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By Jeanie Buss, Steve Springer
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Jeanie Buss and Steve Springer
All rights reserved.
Wyoming Roots: Harsh Times, High Hopes
I never fail to marvel at how blessed I have been in my life or how unlikely this all seemed at one time, considering where my dad started his life.
His parents, Jessie and Lydus, divorced when he was just a year old in 1934.
My dad lived with my grandmother in Evanston, Wyoming, where she worked as a waitress and scrubbed floors. With the Great Depression devastating much of the country, it was a rough existence. My dad remembers standing in food lines in sometimes brutally cold weather at the age of four, gunnysack in hand.
If there was no heat in the house, shredded paper might substitute for kindling wood.
When he was nine, my dad got his first glimpse of a bright, new world where snow was for skiing and heat was for sunbathing. My grandmother took him to Los Angeles where she got a job as an accountant at a greeting card company.
My dad would have been thrilled to stay there, but three years later, he found himself back in Wyoming after his mother married Cecil Orville Brown. Brown was also from Wyoming and back they went, settling in Kemmerer, where Brown purchased a plumbing store.
His stepfather soon put a shovel in my dad's hands and informed him that he would be getting up at 4:30 in the morning to dig ditches sufficiently large enough to hold plumbing pipes before heading off to school.
After school, there was football practice. After that, odd jobs to make a few dollars. And somewhere in there, my dad had to fit in his homework.
Adding more misery to the long hours and the backbreaking work was the weather. For much of the year, when my dad poked his head out the door for his predawn labor he was hit in the face with temperatures that sometimes dropped as low as 15 degrees below zero.
Even at that age, however, my dad was already thinking about how to generate revenue streams, although his first streams wouldn't even qualify as a trickle.
Still, for a 13-year-old living in Kemmerer in the darkest days of World War II, two dollars a day was a good start.
That's what my dad earned at the Kemmerer Hotel for a five-hour, after-school shift as a bellhop. A more accurate title would be bellhop/shoeshine boy/janitor.
Around that time, the entrepreneur the sports world would come to know was also emerging as my dad started his first business.
He sold stamps through the mail. After purchasing the merchandise wholesale, he squeezed out a profit that fell short — sometimes far short — of a dollar per stamp. His profit for a whole month would be about the same as his daily earnings at the hotel: two dollars.
But my dad was driven by the desire to buy clothes or other essentials he wasn't getting at home.
Beyond the practical considerations, he harbored the dream of his ultimate possession: a car.
By the time he was 15, my dad put away that dream, his shovel, and his shoeshine kit and got a real job, even though that meant quitting school.
He left home before his senior year of high school and became a "gandy dancer" for the railroad.
There wasn't any dancing involved, just a lot of sweating. My dad and hundreds of other laborers would head out into vast, lonely stretches of Wyoming on handcars, powering themselves along the tracks by furiously pumping a lever up and down.
Upon arriving at an area where the rails were in need of repair or reinforcement, they would go to work.
Work was an eight-hour day. With overtime, it could be a 14-hour day, and working for "Mile-a-Day" Mike McGuire, as my dad did, it usually turned out to be closer to 14 hours than eight.
After three months of that, school didn't look so bad.
My dad returned to the classroom, but he might not have stayed there long, had it not been for Walt Garrett.
Mention Walt's name around STAPLES Center, or anywhere in L.A. for that matter, and you'll undoubtedly get nothing but blank stares.
But if it wasn't for him, people in L.A. may never have heard of Dr. Jerry Buss. And I certainly wouldn't be wearing a Lakers championship ring and hanging out with people like Jeremy Piven, Michelle Kwan, and David Beckham.
Walt was the first man to really believe in my dad, to tell him that he didn't belong in a frozen ditch or on a handcar in the middle of nowhere.
With your brilliant mind and your grasp of science, Walt told him, you belong on the road to a university.
Walt, a science teacher at Kemmerer High School, had heard that my dad had come back from the railroad for his senior year.
That pleased Walt.
He also heard, however, that my dad was back at his old job at the Kemmerer Hotel and was living there rather than going back home.
That didn't please Walt, who figured my father's grades would suffer from such an arrangement.
So Walt convinced my dad to come live with him in his apartment. The conditions were hardly ideal. My dad slept on a cot in Walt's spare bedroom.
The important thing, Walt told him, was to use the time in the apartment to hit the books. Walt kept repeating to my dad over and over like a mantra that he was a gifted student who must not let his potential slip away.
Nice to hear, but not nice enough to overcome my dad's lack of enthusiasm for school. Four more years in a classroom after high school didn't sound as appealing as moving back to California, the place he remembered so fondly. Once there, my dad figured, he would be happy with a roof over his head and a car to drive, no matter what he did for a living.
But Walt was persistent. He stayed on my father, teaching him chemistry and physics at home as well as at school. The home schooling was conducted while Walt and my dad played cards.
My dad responded, in spite of himself. By the end of his final semester, my father was doing so well in Walt's chemistry class that the student became the instructor. Walt had my dad standing in front of his classmates, teaching parts of the course.
Still, the thought of four additional years of school looming ahead turned my father off.
Instead, he found a shortcut ... in the post office.
It was there that my father spotted a notice for a job as a government chemist. Education requirement: one year of college.
That didn't seem so bad.
When he brought the idea to Walt, the science teacher jumped on it. He found a science scholarship and helped my dad qualify for it. My dad was accepted at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Don't get too excited, my father told him. I'm only going for one year.
My father was on his way. Walt knew darn well my dad wasn't going to stop after just one year.
My dad later admitted that the fear of poverty, the memory of those bread lines, and the prospect that he could wind up in the coal mines of Kemmerer as did so many others drove him not only out of town, but to ever greater heights even after he had gained enough wealth to buy those coal mines if he had so desired.
When my dad got to the University of Wyoming, he wasn't worried about how many years he'd be there. He was more concerned with surviving day to day.
As it had been since he was standing in that bread line so many years earlier, money was the issue.
My dad may have been the boy wonder in Kemmerer, capable of teaching a chemistry class while still in high school, but that didn't buy him much more than academic credibility in Laramie. He still needed food and a place to live, essentials that weren't adequately covered by his scholarship.
He got a room at a local church by working as the janitor on the property.
He got food by working as a busboy in the college cafeteria, a job that also earned him a few dollars.
Still, his finances were so tight that he couldn't even afford textbooks, a huge handicap considering his two majors: chemistry and mathematics.
So he learned to plan ahead. Knowing his classmates wouldn't think about hitting the books until a test was looming, he borrowed those books when the test was still in the distant future, doing his studying early.
It wasn't easy. Add chemistry and math and several required classes to the burden of two jobs and there wasn't much room in the equation for sleep. My dad worked about 35 hours per week and carried 18 units in his first year at Wyoming.
It may have been a grind, but it didn't grind him down. My dad finished the year as an A student in his major.
So then what? My dad made the decision Walt Garrett had hoped for: he would stay in school for another year and get his degree. After all, he was excelling at academics and a degree would mean a more lucrative future as a higher-ranked chemist on the government scale.
There was another reason for my dad to stay at Wyoming, one Walt couldn't have anticipated. That reason was JoAnn Mueller.
JoAnn, my mother, had grown up in Boise, Idaho, but she also lived in Portland and New York City, and went to high school in Fairborn, Ohio.
Upon graduation, she wanted to purse a nursing degree at Ohio State, where many of her friends were going.
But her father Carl, divorced from her mother, insisted that JoAnn go to college in Wyoming, where he was working as a park ranger.
If I'm going to pay your tuition, Carl told her, I'd like you to go someplace that's more affordable.
Whatever reservations my mother had about going to the University of Wyoming disappeared one night two months after she arrived.
A sophomore named Jerry Buss had invited her to a dance. When he dropped her off at the end of the evening, she told her two roommates, "I just met my future husband."
A little over a year later, my dad indeed asked my mom to marry him, but he didn't have much to offer financially. The best he could do as far as a ring was concerned was a cigar band.
"Someday," he told her, "I'll get you a real ring."
She wasn't concerned with that. She was in love, and that was all that mattered.
Her father, living in Cheyenne at the time, wasn't quite so enthusiastic.
"Why do you have to get married so quick?" he asked my mom when she told him that that they wanted to get hitched within a few weeks. "I thought you wanted to be a nurse."
"Not now I don't," she said.
The father of one of my mom's friends was a justice of the peace. With five or six of my parents' friends in attendance, he performed the ceremony on December 6, 1952.
Still teenagers at 19, they had become man and wife.
I don't know how my dad even had time for my mom considering his schedule as a sophomore at Wyoming. It was even more demanding than his freshman year.
For one thing, that government job that had brought him to Wyoming in the first place had materialized. He was hired as a chemist by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The position didn't affect his class schedule since he worked from midnight to sunrise.
To supplement his income, my dad also worked poker and pool tables relentlessly, turning the experience he had gained in his idle hours in Kemmerer into a revenue-generating operation.
There certainly weren't any idle hours in college where, determined not to give up his precious time with my mom, he sometimes gave up sleep altogether, going from job to class to the poker table.
It was the early 1950s, the Korean War was raging, and young men my dad's age were being drafted. But fortunately for him, he got a student deferment.
My dad took his new responsibilities seriously. He wanted to make enough money to have a family. And he wanted to make enough to allow my mother to stay home to take care of that family.
Once again, he looked toward education to secure his future. The boy who once balked at going to college was now focusing on graduate school.
My dad had graduated from high school at 17, and by taking a full load of classes every semester and going to summer school, he was able to graduate from Wyoming in two years, getting his degree in June of 1953.
Because he was so brilliant, my dad had scholarship offers for graduate school from many colleges, Harvard and Yale among them.
Ultimately, it was the sweet memories of his brief stay in California as a kid that won him over. That thrilled my mother, who had also dreamed of a life in California, although she had never been there.
My father was a huge fan of USC football and track and field. Consequently, he decided to go there to pursue a PhD in physical chemistry.
Once in L.A., he figured he might transfer to nearby Cal Tech, a prestigious academic institution, but he never did.
The decision made, my parents packed up their car in preparation for the trip west. My mom decided to go first to Cheyenne to say good-bye to her father. From there, she would take a train to meet my father in L.A.
My father took the car, but stopped to visit an aunt. While he was in her house, someone broke in and stole everything in the car, including the suitcases, my mother's nursing textbooks, and even her wedding dress.
My parents hadn't had much to start with. Now, they were beginning a new life together with absolutely nothing.CHAPTER 2
Lakers 99, Clippers 92
I don't believe this. It's opening night, something I've been dreaming about and planning for months, and I'm sick.
I sure hope this isn't an omen for the season ahead. I don't want to start the year on the injured list.
Flying back from an NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York last week, I sat across the aisle from a person who coughed the entire flight. I was worried this might be the result.
After a visit to the doctor, I decided to push on with my obligations to host tonight's ring and banner ceremony even though my voice sounds a lot lower than normal because of the congestion in my chest.
Any lower and I'll sound like Phil.
Unfortunately, I'm getting used to this. I was also sick during the 2009 playoffs, probably because I was so worried about how things would turn out.
Today was actually pretty quiet. Because we've had the Lakers' schedule since July, the ticket orders and everything else people needed from me were requested and delivered a week, or even a month, in advance.
Once I got to STAPLES Center, my symptoms receded into the back of my mind as I got caught up in the festivities.
It was good to see everybody again, and also time to get back to business. It's like returning to school after summer vacation and seeing all your friends.
There's anticipation and excitement about the possibilities for the season ahead, but it is different being the defending champions because you know everybody's got their sights set on keeping you from repeating. I guess that's what makes it fun.
I had a great outfit to wear for my role as emcee of tonight's nationally televised celebration. That's the good news.
The bad news is I'll probably never be able to wear it again because then people would say, "Hey, didn't you wear that on opening night?" So I guess tonight is also a retirement ceremony for these clothes.
Was I the right person to host this presentation? With Phil being the coach, I guess it kind of worked. If we're fortunate enough to win championships when Phil is no longer on the sideline, maybe someone else in my family will represent the team.
I couldn't wait to see our championship rings. Although the process for making them began right after we won last season's title when bids went out to several ring companies, and though I had seen diagrams, models, and pictures since then, I had yet to get my hands on the finished product before tonight.
Along the way, we got feedback from my dad, our general manager Mitch Kupchak, our players, front office staff, and my two brothers, Joey and Jesse — everyone wanted to be involved. It was great to have so many eyes focused on our plans.
For this ring, however, we didn't consult Phil because he had strong input on the last ring, which is special because of its tribute to the triangle offense. No need, we figured, to repeat the same theme.
For years and years, the ring design produced by the NBA was the same. All that changed was the season and the names of the team and the players engraved on the side.
It wasn't until the 1980s, when the Lakers started winning all those championships, that things changed. It was our coach, Pat Riley, who said he'd like every ring to be unique.
The NBA used to pay for them, but when Pat proposed we design our own, we were told we would have to assume the cost.
After that, every one of our rings told its own story, taking on a unique theme that represented that particular championship.
For example, we won in 2002, and then Chick Hearn died two months later. So it was important to us that we honor him with a microphone and his trademark phrase, "slam dunk," engraved on the ring. We missed him so much. We still miss him.
On the side of the championship ring from 2000 are the words "Bling, Bling." That's because Shaquille O'Neal kept using that expression that season as he talked and talked about his goal of getting his first ring. The Larry O'Brien Trophy is also on there with a nice-sized diamond where the ball should be.
The idea of making each season's ring distinct has now spread throughout the league. A Chicago Bulls ring looks completely different from ours or those of the Boston Celtics.
There are NBA standards, including a minimum requirement in terms of diamonds (one carat) and the use of the NBA logo.
Excerpted from Laker Girl by Jeanie Buss, Steve Springer. Copyright © 2013 Jeanie Buss and Steve Springer. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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