Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jerry Buss--Revealing Late-Night Bar Story

I really didn't know Jerry Buss, the pioneering owner of the L.A. Lakers who died of cancer Monday morning. I had drinks with him a few times when he was with friends we had in common. Good guy? Bad guy? Good guy as far as I could tell but I'd heard some horror stories about him too. You don't go from poor to multimillionaire in the business world without stepping on people.

Something happened one night about thirty years ago that gives an inkling of what kind of man he was.

It happened in Dan Tana's, a cozy, upscale Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. Though not fancy, it's a place that celebrities like to hang out, especially late at night. On this night, not far from closing time, there were about twenty people scattered throughout the main room. Buss was sitting at a table near the bar, which seats about a dozen, with a tall, muscular guy who looked like a bodyguard. As usual, a handful of celebrities were there too. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain was in a booth with a lady. In another, R&B singer Rick James was huddled with a bunch of women. One of the BeeGees, I'm not sure which one, was there too.

I was sitting at the bar with two friends when this middle-aged man, dressed in a business suit, walked in and found an empty bar stool. He spotted Buss a short distance away and then something strange happened. This guy, whom we'll refer to as the Jerk, started badmouthing Buss, talking to no one in particular and loud enough that everybody at the bar and in the bar area could hear him. He claimed Buss was a deceitful lowlife who had cheated him and many others in various business deals. The Jerk rambled on for about five minutes, painting a picture, with figures, of Jerry Buss, the crook. Some at the bar tried to shut him up, but there was no stopping the Jerk.

Through all this, Buss continued his conversation with his companion, never acknowledging the Jerk.

Finally Buss got up from his booth and, followed by the big guy, walked over the bar and stood in front of the Jerk. Oh, oh, we all thought for a second, it's curtains for this loudmouth. But Buss took the high road. He smiled at the Jerk, who was still seated, patted him on the back and said in a friendly tone, "Have a nice night."  Looking at the bartender, Buss said he was paying the Jerk's bar bill. Buss' companion took out a wad of bills, pulled out a few and placed them on the bar.

Buss waved goodbye to Chamberlain, who was sitting across the room, and walked out with his friend. Seeming totally untouched by Buss' gesture, the Jerk kept on talking, spewing more anti-Buss venom. Some at the bar listened intently. Others, like me, tuned him out. My friends and I left shortly after Buss.

About an hour later, probably around 3 a.m., I was driving home alone. Passing by Tana's, I saw a police car and a paramedic van parked in front of Tana's. From my car I could see a man, face bloody, sitting on the sidewalk being tended to by the paramedics. The patient was the Jerk.

I parked and walked over to the lone bystander, a Tana's waiter, and asked what had happened.

The waiter just smiled..

Had Buss....?

The waiter said, "I'm staying out of this" and walked away.