Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jerry Buss (1933-2013)

Like everyone else I was disheartened by yesterday’s news that poker player and L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss had passed away. I tend to spend a lot of time perusing websites dedicated to either poker or sports, and it was remarkable yesterday to find so many well considered tributes penned about Buss and praise for the legacy he managed to leave in both spheres.

On the poker side, Haley Hintze wrote about Buss yesterday for Flushdraw, discussing his WSOP cashes (and one final table), his popularity in L.A. cash games, and his having turned up on various poker shows over the last few years (including High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, and the NBC Heads-Up tourney).

Meanwhile, Grantland’s Bill Simmons spent part of his Monday morning writing about Buss and his importance to the NBA in “The Lakers Lose Buss, the NBA Loses a Titan.” A frequent critic of other NBA owners’ decision-making, Simmons highlights Buss’s positive contributions both to the success of the Lakers (who won 10 titles for him while he was owner) and to the league as a whole.

Both pieces help convey Buss’s character as a genuinely giving person who often put others’ welfare and interests ahead of his own. Both touch a little on the contrast between the “playboy” image sometimes applied to him (thanks largely to his poker-playing and frequent appearances with younger female companions) and the modest, friendly personality that won him many friends and fans.

Buss was obviously an intelligent, creative thinker, earning a Ph.D. by age 24, realizing substantial success in real estate, and then as an NBA owner helping build a consistently-winning, wildly popular franchise. He was also highly competitive, a trait many former Laker players and high-stakes poker players have been talking about a lot for the last couple of days as well.

I never met Buss and in truth my experience with him at the WSOP pretty much entirely consisted of reporting occasional hands he played and once in a while overhearing some interesting table talk. As others who played with him have been unanimously attesting to over the last 24 hours, he was certainly an amiable presence at the tables, never seeming to mind frequent questions from other players (or even from the rail) about the Lakers or questions an NBA owner.

I remember once Buss being at the WSOP and playing in an event while the Lakers were making another NBA playoff run, and recall his telling someone how the team seemed to perform better without him being there, thus explaining his decision to be in Vegas rather than attending games. (Haley discusses that story as well in her piece.)

I also recall covering a $2,500 Omaha/8-Stud/8 event in 2011 (the last year Buss came to the WSOP) and overhearing lots of questions to Buss from others asking for his thoughts about various NBA players. I also wrote a post here sharing some reflections on the relaxed atmosphere created by the players in that event, the sort of thing that often provides a ready context for fun table talk and characters to emerge.

It sounds as though the WSOP might be considering renaming an event after Buss in recognition of his friendship and positive influence on the poker community. The NBA also will surely be focusing some effort toward remembering Buss and his important role during the league’s period of dramatic growth.

All seems appropriate and deserving. And as a fan of poker, basketball, and friendly people who serve to build communities rather than break them down, I, too, wanted to commend Buss for his positive contributions and influence.

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