Sad news this morning from California, where Jerry Buss, longtime owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, died after the final stages of an 18-month battle with cancer. Buss, who parlayed a handful of prime real-estate investments into an opportunity to purchase the Lakers in 1979 (just as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird revitalized the basketball scene), then watched as the Lakers won 10 championships under his ownership as basketball’s fortunes skyrocketed.
But Buss was always a poker player, too, never straying too far from the nearest tables and being a semi-regular attendee at major poker events over the last quarter century. Buss almost always made an appearance at the World Series of Poker, hanging around a few days to play in a seven-card-stud (his favorite game) or similar event, where he was widely respected and developed a reputation as a warm, friendly player.
Buss notched four WSOP cashes and one final table (1991) in a WSOP career that stretched back to the late ’80s, with his ’91 score of $33,250 for third place in that year’s $2.500 seven-card-stud tourney being the second largest tournament score of his long career, topped only by the $33,820 he claimed for winning a $200 no-limit event in the 2005 Winnin’ o’ the Green series at the Bike. L.A.’s Bicycle Casino was indeed one of his favorite poker haunts, and when a major poker series was underway, he’d usually find a way to stop by and play.
But Buss’s modest tournament performances were actually the lesser part of his poker career, and he’d be more likely to pull out a seat in a cash game — public or private — than necessarily grab a tourney seat. Buss played on a couple of occasions in the star-laden home game of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and though he seldom played the ultra-high games, it seemed more from a lack of care about the stakes. Buss was as happy at a table with $500 in play, it seemed, as one with $50,000.
Poker fans unaware of Buss’s basketball fame — he was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2010 — may remember him from his appearances on two popular cash-game TV shows, “Poker After Dark” and “High Stakes Poker”. Neither was his first appearance before the poker cameras, however, as he appeared on the second edition (2006) of NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship, where he was defeated in the opening round by the late Amir Vahedi.
Buss probably didn’t care. He was also slated to participate in last summer’s $1,111,111 Big One For One Drop charity event, but the ill health brought on by a 2011 blood clot and his subseqeunt battle with cancer forced him to back out of that appearance.
Tributes to Buss rolled in immediately from throughout the poker world, with the WSOP itself leading the way. A brief WSOP statement fondly remembered Buss, stating, “Jerry epitomizes what makes the game of poker so great. Everyone is on equal footing when you enter a poker tournament. And Jerry Buss acted and carried himself as a dignified gentlemen throughout. There is no doubt he was competitive and liked to win, but to anyone who had the pleasure of interacting with him at the World Series of Poker, you left better for the experience and rooting for him and his Lakers.”
Gossip site TMZ also reported that the WSOP would consider naming an event or a WSOP trophy after Buss. The unnamed WSOP rep (perhaps Nolan Dalla or Seth Palansky) told this to TMZ:
“At the appropriate time, we will seek to ask the family to honor [Jerry's] legacy by possibly naming our WSOP Seven Card Stud Championship after him or awarding the victor a special perpetual trophy in his honor.”
The uncredited WSOP rep also shared with TMZ one of the most widely known Buss stories, in which he skipped an NBA Finals game involving his Lakers in preference to playing in a WSOP tourney; I was there that year, and remember Buss wielding his chips in the Brasilia Room while paying little attention to the NBA doings on the big-screen TV only yards away. TMZ also published a photo of Buss opting for a local card game instead of attending the Lakers’ victory parade; after you’ve been in eight or nine of those things, they probably get old anyway.
The WSOP’s Dalla was among numerous poker luminaries who posted fond remembrances of Buss today on Twitter. A brief sampling:
Nolan Dalla, WSOP: “Dr. Jerry Buss — thanks for the memories. We at the WSOP were honored to have you with us. You will be missed.”
Erik Seidel: “Sad news about Jerry Buss. He was a true friend to many poker players. Big hearted guy.”
Todd Brunson: “My worst fears came true. Jerry passed away today at the age of 80. He was truly one of the nicest ppl I have ever met, a true Gentleman” / “I would say something like RIP Jerry Buss but anyone who knew him knows resting just wasn’t his style. I’m sure he’s busy running around…” / “Enjoying his new life and helping others he meets to do the same. Just like he did here on Earth”
John Juanda: “Nicest+most down to earth NBA team owner ever! RIP Jerry Buss!!”
Marcel Luske: “R I P, Mr J Buss … You always have being a very nice and special person next to a gentleman poker player.”
Melissa Hayden: “RIP DR. Jerry Buss 1 of the nicest men I’ve ever met. So sad. Poker won’t b the same w/o him.”
Greg “FBT” Mueller: “What a class act Jerry Buss was, such a humble person.. When he talked everybody listens in awe and with respect”
Among other tributes, the ongoing LA Poker Classic (held at the Bike) plans a moment of silence for Buss preceding the “Shuffle Up and Deal!” proclamation to be issued by Mike Sexton at the start of the LAPC’s upcoming main event.