But much of the world saw him as a maverick, a rich man who acted like one of the guys.

"I saw him walking in with these jeans on," Johnson recalled of their first meeting. "I said, 'This man's got all this money?'"

This unpretentious style 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.

Buss said: "Just because I'm a public figure doesn't mean I don't get to live my life the way I want."

Success came quickly. With former Lakers star Jerry West maturing into one of the most gifted general managers in the league, the team won an NBA championship in Buss' first season.

"You don't know how long I've waited for this moment," Buss told his players afterward.

The good times lasted almost a decade, the Lakers winning five titles with the likes of Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and James Worthy. But no team can stay on top forever, and the franchise struggled through much of the 1990s.

Buss stopped hanging around so much, and the front office became more bureaucratic. West was obliged to train and consult with the owner's son Jim, who was given the title of assistant general manager. It took some bold moves to turn things around.

West tore the roster apart in summer 1996, trading center Vlade Divac and reducing the payroll enough to make a run at O'Neal, who was nearing the end of his contract with the Orlando Magic.

As negotiations stalled, West wondered if the team should settle for Plan B, signing another center, Dikembe Mutombo, and a big power forward in Dale Davis.

Buss insisted that his general manager keep pursuing O'Neal, so West traded away two more players, creating enough salary cap room to give O'Neal the $118-million offer he demanded.

"We knew we were out on a limb," Buss said. "We were going to either be very sorry or very ecstatic."

The Divac trade allowed the Lakers to add the precocious Bryant out of high school, but when the team fell short of winning it all the next three seasons, Buss had to roll the dice one more time.

Going against a previous dictum to spend conservatively on coaches, he paid $30 million over five seasons to hire Jackson in 1999.

The franchise soon moved into Staples Center, a downtown location that featured state-of-the-art accommodations and — just as important — 160 revenue-producing luxury suites. Buss would realize pretax profits estimated at more than $50 million over the next few years.

More championships

Jackson's arrival marked the final step in the greatest rebuilding project of the salary cap era.

The Lakers celebrated a "three-peat" with three consecutive championships starting in 1999-2000, and once again Buss drifted away from day-to-day operations, only to be drawn back in.

When O'Neal agitated for a long-term contract in 2003, the owner balked. The team flamed out in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons and traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Then Jackson walked away, saying he wanted to "pause and reflect."

A few more disappointing seasons made Bryant antsy, and he demanded a trade. But Buss stood firm.