Over 999,000 readers this year!

Lakers icon Jerry Buss grew up in Kemmerer. But the town’s done little to honor its famous son.

Wyoming shaped the basketball tycoon into the person who would go on to run one of the most famous franchises in sports.

Johnny Grant and Jerry Buss, right, at the ceremony honoring Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss with the 2,323rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 30, 2006. (Shutterstock)

by Brady Oltmans, WyoFile

The high school library is one of the few places in Kemmerer where you’ll find a record of Dr. Jerry Buss.  Sitting on the top shelf of a bookcase against the southwest wall, next to a mounted bison head, are yearbooks dating back to 1945. In the 1950 edition, there’s a black and white photo of a well-groomed slender teen with a wide smile — one of the rare artifacts that connect this small western Wyoming town to Buss, the world famous basketball tycoon. 

The HBO series “Winning Time,” which follows the rise of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers that started when Dr. Buss bought the iconic franchise in 1979, recently completed its second and final season. The show’s pilot episode features a scene with Buss (played by John C. Reilly) sitting at a table with former owner Jack Kent Cooke (played by Michael O’Keefe), Ervin Johnson Sr. (played by Rob Morgan) and Ervin “Magic” Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah). Buss wants to draft the young Magic Johnson. But the future Hall of Famer is mulling a return to Michigan State unless he gets a good deal. In an attempt to relate to the Johnsons — the elder worked on a General Motors assembly line in Lansing, Michigan — Buss tells them how he worked on the railroad outside Kemmerer. “Never ate so well or slept so good,” the character reflects.

“Winning Time” is a dramatization about how a savvy, ambitious businessman turned a multi-million-dollar investment from what his own mother called a money pit into one of the most famous and lucrative sports franchises in the world. It shows how years of frustrations turned into 16 NBA Finals appearances in the 34 seasons Buss owned the team, making him a sports icon.

Future Lakers owner Jerry Buss is pictured in the Kemmerer High School 1950 yearbook. (Courtesy)

Even though he died in 2013 as a wealthy philanthropist in star-studded Los Angeles, Buss was shaped by the hardened life of southwest Wyoming. His story is one of rags to riches. The quintessential American Dream. But his Wyoming legacy is a dream largely forgotten, or ignored, by many locals, interviews with residents suggest.

“There are many folks older than me that I’m sure remember him but, honestly, I can’t recall the last time I heard his name spoken,” 69-year-old Mayor Bill Thek, who’s lived in Kemmerer most of his life, said. “I guess that’s how much of our history is lost and forgotten.”

Thek is a former city council member in Kemmerer who was elected mayor in 2020. He’s not sure why the city hasn’t done anything to honor Buss, other than the growing gap between memories. Thek hopes to devise something once the groundwork is laid for the city’s planned downtown revitalization and large-scale projects. Maybe then Kemmerer will nod to a legacy built upon hardship in its own backyard.

Born in the midst of the Great Depression, Buss was an infant when his family moved to nearby Evanston. According to obituaries written after Buss’ death, his father left the family to teach in California shortly thereafter. Four-year-old Buss stood in a bread line with a gunnysack while his mother, Jessie, waited tables. Within a year he began scrounging phone books and papers around town to heat the family’s home while he and his mother played cards. He did what he could to help his tiny family survive.

Buss once said he attended first, second and third grades in Evanston. Years later he told Wyoming journalist Mark Junge that his only lasting memory of that time was a teacher he liked, Essie Mae Burdette. Buss and his mother then briefly left the Equality State and moved to Los Angeles, where Jessie ran into Cecil Brown. Jessie and Cecil knew each other from Wyoming. The two married, and Buss returned to Wyoming, this time settling in Kemmerer.

A house in Kemmerer seen in 2018. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Buss once described his stepfather as “very tight-fisted.” Brown purchased a plumbing business in Kemmerer and expected all of his children to work. According to his own retelling of that time, Buss routinely woke at 4:30 a.m. to dig ditches in the frozen soil for three hours before school. Historical records show the morning temperature rarely rose above zero for a week in the winter of 1946. The Buss character in “Winning Time” recalls those mornings in the series’ second episode.

“Wyoming has its own kind of cold,” Buss says to the camera. “Like 1,000 needles dipped in fire going through you. My stepdad, Cecil, used to send me out in that to dig ditches until my knuckles split. I used to watch the blood oozing out. It was so cold that it would crystalize. I couldn’t even feel the pain. By the time I was done I’d be chattering so bad I thought my teeth would chip. Then ol’ Cecil would show up again, look at me and laugh.”

Slot machines and pool halls

Buss was determined to be self-reliant. Out of “pride or whatever,” as Buss once described it, he refused to ask his stepfather for money. Instead, he got a job setting pins at the town’s two-lane bowling alley and bell hopping at the Hotel Kemmerer so he could afford games of pool, a hamburger, a .22-caliber rifle to go rabbit hunting or tickets to Kemmerer baseball games. He carried suitcases beyond his frame and shined shoes for $2 a day.

“There was nothing degrading to me about shining shoes, I enjoyed it and I seemed to get paid well,” he once told Mark and Dan Junge — the latter is a filmmaker — during a December 1988 interview inside the Forum, which was then home to the Lakers. “I certainly had a lot more money than any of the other kids because I was working three or four hours every day.”

He and childhood friend Jim Dover rigged a slot machine in the hotel to buy banana crème pies. That episode exemplified Buss’ ability to be savvy out of both want and need. Raymond Barp, a Kemmerer graduate and friend of Buss’ half-brother, spoke to author Jeff Pearlman for the book “Showtime,” which the Winning Time series is based on. He remembered Buss as “very industrious.”

“If there was a job he could do to make money,” Barp said, “he was there.”

The Hotel Kemmerer is pictured in the town high school’s 1950 yearbook. (Courtesy)

In addition to his honest work at the hotel, Buss, by his own admission, became a figure in Kemmerer’s pool halls. He took the card skills his mother taught him and hustled. He once took a high school teacher for 10 straight pool games at $50 a round. 

His popularity carried into class. Yearbooks show he was elected freshman class secretary-treasurer and class vice president as a sophomore. He went out for football and track during his first three years at Kemmerer High School.

“You knew everybody,” he told the Junges of his childhood in Kemmerer. “You could walk down the street and say hello to everybody, and I think it was very good. Growing up in a small town, I think, has a lot of advantages for a young man.”

Finding chemistry

Buss was a mere 130 pounds as a 14-year-old sophomore. Reflecting on his teenage athleticism during his 2010 NBA Hall of Fame induction speech, Buss described himself as “an overly competitive but under-ly endowed player.” He started the first two weeks of each season only to leave the team for work when his money ran out. Roland Caranci, who played for the New York Giants before coming to Kemmerer to lead the high school football team, coached Buss. Buss saw “what coaching and what knowledge can do,” during that time. Early on, Caranci looked over between drills and found a young Buss buried in a textbook and completing an assignment. Caranci told Buss he’d become something special because he never wasted time.

Buss told journalists that he regretted leaving the football team to work. But he was a social kid who yearned for excitement. He wanted entertainment and he’d do whatever he could to get it. According to his interview with the Junges, he told himself he’d work harder than everyone else and get rich so he could buy season tickets to every team he could imagine.

The self-reliant Buss set out to do just that. At 16, he dropped out of school for four months to work at Union Pacific, laying and maintaining the railroad tracks around Kemmerer. A final falling out with his stepfather forced Buss out of the small home he shared with his parents and three step- and half-siblings. The teen moved into a glorified closet in the back of one of his favorite pool halls.

That’s where chemistry teacher Walter Garrett found him, Buss admitted to Pearlman. Garrett, full-faced and stoic in yearbook photos, offered Buss a place to stay. Garrett inspired Buss with lessons on chemistry, physics, math and biology.

“He was the most important thing in my life,” Buss said of Garrett. “He’s the one that turned everything around for me.”

Buss returned to school with additional oversight from Garrett. He claimed in interviews he wasn’t academically inclined but, as the son of two accountants, he maintained good grades. He made the National Honor Society upon returning to school. His senior quote — “When I was green in judgment” — is a line pulled from Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.” His classmates welcomed him back as well. Despite leaving school for months, he was voted student council president and study body president as a member of the Class of 1950. He joined drama and debate, intent on finding the excitement he desired beyond the smoke-filled bars of miners and former coworkers.

Train tracks and houses on the edge of Kemmerer, where many work in a nearby coal mine. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“I realized that most of the kids who grew up in the mining camps stayed in those towns and worked in the mines. I didn’t see myself doing that,” Buss said while being honored by the University of Wyoming in 2005. “Freedom became the most important thing in my life, and education became my way out.”

Garrett helped the 17-year-old high school graduate secure a grant to afford college. Buss enrolled at the University of Wyoming to study chemistry, borrowing books from classmates because he couldn’t afford his own. According to Ken Doi, one of Buss’s close friends from Kemmerer and college roommate, Buss petitioned the school to take algebra, trigonometry and analytical geometry concurrently so he could graduate sooner. He rarely broke from his studies for anything other than Cowboys games or nightly rounds of poker. He graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry in just two-and-a-half years while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. One of Buss’ articles published in a chemistry journal contained a multitude of Greek equations to represent proposed relationships.

“There are very few people who do what Jerry Buss did,” retired UW science professor Robert Corcoran said.

Showtime

Buss met his wife, JoAnn Mueller, and mother to three of his eventual children, in Laramie. He earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1957, at age 24. He started a career in chemistry, but later began investing in real estate. He was so successful in those dealings that he eventually built enough capital to buy the Lakers (along with the LA Kings hockey team and the Forum) in 1979 for $67.5 million.

In 1992, Buss donated over $1 million to the UW chemistry program for a lecture series in the name of Sarah Jane Rhoades and Rebecca Raulins, two chemistry professors whom he did undergrad research with. The university gave him an honorary doctorate 13 years later. But, there are currently no mentions of him on campus beyond his being a member of the 2011 Wyoming Sports Hall of Fame.

Buss said the university gave him a “world-class education,” and he followed the Pokes whenever he could. Wyoming coaches were encouraged to reach out when in Los Angeles. Buss watched former Cowboys who played in the NBA, like Eric Leckner and Fennis Dembo, with excitement — once joking he “saw too much of Leckner the other day” when the former first-round pick’s rookie season with the Utah Jazz included a win over the Lakers. 

“There has always been a fondness for the University of Wyoming, and I feel like I have been treated very, very well,” Buss told Mark Junge, the Wyoming journalist, before directing his words to UW students in 1988. “You are well educated, you are going to be very prepared and as you now graduate and get out there and see what’s happening, I think you’re going to be very surprised what Wyoming has given you.”

Jerry Buss (Shutterstock)

Buss held a fondness for the state itself for the rest of his life. If he saw a steamboat license plate in Los Angeles with a “19,” he’d honk to recognize a Uinta County driver. If he saw a “12” he’d try to pull them over “because that’s where I came from, so I probably know them.” He loved Wyoming’s nature, fishing, forests, mountains, beauty, snow and tremendous desolation. But there was one thing that kept him away. 

“I could never really live there anymore because I found the cold really unbearable,” he told the Junges in an interview. “I found it beautiful but physically uncomfortable.”

He rarely returned to Kemmerer, but the town’s residue stayed with him. His early money-making ventures, including pool hustling, led him to the World Poker Tour. He poured into schooling to ensure a life beyond the mining camps outside Kemmerer. He wanted a more exciting life than the town could offer. 

When Buss purchased the Lakers, he extended an invitation to friends and family. His beloved mother — the woman who raised him during the Depression — joined him in Los Angeles and managed his business accounts. Daughter Jeanie is the current controlling owner and director of team operations. His five other children are involved in the Lakers’ front office, running the empire he built. 

Utilizing the inherent flash of the entertainment capital of the world, he wanted the Lakers to be a spectacle: Laker Girls, the exclusive Forum Club reserved for players and celebrities, courtside seats and live shows. This was the life he favored over his time in Kemmerer.

“It was just a place that he knew was too small of a town for him,” Jeanie Buss told the San Bernadino Sun in 2013. “There was not a lot of excitement that went on in the town, and my dad is a person that likes excitement. There were only so many pool halls and places to relax.”

Business leaders in Kemmerer anticipate a temporary construction boost from the proposed Natrium nuclear power plant, but the community is already struggling to find enough service workers. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Jim Dover and Buss got along together at Kemmerer High School. Dover told journalists it would be great if Kemmerer did something to honor Buss, even if the man wasn’t adamant about it. The town still hasn’t, nearly a decade after Dover’s passing in 2016.

Kemmerer has experienced its ups and downs since Buss left. When the coal industry started to dwindle, so did the jobs and the population. The town’s Naughton Power Plant, which is fed with coal from the nearby mine, is scheduled to close in 2025. Hope for the plant’s 230 employees exists in a planned next-generation nuclear power plant, where executives hope to employ displaced Naughton workers starting in 2030. 

One of the few parts of Buss’ life that still exists in Kemmerer is the railroad, firmly wrapped around the town’s northern limits.

“The town has pretty much died a slow death,” Buss once admitted.

The Lakers won 10 of their 17 NBA titles under Buss’ ownership. Yet, in Kemmerer, no banner recognizing this achievement hangs from the school’s rafters. There are no street signs, no billboards, statues or plaques adorned with Buss’ name.

Across JC Penney Drive from the original JCPenney department store is a statue of JC Penney. It was installed in 2021, nearly 120 years after the company’s founding. The statue faces away from the town triangle and toward the site of the old Hotel Kemmerer, where Buss worked as a child.

The former site of the Hotel Kemmerer, where future Lakers owner Jerry Buss worked as a youth. (Brady Oltmans)

The Hotel Kemmerer received a listing on the National Register in 1985. A year later, Buss made a rare return to town. He told Mark Junge that walking the town’s downtown triangle brought memories of carrying customer’s heavy bags. He retraced old steps, imagining poker games and pool in now-vacant buildings. Then he visited the hotel. The thick stench of century-old wood brought a litany of memories. A man worth $600 million‚ who turned a $19 million purchase into a franchise valued at $5.5 billion by Forbes — retraced the staircases of the historic three-story building where he worked for nickels at a time.

“I like to feel that the people respect me as a man and I think that manhood was shaped in Wyoming,” he told Junge. “I’m very thankful that I grew up in Wyoming. I think it gave me a lot.”

The Hotel Kemmerer was demolished in 2003 and removed from the National Register a decade later. The place where Jerry Buss made his first deals was wiped from history. While he left to become a legend, little of his presence remains in the place he once called home.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


Back

Related