Once, fixing a damaged wall after work, Buss peeled off his T-shirt, stuffed it into the hole and plastered over it.

They soon bought a second building and stumbled onto some good fortune. The partners — along with several relatives — won $12,000 at the racetrack, then bought yet another building, soon discovering oil on the property and receiving lucrative royalty rights.

"Everybody just felt like God loves us," Buss recalled in the book "Winnin' Times," written by former Times sportswriters Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. "Everything we did just went the right way."

Now millionaires, Buss and Mariani turned to another sort of venture.

Gathering friends as investors, they bought into the fledgling World Team Tennis league in 1974. Buss purchased the Los Angeles Strings and Mariani bought the San Diego Friars. Others took over franchises in Anaheim and Indiana.

The Strings won a championship in 1978, but the league did not last much longer. Buss went looking for a bigger, better opportunity.

"I have enough money to own a major league team," he said at the time. "And I intend to do so."

Jack Kent Cooke, who had built the Forum in Inglewood to house his Lakers and Kings, was in the midst of an expensive divorce and wanted to cash out. He began negotiating with Buss.

The asking price was $33.5 million for the arena, $16 million for the Lakers, $8 million for the Kings and $10 million for Cooke's ranch in the Sierra Nevada. Buss suggested a real-estate swap to avoid capital gains taxes and wound up unloading the majority of his holdings. As part of the deal, he acquired the Chrysler Building in New York City and traded it to Cooke.

Negotiations nearly fell through at the last minute when an investor dropped out, leaving Buss to scramble for more money, including a $1-million loan from Mariani's friend Donald T. Sterling, who would later purchase the Clippers.

Once again, Buss was leveraged to the hilt, as he was at the start of his real estate career. Once again, he was taking a risk.

The NBA — the "sport of the '70s" — had fallen by the wayside. Several teams stood on the brink of bankruptcy, CBS was broadcasting finals games on tape delay instead of live, and there were reports of rampant drug use among players. But to Buss, the Lakers looked like a gem in the coal bin. Seven years removed from their last title, they had a dominant center in Abdul-Jabbar and were poised to select the effervescent Johnson out of Michigan State in the 1979 NBA draft.

Buss added something more to the mix: a vision for the future.

He did not pretend to know much about Xs and O's, so he hired Jack McKinney, a coach who favored running, to introduce an up-tempo brand of basketball.

Next came a live band to perform with the Laker Girls.

Celebrities began showing up for games, encouraged by the management. Hollywood regulars included Denzel Washington, Dyan Cannon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Penny Marshall. Jack Nicholson cemented his position as the No. 1 fan, seated courtside, close to the visiting team's bench so he could needle opponents.

"Jerry Buss is always thinking in terms of putting a show on," said Lon Rosen, the former Lakers publicist who became Johnson's agent. "Everything the Lakers do, everything is planned."

Shrewd and independent

So there were always two sides to Buss. People closest to him saw an astute businessman, an owner who boosted revenue by raising the cost of premium seats while giving everyday fans a better deal in the upper sections of the arena.

"At heart, he's a mathematician," said Bob Steiner, his longtime public relations manager. "He always told me, 'Work the numbers. No matter what common sense may tell you, work the numbers.'"