National Basketball Association lost one of its own with the passing of longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss, but the poker world also lost one of its familiar faces and nicest guys.
Buss died in mid-February at the age of 80. He had been battling cancer.

Despite being one of the most prominent faces in the Los Angeles celebrity community, Buss was frequently in Las Vegas during the later years of his life. Instead of watching his team win championships, he was sometimes playing poker tournaments. Los Angeles and Las Vegas, separated by less than 300 miles, are both huge centers for poker, and he oscillated between the two.

As one poker pro remembered it, Buss once was playing a low-stakes tournament at the Commerce Casino during a Lakers playoff game. He often grinded the poker circuit in the Southwest part of the United States and, one year, played more than 20 World Series of Poker events.

He flat out loved poker, no matter the buy-in level.

Jerry Buss was always generous, especially with the players who worked for him. During his memorial ceremony, Magic Johnson said that, when he was poor, Buss would take him on fun trips to watch sports other than basketball. One was to see a boxing match in Las Vegas, one of Buss’ favorite cities. Johnson saw Buss as a father figure. Kareem Abdul Jabbar spoke of Buss’ desire to put maximum effort into whomever or whatever he cared about. “When I think of Jerry, I like to picture him at his beloved poker table, where he had great success in several major tournaments,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I think of him sitting there with the world’s best poker players, staring them down, and suddenly pushing all of his chips into the middle and declaring, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘All in.’ That’s the way Jerry lived his life — all in, all the time.”

On the felt, Buss played with poker’s richest and best players. He was a low-key player, finding a passion for limit hold’em, stud and other fixed-bet games. Phil Hellmuth considered Buss not only a great player, but also a great friend. Hellmuth tweeted, “Jerry was a great limit hold’em player and he held his own against the best players in the world. Jerry, I will miss you my friend.”

Doyle Brunson was another poker pro who knew him well, implying that Buss was always a pleasure to have at the table and, not surprisingly, that Buss never cared too much about the money. Brunson tweeted, “Dr. Buss lost $50K in a poker game. I said to him, ‘Sorry you lost so much.’ He said, ‘It’s OK, I could do it every day for 100 years and still be rich.’ RIP Jerry.”

Buss truly wanted to be the best poker player he could, and when he wasn’t competing against the best in the world, he was honing his skills at smaller games. But all stakes were essentially low to a man with a nearly limitless bankroll.

Despite the laid-back approach to life and leisure, nature eventually caught up with the poker veteran. According to a statement from his family, Buss had been hospitalized much of the past 18 months in a battle “which showed his amazing strength and will to live.”

“It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family” the statement continued. “The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.”

During his time away from basketball, Buss played in some of the priciest poker games around, which included appearances on GSN’s High Stakes Poker and the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, as well as at the annual WSOP. Over the years, he managed to accumulate dozens of tournament cashes.

He was close to a WSOP gold bracelet in 1991, finishing third in a $2,500 buy-in seven-card stud event — a poker variant which was his bread and butter. It would have been another piece of precious hardware for one of the most accomplished sports franchise owners in history.

Buss wasn’t just a rich guy who wanted to get his fix in by playing the nosebleeds against the best in the world. He just loved poker, no matter the stakes. In 2005, for example, he won a $200 buy-in tournament that drew 457 people. The first-place prize was $33,820, which would be a lot for a poker pro’s bankroll, but just a drop in the bucket for Buss. Nonetheless, he loved winning and competing, and he would take a victory no matter the circumstance.

While those in basketball and in poker miss him dearly, Buss is survived by sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel, all of Southern California; eight grandchildren; former wife JoAnn of Las Vegas; half sister Susan Hall of Phoenix; half brother Micky Brown of Scottsdale; and stepbrother Jim Brown of Star Valley, Wyoming.

His circle of friends and family was clearly immense.

Early Days

Born in Salt Lake City in 1933, Buss grew up in Kemmerer, Wyoming. He attended the University of Wyoming before moving eventually to Southern California to obtain a PhD in physical chemistry from University of Southern California.

Being called “Doctor” seemed to stick throughout this career, especially at the poker table where many of his competitors, whether needling him or not, loved calling him Dr. Buss. Not that he needed the special distinction, as it was usually clear he was one of the smartest in the room.

Despite his advanced degree and aerospace technology job at Douglas Aircraft, Buss eventually tried his hand at real estate investing. After initial success, he decided to pursue that on a full-time basis. He just climbed the financial ladder after that, building up such a bankroll that he could afford to buy sports franchises. Once he found poker, it wasn’t even about the money anymore.

Lakers

Buss became a prominent figure in the Los Angeles sports community, owning several teams over the years. However, it was his control of the Lakers, a team he purchased in 1979, that made him a household name.

His basketball team won an astounding 10 titles, with some of the game’s greatest players. Buss always had a knack for being around winners, whether it was on the court or the felt.

He originally paid $67.5 million for the Lakers in a deal that included the Los Angeles Kings and as sports arena, the Los Angeles Forum.

The Lakers franchise alone is worth more than $1 billion today.

It’s obvious that while Buss was a great ambassador for poker, his biggest contributions were in basketball. Many feel he’s a legend in this arena, and there will never be anyone like him again.

“Think about the impact that he’s had on the game and the decisions he’s made, and the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime and the impact that he had on the sport as a whole,” Kobe Bryant told the Associated Press. “Those vibrations were felt to a kid all the way in Italy who was 6 years old, before basketball was even global. His impact is felt worldwide.”

His sport in the end might have been basketball, but some even think Buss had a huge effect on the entire industry. “He changed all sports,” Jerry West said at Buss’ memorial service.

While his legacy is grand, Buss perhaps didn’t set out to be such a game changer. “One of the biggest reasons I bought the Lakers was to beat the Celtics,” he once said, according to ESPN.

After his death, the Lakers will remain in his family’s hands. And that’s how at least some want it. “Now the legacy is passed to his kids,” Magic Johnson said at Buss’ memorial. “Please, Buss family, do not ever sell the Lakers, and win more championships.”

Finding Poker

Buss was a frequent poker player at least by around the mid-1980s, telling Card Player back in 2009 that he’d being playing seven-card stud for the past 25 years or so.

He was clearly an avid player during the middle part of his life, but as he grew older he kept logging many hours at the poker table. It was his way of making himself feel young.

When once asked by Card Player about why he continues to play poker, Buss responded: “The competitiveness. Once you reach a certain age, there are very few things you can do to compete with people. I find it very enjoyable to compete every day of my life.”

While Buss was seeking a mind sport to stay sharp, he didn’t want something that would be isolating or keep him away from socializing. He was always a gregarious individual, pretty much regardless of the setting.

“I like the camaraderie,” Buss said. “Poker is a lot of fun; it’s social, as well as competitive.”

He was also a frequent participant in charity poker tournaments, finding them even more to his liking since the atmosphere was even more laid back.

World Series of Poker Responds

As a frequent competitor at the summer series, Buss will surely be missed in the halls of the Rio Hotel and Casino going forward. He was also a regular at Binion’s Horseshoe back in the day.

Reports surfaced not long after his death that Caesars Entertainment is considering naming a tournament after him.

“We hope to approach the family at an appropriate time to get permission to award a Jerry Buss Perpetual Trophy to the winner of one of our bracelet events each summer, in a discipline he most enjoyed and perhaps re-name the event after him,” Seth Palansky, WSOP Corporate Communications Vice President told Card Player. “We don’t believe this will come together in time for the 2013 WSOP, but hopefully by 2014.”

The WSOP has honored a player in a similar way before. After the passing of poker legend Chip Reese in 2007, the most prestigious tournament series in the world elected to name the winner trophy in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship after him.

It remains to be seen if Buss will ever be elected into the Poker Hall of Fame, but it seems possible, considering how much love and respect exists for him. He’s already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. ♠

Poker Pros Mourn

When news broke of his passing, many took to social media to say goodbye. The following remarks indicate that Buss was a beloved poker player and elite member of the poker community. Note: Tweets edited for grammar and punctuation.

Doyle Brunson: Nobody mentions Jerry Buss’ contribution to poker Nation. He helped many struggling poker players.

Victor Ramdin: RIP Jerry Buss! He was one of my favorite celebrities to ever play poker against. He had a great sense of humor.

Erik Seidel: Sad news about Jerry Buss. He was a true friend to many poker players and a big hearted guy.

Bryan Devonshire: First time I met Jerry Buss, I lost $100 on him being Jerry Buss. No way a guy that happy, friendly and laid back owned the Lakers. RIP

Noah Schwartz: My thoughts and prayers go out to the Buss Family. Truly enjoyed played poker with Jerry Buss the number of times we played. He was just a truly sensational guy.

Greg Mueller: What a class act Jerry Buss was; such a humble person. When he talked everybody listened in awe and with respect. RIP.

Shawn Rice: RIP Jerry Buss. You will be truly missed in the poker world. Thanks for all you have done for us. We are forever grateful.

Mike Sexton: Jerry Buss was always one of the nicest guys at the poker table and never heard of anyone that didn’t love the guy. He was a great friend of poker.

Daniel Alaei: RIP Mr. Buss. It was always fun to chat with Jerry. He was so open with his opinions, good or bad, about his team and the players.

Dan O’Brien: Sad I won’t be seeing Dr. Buss at the tables any more. He was a great example of how hard work, intelligence, and a big heart can equal success

Jon Aguiar: My top Jerry Buss moment was watching him sweat a Lakers playoff game with Ellix Powers on break in a Commerce Casino $350. He’ll always be a legend.

Lou Diamond Phillips: RIP my good friend and poker buddy, Dr. Jerry Buss. He was a kind and generous man who embraced all that life offers. You will be missed.

Magic Johnson: I will always remember Dr. Buss’ big smile, his love for the Lakers, for poker and billiards, for the City of LA and for beautiful women.

The Lakers and family: We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community.