On Wednesday night of last week Los Angeles flickered beneath its cloud cover, a thousand fires casting heat and light into the dense air above. It was a strange illumination; the city glowed. But fans and athletes filing out at the conclusion of events at the Forum and Dodger Stadium immediately recognized the spectacle for what it was—a civic combustion. They had suspected this would happen. While they were playing and watching games, an awful energy producing arson, looting and murder had been released and reflected into the evening sky.
For that night and two more days and nights, Los Angeles remained on fire, fueled by a searing anger after the acquittal of four white police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, a black motorist. At first the outrage was over a jury's decision. But as time passed, the anger began to lose the purity of indignation over racial injustice. White teens were seen tucking television sets into their cars. A Hispanic man with a boxed appliance under his arm shamelessly explained his theft to a TV reporter: "It's free." As time passed, Los Angeles became a factory town, black smoke billowing from those thousand points of light.
By Saturday anarchy was reduced to confusion, and hysteria yielded to grim resignation over the residue of ash, burnt timbers and ruined and emptied stores that left South Central Los Angeles horribly scarred. The toll: more than 40 deaths, 2,100 injuries, 7,000 arrests and nearly 4,000 buildings burned.
Throughout the upheaval not one game was played. This gave the lie to the old notion that sports is a civic curative. Ironically this idea most recently gained credence in this same state 2½ years ago, when an earthquake devastated San Francisco and Oakland. A World Series was only briefly interrupted by the death and destruction the quake had caused. Baseball's quick resumption, a decision made by commissioner Fay Vincent, was immediately hailed as a necessary therapy. It was the right thing to do. Once again, the healing powers of games had been granted a pharmaceutical patent.
May 10, 1992
"But that earthquake was a natural catastrophe, an act of God—this was bigger," said Los Angeles Laker guard Byron Scott, who only had to read MANCHESTER EAST CLOSED on the Forum message board during the Lakers' Wednesday night playoff game against the Portland Trail Blazers to understand that his old neighborhood was being scorched.
This time nobody said that the games should go on. The sensible inclination in the face of this sort of upheaval was to close up shop. The Lakers, who went on to beat Portland on Wednesday night despite the knowledge that their city was beginning to go up in flames, postponed Friday night's game to Sunday and moved it to Las Vegas, where they lost 102-76 and were eliminated from the playoffs. The Clippers, whose Sports Arena was in the thick of the chaos, postponed their Thursday night playoff against the Utah Jazz to Sunday and moved it to the Anaheim Convention Center, where they defeated the Jazz 115-107 to tie their series at two wins apiece. And the Dodgers, whose stadium parking grounds became a staging area for the California National Guard, postponed a Thursday night game with the Philadelphia Phillies plus an entire three-game weekend series with the Montreal Expos. Every college and high school event in L.A. was called off, and Hollywood Park racetrack was shut down from Thursday through the weekend.
Because of the curfew many of these events couldn't have been held anyway. But the players most likely would have refused to play. Many were afraid. The Phillies huddled around a clubhouse TV after Wednesday night's game and called out a chilling play-by-play. "They just shot a fireman," said Curt Schilling. "There are 35 fires going," said Dale Sveum. "They just said there's four or five people dead," said Barry Jones. When they left the clubhouse Ruben Amaro, Dave Hollins and John Kruk took their bats onto the team bus. More violence awaited the Phillies in San Francisco, where rioting on a much smaller scale forced postponement of Friday's game against the Giants.
Meanwhile the Expos prudently delayed making the trip from San Diego to Los Angeles for their scheduled series opener on Friday. They arrived a day late, and only after switching their destination to a hotel in Pasadena. "You can't risk the lives of players, the fans who'll go to the stadium," said Montreal infielder Spike Owen. "I don't want to find myself in the middle of these riots and run the risk of becoming a target for some nut."
If all you knew of this event came from television, this fear was surely justified. You could not watch a white man being pulled from his truck and beaten about the head with bottles and intelligently affect any bravado. Or hear that two motorcyclists had been pulled from their bikes, with one of them being killed, and feel your safety could be assured. Something was going on. "Something," said Scott, "that putting 17,505 in the Forum isn't going to help."
But many of the players in town, including some who came from neighborhoods that were now being reduced to layers of soot, had a profound understanding of this turmoil. By some measures they were far removed—the average NBA salary, for example, is now more than $1 million a year—yet they could not escape their urban and family and racial histories. If you are Portland's Buck Williams and your mother toted you around in a burlap sack as she picked cotton in North Carolina, you never really escape poverty. If you are Robert Pack, a well-paid rookie for the Trail Blazers, you can't even escape your neighborhood right there in L.A. As a student at Southern Cal, whose campus is situated hard by the area most devastated by last week's violence, he was occasionally stopped by police for what he felt was no reason. Seeing a young black man in a red car, the color of choice for the Bloods gang, might be reason enough. "Or," he said, "if there was a crime nearby."
"Last year," said Scott, "I was driving my daughter to school and was stopped by police. I was driving my Mercedes, and they suspected I was a drug dealer. I had to convince them otherwise. This type of thing has been happening in L.A. for years." Sometimes at the Forum, when the Lakers are having their way late in the game, Randy Newman's I Love L.A. is played over the P.A. system. The song is popular among well-heeled Laker fans, most of whom indeed do love L.A. You wonder if Scott is the only one there who understands the song's intended satire.
Had they not had friends and family in the area, some players might have put the rioting out of mind. And as it was, some of them were ambivalent. Certainly no athlete cheered the destruction. And when asked, most pleaded for a better solution to economic and racial inequities than gasoline bombs. Yet few used their visibility to try and effect change. That was left to entertainers, from Sean Penn to Arsenio Hall, who pleaded for calm. The players seemed to understand that the situation was beyond glibness, or even judgment.
Did Scott, who grew up near the Forum in Inglewood, condemn the rioters? "No, I don't condemn them, because I know how they feel," he said. "I wish they'd show their anger in a different direction, but they're going to show the way they feel one way or another. I don't condemn what they're doing. I understand exactly what they're doing, and I understand why they're doing it."
It did not seem possible that anyone could watch the tape of that truck driver being beaten and fail to condemn the act. But many of these athletes had repeatedly watched the tape of Rodney King being beaten, and in the end that act had not been condemned. All right, but wouldn't men making upwards of $3 million a year feel some bile watching people take things for free? The newly franchised could not condemn even those looters. Dodger outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who grew up in the Crenshaw district west of downtown Los Angeles, explained, "They feel nothing belongs to them. They feel everyone has come down there and taken what is theirs. Everything they feel is important belongs to someone else, so they need to burn it down."
Strawberry, besides being a businessman in the area (the custom interiors store that he and teammate Eric Davis own in South Central L.A. was the only business left standing on one charred block), is less removed from the establishment than one might think. His older brother, Michael, was among the first Los Angeles police officers to be shot in the riots; bullet fragments struck his head without causing him serious injury while he was patrolling with two other officers on Friday.
This ambivalence, this failure of athletes to respond to the riots in any meaningful way, was maddening to some of those concerned about conditions in the inner city. Jerome Stanley, a sports attorney who represents Miami Heat guard Brian Shaw and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, said, "Jim Brown is the only one doing anything in the community. Every other athlete lives in an affluent suburb and doesn't care." And even Brown, the Hall of Fame running back who was photographed helping to organize a food distribution center in a bombed-out neighborhood called the Jungle, said, "Athletes always get put into a situation to do things that are symbolic, take pictures and all that. We need resources and expertise, not athletes looking to take pictures."
Out on the streets community leaders dismissed the impact of so-called role models entirely. T. Rodgers, a former gang leader who now works with people like Brown to reduce violence in the inner city, said, "We are the role models in this community." The athletes? "They're amateurs in the things that we're trying to do. This is my arena. I guess they could grab a broom, but there arc two things we need—technical expertise and capital. Anything other than that...."
Other than for Magic Johnson—"If I have to buy land to build buildings to give displaced people jobs, I'll do it," he said—there were few if any athletes committing to provide the resources or expertise mentioned by Stanley. There seemed to be a feeling that even to address the rioters would be presumptuous. "My only fear is that they'll look at me and say, It's easy for you to say," said Jazz forward Karl Malone, who has an aunt who lives and works near one burned-out area. "We just can't go out on the streets and say, Don't loot and burn," said Malone's teammate Blue Edwards. "They know that already." And Strawberry said, "I look at these people hurting inside. Now they get a chance to react on their own. It's not right, but nobody can tell them what to do."
But weren't athletes, who could bring so much influence to an issue, failing their fans by their silence? "I don't think people are let down by athletes," Strawberry said. "They are let down because there is no justice."
In the end more than a half-billion dollars in damage was done in Los Angeles. Some of the hollowed-out stores might restock, but many more will not return to the neighborhoods that destroyed them. An economic infrastructure was removed from an area that had little to begin with. On Saturday Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley appointed former baseball commissioner and 1984 L.A. Olympic boss Peter Ueberroth to spearhead efforts to rebuild riot-torn neighborhoods.
In time the games would return. The leagues were busy rescheduling, the teams attempting a return to business as usual. The players remained severe and quiet as the city tried to return to normal, whatever that meant. A few dug in; Clipper center Olden Polynice helped shovel debris from a leveled pharmacy west of the Sports Arena. "How can you think about sports when people have lost their lives and homes?" he said. But mostly the athletes stayed as invisible as they could. This was not their affair, not something that putting 17,505 into Forum scats could help. All anybody wanted from Los Angeles, it seemed, was distance.
This time sports would not soothe a torn community and knew better than to try. The fury that enveloped Los Angeles and lit the night skies mocked the games. And the games got the hell out of town.