Lakers owner Jerry Buss loved poker and people

Feb 21, 2013 11:10 AM

Special to Gaming Today

I met Dr. Jerry Buss through poker. The first thing that struck me about him was for an icon in the business and sports world, he was so open and friendly.

Throughout my life, I have found that the higher a person gets, the more down-to-earth they are; they did not get there by accident. Once you break through that outer wall, they are genuinely nice people.

Jerry Buss was one of the few people who had no barriers at all. Jerry was just Jerry.

The first time I was invited to a private poker game at the Forum Club was in 1988, when the Lakers had won their second straight NBA title. Jerry’s idea of celebrating a national title was a good poker game that started at the Forum Club and ended up going all night at his house. He never wanted the poker game to end.

He would do anything for his poker friends. I remember asking him if he would like to be a part of World Team Poker heading the celebrity division. He loved the idea. He called me up at the Commerce one day and said he wanted to be captain of Wyoming.

“World Team is about countries. Wyoming is a state,” I told him.

“Robert, have you ever been to Wyoming?” he responded. I said no. “Trust me, Robert,” he said, “Wyoming is a separate country. It is not a state.”

Jerry had a great sense of humor.

Another time I wanted to roast Jerry. I told him this would be the best roast of all time. He said his life was not very interesting. He was a very humble man. He suggested we roast Frank Mariani instead, and he was right.

It was a night to be remembered that was hosted by Gabe Kaplan and included such luminaries as Chick Hearn and Jerry West. We gave out several hundred copies of the video as gifts to players who entered the Jerry Buss Go for the Gold charity poker event.

Jerry wanted it to be different from any other poker event so he said he would only host the event if we played with real gold. He was a marketing genius.

At the time at the Bicycle Casino, our head of security was an ex-Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. When we talked about bringing in the gold, he told me he would have a SWAT team on the roof of the Bike to protect it.

One of the most fascinating things I remember about this evening was watching security marching by at a fast pace carrying cases of gold. They timed it so transporting the gold from the armored car to the ballroom would take one minute exactly. Security trained for this operation for a whole month. We spent more planning on protecting $10-$15 million in gold than on the players themselves. We didn’t lose a single gold coin.

I found that Jerry Buss always wanted to talk to me about poker, and everyone else wanted to talk to him about basketball. Our conversations were about beautiful women and poker.

Some people may not realize how competitive he was at poker. He took it very seriously. In fact, he came in third in a seven card stud event at the WSOP in 1991 and second at the WPT Freeroll Invitational at Commerce in 2003. He played mostly limit poker, and his favorites were limit hold’em, seven card stud and seven card stud high low.

World-class poker champion Yosh Nakano had this to say about his very dear friend: “Dr. Jerry Buss liked to be called ‘Doc’ by his close friends. He was the consummate competitor. In the late 80’s, he would often ask me to set up a poker game after a Laker game.

“Once I told him I could arrange a very live game. Jerry gave me a puzzled look and said, ‘I want to play against the best. I’m not playing for the money. I’ve got all the money I need. I’m playing for the competition. What would it mean if I beat a bunch of bad players?’”

For a man with a PhD in chemistry from USC, he was the most unlikely candidate to become such a flamboyant icon in the sports industry and a treasure for the city of Los Angeles.

There will never be another. I heard someone say it best: “Jerry Buss loved being Jerry Buss.”

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