Celebrities began showing up for games, encouraged by the management. The list of Hollywood regulars would grow to include 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.
So there were always two sides to Buss. People closest to him saw an astute businessman, an owner who boosted revenues 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.' "
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 in the locker room afterward.
The good times lasted almost a decade as Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper guided the Lakers to five titles. 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 the summer of 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.
"It is a lot of money for a coach," Buss said. "When you're used to paying $1 million and perhaps $2 million, to jump to perhaps three times that amount, takes a while."