R.I.P., Jerry Buss

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THIS WEEK IN DEATH FEBRUARY 22, 2013

R.I.P., Jerry Buss Which obits dared detail Jerry Buss' exploits?

A regular roundup of how the obituaries remembered the lives of the week's most prominent dearly departed.

Last weekend, the NBA gathered in Houston for its annual all-star festivities, several consecutive days of parties scheduled around official events like the game, the slam dunk contest, and a celebrity all-star showdown featuring retired basketball players, the rapper (and inexplicably controversial White House guest) Common, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

None of that sounds remotely unusual in 2013, but none of it would have been possible without Jerry Buss.

The longtime Los Angeles Lakers owner, who died Monday at 80, was an essential force behind the NBA’s transformation from mere sport to pop-culture spectacle. He “gave courtside seats to movie stars. He hired pretty women to dance during timeouts. He spent freely on big stars and encouraged a fast-paced, exuberant style of play,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Sports Illustrated  says he brought “a scientist's analytical skills, a playboy's flair, a businessman's money-making savvy and a die-hard hoops fan's heart” to owning the team; the New York Times says he “was an innovator in melding basketball brilliance with show-business dazzle.”

Every news outlet agrees on the basic outline of Buss’ life story: Born a child of the Depression in Wyoming, he moved to L.A. to get a chemistry Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, then worked in aerospace. But he got rich buying real estate as the region boomed, and bought a franchise in the World Team Tennis league in 1974. By 1978, he was flush enough to buy the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Forum where they played from Jack Kent Cooke (the quirky mogul who also owned the Washington Redskins), who was going through an expensive divorce. “As part of the deal, he bought the Chrysler Building in New York City and traded it to Cooke,” the L.A. Times notes (the New York Times doesn’t mention that).

That set Buss up to be one of the great playboys of the 1980s, which all the obits note. SI says he “rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm.” The L.A. Times cites his “unpretentious style” which “helped Buss, divorced and known as a playboy, forge close relationships with many of his players. After games, he transformed the Forum's press lounge into a late-night party spot, entertaining athletes, reporters and young women as announcer Chick Hearn poured drinks at the bar.” Only Deadspin notes that he “a world-class Playmate aficionado who frequently dated teenage girls and used to host his birthday party at a brothel,” in a tribute aptly headlined, “Jerry Buss, Surrounded by Boobs” that’s illustrated exactly like it sounds.

The New York Times puts it in context, quoting NBA Commissioner David Stern telling SI in 1998 that Buss was among the last of the individual owners in big-time sports—ie, the money he helped bring into pro leagues meant corporate balance sheets were in, while cowboy hotshots with girls on their arms were out. Obit desks aren’t immune to cold financial realities, either, though: The L.A. Times piece has a tag line noting that “former Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this report.” Heisler, the paper’s longtime NBA beat reporter, was laid off in a 2011 cost-cutting move.

SAYONARA, RICHIE-SAN

When Donald Richie began writing about Japanese film, the only thing many Americans thought that meant was movies about angry, irradiated sea monsters. “He was among the first English-language writers to look past Godzilla and recognize a depth and subtlety in Japanese filmmaking that rivaled the best movies being made in the West,” the Washington Post says. Richie, who died Tuesday in Tokyo at 88, wrote dozens of books about Japanese film and culture, as well as The Inland Sea, a 1971 travelogue. The New York Times notes that he “came to bemoan the changes that transformed Japan from the mostly agrarian country he found in the 1940s into an industrialized landscape of unrestrained public works and American-style commercial development.” 

The Times also, unlike the Post, points out that Richie was “openly bisexual” and “wrote frankly about his lovers, both male and female, saying Japan’s greater tolerance of homosexuality in the 1940s, relative to that in the United States, was one reason he returned to the country after graduating from Columbia University in 1953.” The Post refers only elliptically to Richie’s sexuality, noting that he wrote about Japanese “sexual mores, from pornography to prostitution to gay bars.”

ALL DEATH IS LOCAL

The Baltimore Sun features an obituary of William C. Brubaker, 91, military and NASA aeronautical engineer by day, trombone player and founding member of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band in 1947 by night. “He wore a cape and a jockey cap in the team's then-colors of green, white and silver.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer remembers Brian Utain, 66, “one of a group of Temple University students who used to harmonize on the lawn or in Mitten Hall or even on street corners in the '60s, lending their own original take on R&B and soul numbers.” Two other members of the group, which called themselves the Temptones: Guitarist John Oates and singer Daryl Hohl, who would later change his name to Hall and form the band that Philadelphians are duty-bound to love.

The Los Angeles Times notes the death of Petro Vlahos at 96. Vlahos “vastly improv[ed] a composite-image process commonly known as the ‘blue-screen effect’” for 1959’s Ben-Hur and “created a related technique that made Dick Van Dyke appear to dance among the penguins in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“He wasn’t necessarily the world’s best novelist or the best bullfighter or best artist or best piano player or best nightclub owner, but he was very good at all of them. He was like a pentathlete.” — Barnaby Conrad III, on his father, Barnaby Conrad Jr., “bullfighter, bon vivant, portrait artist, saloonkeeper to the stars, author of 36 books and founder of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Writers Conference,” who died Feb. 12 at 90. The scion of a wealthy San Francisco family, Conrad got into bullfighting while taking art classes in Mexico City, and wound up fighting as “El Niño de California,” or “the California Kid,” in Spain, Mexico, and Peru. He was wounded in the ring so badly that he wasn’t eligible for military service, but joined the State Department and became the U.S. vice consul in Seville, Spain. Later, he opened a nightclub, El Matador, in San Francisco. In 1961, he published Famous Last Words, which compiled the final utterances of famous people, but alas, his obits don’t record his own.

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posted in: this week in death, jerry buss, donald richie, william c. brubaker, brian utain, petro vlahos

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