- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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Jerry Buss, the flamboyant and wildly successful entrepreneur who died Monday of complications from cancer, established himself as one of the greatest owners in sports for his stewardship of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yet his initial foray into team ownership began in 1974 with the Los Angeles Strings of World Team Tennis, where he developed a friendship with another fledgling investor, Robert Kraft, owner of the Boston Lobsters.
"We both learned to shave on the World Team Tennis beard,'' said Kraft, who purchased the Lobsters in 1975, went on to buy the New England Patriots in 1994, and emerged as one of the most powerful owners in sports.
Kraft, who planned to fly to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards, will leave a day earlier to attend services for Buss, whom he called "an innovative owner who was always trying to do things that were special.''
"I remember when he signed Magic Johnson to that 25-year, $25 million contract,'' said Kraft. "No one had heard of such a thing. It was outside the box. He did the same kind of things in Team Tennis.''
Both Kraft and Buss understood the value of a solid business plan, with marketing and promotion as key components. Buss lost $200,000 in his first year as Strings owner and close to $1 million the next, but remained resolute in sticking with his tennis venture. Kraft also incurred revenue drains with the Lobsters. The two often met to discuss how they could turn their league around.
"We had a lot of Team Tennis meetings in the library of our house [in Brookline],'' Kraft said. "They were great fun. Jerry moved a little quicker than I did. He always had a beautiful young woman on his arm. He was intelligent, insightful. We had some good chats. We both tried to do something with the TV contracts. We did our best to draw the top women in tennis. We worked hard to give the league credibility.''
Kraft recalled one memorable tennis meeting in particular at his home, when Buss brought along a stunning 21-year-old date wearing a sheer blouse.
"During the course of the evening her bra broke,'' Kraft said. "She immediately latched on to Myra, who took her up to our bedroom and helped her pin the bra back together.
"She was a lovely young lady. Myra loved her -- and Jerry. He was very good company.''
In 1977, the Lobsters struck gold when they signed 20-year-old Martina Navratilova. The following year the Strings made their own splash when they signed Chrissy Evert. The two young women would go on to engage in one of the most heralded rivalries in tennis history, yet some of their earliest matches were under the watchful eyes of Kraft and Buss.
Kraft's Lobsters, led by Martina and player/coach Roy Emerson, met Buss' Strings, led by Evert and Ilie Nastase, for the 1978 World Team Tennis championship. With Navratilova ailing from a shoulder injury, the Strings prevailed in the best-of-five series.
One month later, the Lobsters folded, and two months after that, the Strings and the rest of World Team Tennis closed their doors (the league would resume a few years later).
Within a year, Buss bought the Lakers and instructed his team to draft Magic Johnson with the No. 1 pick. The Lakers went on to win 10 championships with Buss at the helm.
Kraft briefly considered purchasing the Boston Celtics, but he said, "I learned [from] my experience with tennis not to buy a team without controlling the venue. We worked hard to generate interest and pay for all the advertising, but then [former Celtics owner] Walter Brown would get all the concessions from the people we brought into his building [at Boston University, site of the Lobsters' World Team Tennis matches].''
In subsequent years, Kraft was often a guest of the Buss family at Lakers games. He was treated like royalty, with a JumboTron greeting trumpeting his arrival and a luxury box full of Hollywood stars waiting to say hello. Buss once took Kraft to the Playboy mansion and loved to talk with his old friend about "building the brand."
By 1994, Kraft had purchased the Patriots. His conversations with Buss shifted to discussing straddling the fine line of developing relationships with players without compromising the business of running a franchise.
"Life isn't just about money,'' Kraft said. "It's about trying to connect, to create a family environment the best you can, even when you end up having to cut people.
"I think that's something both Jerry and I tried to do. Players do more if they feel connected.''
Kraft said it had been years since he took in a ballgame with his old friend. Their ventures took them to different arenas of the sports world, but Kraft said Buss always remained the gold standard by which he measured sports owners.
"I'll miss him,'' Kraft said. "He was so much fun, and he brought so much excitement to his market. In a small way, we've tried to do the same here.''
Robert Kraft and Jerry Buss learned the ropes together.