My first encounter with Jerry Buss occurred in his private box high atop the Fabulous Forum during a Lakers game in 1983.
I was a high school senior at the time, and somehow, someway I'd convinced then-Lakers public relations director Josh Rosenfeld that a feature story on Buss, the club's dashing owner, would be the perfect anchor to my high school newspaper's upcoming edition.
Bless his heart, Buss obliged, welcoming me into his box with a rum and coke in one hand and a gorgeous blonde in the other. I made a curious mental note that she looked a whole lot closer to my age than his, but then reminded myself when you're rich enough to own the World Champion Lakers and the sparkling arena they play in, your rules of engagement are quite a bit different than the typical middle-aged man.
"Have a seat, let's talk," Buss said.
Down below, Magic Johnson was working the Forum into a frenzy, feeding open teammates with no-look passes and grabbing rebounds and dribbling the length of the court for coast-to-coast layups.
It was the apex of the Showtime era Lakers, a magical run that mesmerized Los Angeles for more than a decade. And the architect of it all, the man who understood star value and the marriage between entertainment and winning like no one before him or since was sitting next to me taking in his wonderful creation.
"Why do you sit way up here?" I asked Buss during a timeout, the Lakers band wailing a tune in the section next to us.
"I don't want to be a distraction to the players," he explained. "They have enough pressure to deal with just playing the game, let alone having the owner sitting courtside, breathing down their necks."
Makes sense, I thought to myself.
"Besides, I couldn't have this sitting down there," Buss said, nodding to the crowded group gathered around him in his private section.
It was a mixture of the Oscars and the Grammy awards with a little bit of the Playboy Mansion and Studio 54 mixed in. I'd never seen so many beautiful girls in one place, and I certainly never thought I'd see the heavyweight champ sitting next to Stevie Wonder at a basketball game.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Buss said.
Pretty cool? It was the greatest thing I'd ever seen.
"Not bad," I smiled in agreement.
For the next 20 minutes or so we talked Lakers, sports, life, politics and his rapid ascent to the throne of the coolest man in Los Angeles.
I found him to be smart, funny and down to earth. And whatever anxiety I had as a teenager interviewing the owner of the Lakers vanished almost immediately into our conversation.
Turns out, for all his money and power and genius and beautiful starlets, Jerry Buss was just an everyday sports fan who just happened to hit it big in real estate and achieve the wherewithal to buy his own team.
"There's no question I'm living out my dreams," Buss told me.
And maybe I was just a naive kid, but the impression I got was he'd never go wrong by always keeping the best interest of the fans at heart when it came to running and financing the Lakers. And by hiring smart, talented people and letting them do their jobs, his money would be always be wisely spent.
In other words, by backing great basketball minds like Bill Sharman and Jerry West and later Mitch Kupchak with enough money to build teams and respecting their ability enough to give them room to operate, the championships would come.
More than 30 years later, withBuss and the Lakers hanging 10 championship banners and advancing to 16 NBA Finals, he was obviously on to something.
"It's a simple formula," said Buss, who died Monday morning after a long bout with cancer.
By the time we wrapped up the interview, the Lakers were up 25 on the Indiana Pacers late in the third quarter. I must have thanked him at least 10 times for talking to me, but he kept assuring me it was his pleasure.
For some reason, I believed him.
"Good luck with the story, I can't wait to read it," Buss told me as I turned to leave.
A few years later, I learned Buss told one of his assistants how much he enjoyed talking to the ambitious high school kid, and that maybe they could find a spot for me in the organization.
I'm not sure if that's how I eventually landed a gig in the Lakers PR department, but it sure didn't hurt to have the owner of the team give you a ringing endorsement.
The years I spent with the Lakers provided a rare, wonderful vantage point from which to observe the inner workings of the most glamorous franchise in sports history, and it's a time in my life I not only cherish, I literally draw on it to this day in moments of doubt and decision.
See, for all the glitz and glamour of the Showtime era Lakers, they were a remarkably unpretentious, family-run organization.
And while the world saw Jerry Buss as a rich, flamboyant playboy in charge of the greatest show on earth, behind the scenes he also cultivated a tight-knit, comfortable working environment in which the focus was always bringing another championship to Los Angeles.
I can still remember hanging out in the office break room and talking to West as he poured his morning cup of coffee. On one hand it amazed me I was talking to The Logo, on the other it always struck me how normal it seemed.
"We're gonna see if we can't wrap up this free-agent deal today," he'd say.
And the next thing you knew, a press release was being sent out announcing the signing of Orlando Woolridge.
Meanwhile, sons Jim and John and daughters Jeanie and Janie were being groomed as his eventual successors.
Despite what some fans may think, the Buss kids weren't handed their current positions with the Lakers.
At the urging and insistence of their father, they methodically worked their way up over the years.
Today, people see Jim Buss as the Lakers vice president and wonder if he got too much too soon, but I remember him starting out with the Los Angeles Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Same with Jeanie Buss, who cut her teeth with the family's indoor tennis and pro volleyball endeavors.
As for Jerry Buss, our paths would cross a few more times over the years.
Like the night one of his assistants invited me and a few friends to a back office at the Forum to join Buss and his cronies in a game of poker.
Or when Ralph Sampson and the Houston Rockets knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs in 1986 and my brother, some friends and me getting invited to join Buss at Pickfair mansion to help him blow off the loss.
But mostly I remember him holding court at his private table in the Press Lounge at the Forum after games as a wall-to-wall, who's-who list of Hollywood celebrities and sports stars - and a group of beautiful women 10-deep most nights - celebrated another Lakers win or championship with him.
Every once in a while I'd pause, look at him and remember our first meeting.
And how he convinced me then he was just a regular guy who happened to make enough money to buy his own sports team.
"There's no question I'm living out my dreams," he said.
That you did, Jerry Buss. That you did.