It was here that he shined shoes at the old Kemmerer Hotel, set pins at the bowling alley and worked on the Union Pacific railroad. The train still comes through town, but the rest of the landmarks from his youth have not stood the test of time. “It was just a place that he knew was too small of a town for him,” daughter Jeanie Buss says. “There was not a lot of excitement that went on in the town, and my dad is a person that likes entertainment. “There were only so many pool halls and places to relax.” There is no sentimentality on Buss’ part for the town he left as a teenager and last saw some 20years ago. When he speaks of Kemmerer these days, the 74-year-old Buss makes no apologies in saying, “The town pretty much has died a slow death.” Yet Kemmerer is still very much living and breathing, a town waiting to see where the current energy boom will take it. For as remote as it is, for as harsh as its winters can be, the biggest problem these days is a housing shortage. It is a place where you wish the buildings could talk, to tell stories from Buss’ days when the triangle (not a square) at the center of town somehow served as home to nine different bars, all of which were packed with orchestras playing on a given Saturday night. As legend has it, even the biggest drinkers couldn’t make it through those three blocks while paying a visit to each bar. There was backroom gambling as well in those days, and maybe even a cathouse or two, as the locals say with a certain pride. It also is the place where the question can be asked: Without Kemmerer would the Lakers as we know them exist? Consider that Buss might never have met a science teacher named Walter Garrett, who helped him earn a scholarship to the University of Wyoming. He might never have gotten a degree in chemistry (with a minor in card playing) and moved to Los Angeles. Buss went on to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from USC. He was working in the aerospace industry when he invested $1,000 into a 14-unit building in 1958. What started as a side business eventually led to Buss owning thousands of apartment units. “Jerry will admit that it was a lot of guts and just the right timing,” says Jim Dover, one of his Kemmerer High classmates who still lives in town. “Prices were going up. It just went from there.” It also gave Buss the fortune to make one of the biggest deals in sports history. He bought the Lakers and Kings, as well as the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch, from Jack Kent Cooke for $67.5million in 1979. The Lakers won their first championship under Buss the following season and have added seven more titles during his 28years as owner. It is that track record that gives fans hope for the future as the team continues to rebuild after the Shaquille O’Neal trade. (As Buss transfers ownership of the Lakers to his children, the franchise most recently was valued at $568million by Forbes magazine, second only to the New York Knicks.) It takes a harrowing drive up US Highway 189, where the only goal is to stay on the road and out of a snow bank, to realize just how humble Buss’ origins were. It would take the population of Kemmerer seven times over just to fill all the seats in Staples Center for a Lakers game. The locals who still remember Buss’ years in town can only marvel at the starting point for a life so extraordinary. “It blows my mind that a Kemmerer boy like that would make it that big,” says 83-year-old Joe Sebastian, who owned one of the ninebars on the triangle and remembers Buss working at the hotel. And there might be a connection to the town that exists deeper in the Buss family than any of them know. Jeanie Buss got a sense when she made her first trip with Phil Jackson to his summer home in Montana eight years ago. “It was eerie to me because it felt so much like my home,” she says. “I realized that I had it in my roots.” For a town of only 2,651residents, about 21/2hours outside of Salt Lake City in the least populous state in the country, Kemmerer has three claims to fame. It is the fossil fish capital of the world, with the Fossil Butte National Monument just west of town. It is home to one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the state and one of the largest natural gas hubs in the country. And it is the town where a man named James Cash Penney arrived in 1902 to open a Golden Rule Store. The JC Penney mother store is still in business on the Kemmerer triangle, not far from where Buss lived above his stepfather’s plumbing shop. What Kemmerer is not known for is being home to one of the most celebrated owners in sports, a man who was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October and was nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame this year. “I don’t think most people even know,” says Lester Fatheree, who is a Realtor in town, a pastor and a sports writer for the weekly Kemmerer Gazette. “Of course, the old-timers all know and they have some pride in that. “I think Kemmerer is – and very typical for this part of the world and the jobs we have – Kemmerer is a fairly transient community. “Twenty-five, 30 percent’s permanent. The rest of them move in and out.” Born in Salt Lake City, Buss was no different. He moved to Kemmerer when he was 13 and lived with his mother (Jessie), stepfather (C.O. Brown), half-sister (Susan), half-brother (Mickey) and stepbrother (Jim). He was one in a graduating class of 42. “You knew everybody,” Buss says. “You could walk down the street and say hello to everybody. I think it was very good. Growing up in a small town, I think, has a lot of advantages for a young man.” It is next to impossible to imagine what Kemmerer was like in the Wild West days. The nine bars on the triangle were filled with miners, ranchers and more than a few folks from Utah in search of a drink or with an itch to gamble. “It was plenty wild but it was totally different,” Dover says. “When we were in high school, 15, 16, you could drink if you could put the money on the bar.” As Dover remembers, that triangle also was a place where Kemmerer could pull together. When one of its boys had the chance to compete at a national track meet, the town managed to raise $700 in a half-hour going from bar to bar. There was also backroom gambling in those days, before a new sheriff put an end to it. Dover can remember Buss shooting pool and playing cards long before he ever became one of the modern-day poker stars on television. The two ran around town and ate banana cr me pies for breakfast at the Kemmerer Hotel by rigging the slot machine while Dover’s future mother-in-law looked the other way. At the same time, Buss also had to work to keep money in his pocket. So he shined shoes and carried bags at the hotel. He set pins at the bowling alley, which he still remembers had only two lanes. And he opted to work as a section hand on the railroad instead of heading out to the coal mines. “I just remember Jerry was very industrious,” says Raymond Barp, who graduated from Kemmerer High in 1964, knew Buss’ half-brother and lives in Glendale. “If there was a job he could do and make a buck, he was there.” The way out of Kemmerer started when Buss met Garrett, the man he calls his “inspiration.” Garrett was the town’s science teacher and wound up taking Buss in during his senior year, after Buss had a falling out with his stepfather. For a while, Buss had been living in a glorified closet at the hotel. “He was the most important thing in my life,” Buss says. “He’s the one that turned everything around for me. I was not academically inclined – school was easy for me, I didn’t have bad grades – but he encouraged me and I was able to get a scholarship.” Garrett arranged for Buss to take a national science test sponsored by Bausch and Lomb. He headed to the university in Laramie with a scholarship and roomed with Kenneth Doi, one of his closest friends from Kemmerer. Doi remembers that Buss petitioned to take algebra, trigonometry and analytical geometry concurrently rather than in a sequence. He played poker almost every night and graduated from college in only 21/2 years with one amazing distinction. “He never turned in a paper with an error on it, whether it was a daily quiz or a final exam,” says Doi, who now lives in Orange. “That’s really an accomplishment. Everything was 100 percent.” Buss received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Wyoming in May 2005, at which time he spoke about the road out of Kemmerer that education offered. “I realized that most of the kids who grew up in the mining camps stayed in those towns and worked in the mines,” Buss said. “I didn’t see myself doing that. … Freedom became the most important thing in my life and education became my way out.” Years later Buss offered to buy Garrett a Cadillac to show his appreciation, although Dover remembers the former teacher wasn’t able to accept it with his health declining. It takes a special breed to live in Kemmerer. The town’s mayor, Dave Fagnant, can remember a stretch of threeweeks in winter 1972 when the temperature never rose above zero. Another local claims to have seen snow in every month on the calendar. The town was founded in 1897, named after a Pennsylvania coal magnate, and has had boom and bust years ever since. The darkest day in its history came in 1923, when 99 men were killed in an explosion at the Frontier Mine. There are coal seams more than 100 feet thick in the mountains and enough natural gas to maintain production for the next 190 years. As energy prices increase, Kemmerer is at the start of a boom cycle again, much as it was in the late 1970s. Yet the decline of the Kemmerer triangle remains a sore spot for many residents. The Kemmerer Hotel had to be torn down in 2004. The plumbing shop where Buss once lived had met the same fate years before. Only two of the nine bars still are in business. “There used to be a lot of little ma-and-pa type stores and we don’t have that,” Fagnant says. “We’ve really lost a lot of small businesses in the county, and I think that has to do with modern transportation. “Everybody just hops in their new Ford or GM and drives 50 miles to Evanston (Wyo.) or 90 miles to Rock Springs (Wyo.) and does most of their shopping out of town.” There are more people in town than when Buss grew up, yet fewer businesses. The common refrain is that television and cars have contributed to the decline, with people able to find 100channels of entertainment at home or head out of town on a whim. At the same time, Kemmerer retains much of the same feel from Buss’ days. As witnessed on a cold night, nobody thinks twice about leaving the engine running while ducking into the supermarket. There’s talk on Fagnant’s part of hoping to grow the population to about 6,000 in the coming years. At the same time, the mayor can joke that the town’s two stoplights are “probably on intersections that don’t deserve them anymore.” Although he hasn’t returned in 20 years, Buss has been good to people from Kemmerer who have come to Los Angeles. He hired Dover’s son, Steve, to work for his various teams and took his old friend to Lakers games and boxing matches. One of Dover’s fondest memories is a dinner with Buss and Vin Scully. There also are Lakers fans in Kemmerer, the biggest being Tracy Carotta, who owns Scroungy Moose Pizza and watches every game on TV while he makes pies. “I like them for the superstars they’ve maintained down through the years,” Carotta says. “I think they’ve just done tremendous getting players that are exciting to watch.” What Buss’ legacy will be in the town has yet to be decided. There are those who wish the town had appealed to Buss to save the old hotel before it was demolished. Dover would be happy with any acknowledgment that Buss lived in Kemmerer. “It’d be nice,” Dover says, “but Jerry hasn’t really wanted it either. He didn’t really come back.” The biggest project in Kemmerer today is a $5million events center, tentatively set to open in late 2008 or early 2009. It will be a place where the locals can host a wedding reception and the energy companies can hold safety training. The funding has been secured, and Fagnant, who calls the new center “a huge thing for the life of this town,” already has one idea in mind: He would like to invite Buss along with a descendant of Penney back to Kemmerer for the dedication. But there are still years to go before Buss has to make the decision about heading back down that road and returning to his old town. [email protected] (818) 713-3610 KEMMERER, Wyo. Before you exit Interstate 80 and start down the 37 miles of two-lane highway it takes to reach this coal-mining town in the southwest corner of Wyoming, remember that Jerry Buss never considered it anything other than a one-way road. Nobody would leave the big city in search of Kemmerer, let alone in the middle of a snowstorm, when the trucks from the mines come barreling down the unplowed highway in the other direction. The same direction that Buss’ dreams all led. This is the town where Buss grew up and graduated from high school in 1950, where the chain of events started that led to him owning the Lakers. In the story of his life, though, Kemmerer is the place that Buss put in his rearview mirror.