Midnight Sunday in downtown Los Angeles, and in the past 78 hours I have seen Kevin Durant make a game-winning three for the Thunder, Tony Parker lead a 24-point comeback for the Spurs, a guy named King score a game-winning goal for the Kings and an All-Star's son hit his first big league home run to complete a Dodgers sweep. I have seen the Lakers make 41 of 42 free throws in a game and the Clippers' Chris Paul sink a layup that rolled along the top of the backboard before dropping into the net. I have seen a 14-foot Stanley Cup carved out of sand, 110 cyclists riding upwards of 35 miles per hour, a full-color rendering of a $1 billion football field, and a solar eclipse. I have seen all this within a three-mile stretch of Interstate 110, between Staples Center and Dodger Stadium, and I have yet to encounter one traffic jam. My only expenses have been $87 in parking charges.
This is an article from the May 28, 2012 issue
The assignment sounded like a scavenger hunt, part of pledge weekend for the Phi Delts at USC: Attend 10 sporting events in downtown L.A. in four days, including four NBA playoff games, two NHL playoff games, three major league baseball games pitting two first-place teams, and the biggest bike race in North America. I made nine of them. Game 4 of Thunder-Lakers was too good to leave. I had to catch Clayton Kershaw's complete-game shutout for the Dodgers on TV.
Not to name-drop, but since this is Los Angeles.... I sat in the dugout with Magic Johnson, the booth with Vin Scully, the tunnel with Penny Marshall, the front row with Jeanie Buss, the club level with Luc Robitaille and the 46th floor of the Ritz Carlton with the people I'd like to be when I grow up. I compared schedules with Ice Cube and received bar recommendations from the Cocktail King. I even rode to a hockey game on a subway. Yes, L.A. has a subway, and yes, this particular line was finished less than three weeks ago.
Los Angeles is a city of a thousand clichés, most involving smog, silicone and Sig Alerts, spectators who arrive late and leave early. I encountered more than 300,000 fans during La-La-palooza, and my car was the only one entering the Dodger Stadium lot in the third inning or exiting in the fifth. L.A. may be a front-running town, but this weekend Angelenos were underdogs: the eighth-seeded Kings, the leg-weary Lakers, the injury-addled Clippers, and the Dodgers as Frank McCourt left them. By Sunday night the Kings were on the verge of the Stanley Cup finals, and the Lakers were on the brink of elimination. The Dodgers had the best record in the major leagues, after sweeping the defending-champion Cardinals, and the Clippers were finished after being swept by the Spurs. The rendering of that football field, meanwhile, was looking a bit more lifelike.
There were so many celebrities at Staples Center, it's a wonder they didn't violate fire codes in the VIP room, but the real stars of the weekend weren't whom you'd expect. "People always say we're so Hollywood," says Jeanie Buss, a Lakers' executive vice president. "I love that, not because of the celebrities, but because of the screenwriters and the production staff and the operations crews. Hollywood is a working town." She looks up from her front-row seat and sees the models in their skinny jeans but also the visionaries and laborers and fans who inspired an unprecedented sports weekend, with hopes for more like it.
THURSDAY, MAY 17: THE ARCHITECT
In 1997, the sports and entertainment company AEG announced plans for a downtown arena called Staples Center, to house the Lakers and the Kings. A year later the Clippers signed on, and that night Tim Leiweke imagined a weekend in which the three teams hosted playoff games under the same roof. "I like to dream," says Leiweke, 55, AEG's president and CEO. "It just took a little longer than I thought."
Staples Center became what Leiweke calls "the most profitable building in the world," but he is more than a landlord. He is also governor of the Kings, a franchise that went the previous nine years without a playoff-series win. They were .500 in mid-December, when they replaced coach Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter, who seemed a terrible fit. Sutter is a cattle rancher from Alberta who once got lost driving to downtown L.A. because he was expecting a stoplight at the intersection of Interstate 105 and the 110. He greeted a crowded press conference last week by asking, "This for the Lakers?"
Leiweke drove to the Kings' training facility in El Segundo around Christmas, and along with Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi, told the team, "Guys, you're better than you think you are. Tell me who's better than we are. We can win the Cup." After the Kings reached the Western Conference finals, Leiweke cried outside the dressing room.
For Leiweke, this weekend is about more than hockey and basketball, baseball and cycling. When construction started on Staples Center, the surrounding area was filled with liquor stores and by-the-hour motels. AEG transformed the space into a four-million-square-foot entertainment district called L.A. Live, with 19 restaurants, two hotels and a public plaza that is home to the aforementioned "Sandley Cup." The hotels were so crowded for the weekend, even the Kings couldn't get in.
But as Leiweke looks out the window of his third-floor office, something is missing. Southwest of Staples Center is the outdated Los Angeles Convention Center, the proposed site of Farmers Field, a 72,000-seat football-only stadium that could bring the NFL back to L.A. for the first time since 1994. The naming rights have been sold, the memorandum of understanding with the city passed, the 10,000-page environmental impact report submitted. AEG is hoping to have a deal with a team and a shovel in the dirt next spring.
"I don't think it is lost on Roger Goodell and the NFL owners what is going on," Leiweke says. "I don't know if it's a showcase or a defining moment or an exclamation point, but we have a chance to prove what we have been saying for years: 'Of course football should be here. We have the infrastructure. We are built for this.'"
On April 28, the MTA unveiled the Expo Line on the city's light-rail system, a crucial pillar of the infrastructure, and 26-year-old Jessica Truex took it that day. It was the first time she'd ever ridden anything resembling a subway. Truex grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother worked for the Kings. Her father was a season-ticket holder. They were introduced after a game by a bartender at the old Forum Club. Truex and her boyfriend, Roy Nwaisser, drove 13 hours round-trip to watch the Kings win Game 2 of the conference finals in Phoenix.
And now they ride the Expo Line, having traveled to Staples Center in their Kings jerseys for Game 3. ("We won't drive anymore," Truex says.) Less than two minutes into the third period, with the Kings and the Coyotes tied at 1, center Trevor Lewis digs a puck out of the corner. From his belly he shovels it to the aptly named Dwight King, who unleashes a wrist shot that gives the Kings their eighth consecutive playoff win and a 3--0 series lead. They are one victory away from their first Cup finals since 1993, and in Suite A28 the players from that '93 team try not to cheer.
"You try to be cool," says Luc Robitaille, watching with Tony Granato, Mike Donnelly and Rob Blake. Robitaille is now a club president, pitching free agents on hockey in L.A. "People ask about the market, but we've got guys who came from Philadelphia and tell me they never heard noise like they've heard here," he says. "You can't convince me this is a bad hockey town." Because of basketball, though, the Kings will not play again until Sunday. "Sixty hours rest," Sutter announces, "unless somebody is in that bike race."
FRIDAY, MAY 18: THE AMBASSADOR
Magic Johnson stands next to home plate at Dodger Stadium in a three-piece suit while centerfielder Matt Kemp shows him how to hold a bat. Johnson, it turns out, hits lefthanded but uses a righty's grip. "He owns a baseball team," Kemp marvels, "and he doesn't know how to hold a bat."
Johnson arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, and one of the first people he met was Tommy Lasorda, who had taken the team to the World Series in '77 and '78. "The Dodgers were everything," Johnson says. "They were on the front page. The Lakers were on the third page. I won't even tell you where the Kings were. Tommy wanted me to make the Lakers more like the Dodgers." Johnson would shoot at the Forum in the morning, go to Dodger Stadium for afternoon games and then back to the Forum to play at night. He left tickets for Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, Dusty Baker and Bill Russell.
Now with the Dodgers, Johnson will emulate the Lakers. After he was introduced this month as the point guard in the team's new ownership group, which bought the franchise for a record $2.15 billion, he left a package for every player in the home clubhouse: two Lakers jerseys autographed by Johnson. One was a gift. The other was to be given to a charity.
"When fans fall in love with their teams, it's not just because they're winning," Johnson says. "It's also because they are part of their community. That's where we lost our way a little bit. We need to embrace this community again." After the hitting tutorial, Kemp rides an elevator to the top deck behind home plate. He walks the concrete steps, the hazy skyline at his back, and then stops by the gift shop for an impromptu photo session with fans.
A minority owner, Johnson won't be the final voice in personnel or financial decisions, but he has moved into the office used by McCourt, who drove the team into bankruptcy. It is one of the most lopsided swaps in baseball history. At this time a year ago the Dodgers were in fourth place in the NL West. With the same nucleus, they now lead the division by seven games, and Kemp (page 46) is off to another MVP-caliber start despite a strained hamstring.
"The energy is totally different in here and in the stadium," says Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. "It's hard to pin it on anything but Magic. Nothing has changed except his name on the ownership group. Just his face has changed the perspective of the whole organization." Gwynn, who keeps a Lakers towel in his locker and SHOWTIME scrawled under his nameplate, will ask a clubhouse attendant to keep him updated on the Thunder-Lakers game while the Dodgers play the Cardinals.
Before the game Kings highlights play on the scoreboard and their mascot throws out the first pitch. "After we moved here [in 1958], I remember broadcasters used to call this the sports capital of the world, whatever that meant," says Vin Scully, the Dodgers' iconic play-by-play man. "In all the years the closest they've ever come to being a sports capital is this weekend. Maybe, for one brief shining moment, it's not Camelot, it's the sports capital."
After two innings, the Dodgers lead 3--0, and I take Figueroa Street three miles south to Staples Center. I walk into the lower bowl in the second quarter, as Snoop Dogg walks out. Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and center Mike Richards sit on the baseline, adjacent to Denzel Washington. Johnson, still an NBA analyst with ESPN, is at the studio across the street, monitoring the Dodgers while studying the Lakers. The Dodgers blow their lead but win in the bottom of the ninth on a bases-loaded walk.
The Lakers win too, and center Andrew Bynum sinks into his locker room chair afterward, four water bottles in his lap. His knees are wrapped in two bags of ice apiece, feet submerged in a Gatorade cooler on wheels. NBA teams normally do not play back-to-back games in the playoffs, but the Lakers are due at Staples in another 18 hours. They have to take the court when they can.
SATURDAY, MAY 19: THE PATRON
Sharon Hernandez started working downtown when she was 17, at a produce market on Central Avenue, and one night a boy who worked there invited her to a Kings game at the Forum. They married and in 1983 started their own fruit-and-vegetable company, World Variety Produce. Over the next few years, they bought season tickets for the Lakers and the Kings at the Forum and for the newly arrived Clippers at the L.A. Sports Arena. All they could afford was the upper deck. Today, Sharon and Joe Hernandez sell produce to approximately 20 major arenas, and their seating arrangements have improved dramatically. They sit behind the on-deck circle for the Dodgers, behind the glass for the Kings, on the baseline for the Lakers and on the sideline for the Clippers. They estimate that they attend about 325 sporting events in Southern California every year and eat dinner at home once a month, max. "The best way to keep track of my parents is to turn on the TV," says their daughter, Melissa Marsh. Sharon, 55, is hard to miss with her platinum-blonde hair and purple purse.
Sharon's itinerary includes all six games at Staples Center, dinner at Wolfgang Puck's WP24 and four nights in the family's two-bedroom condo at the Ritz, across the street from the arena. "I'd go to the Dodger games too," she says, "but I can't be in two places at once." As Blake Griffin runs out for the second half during Saturday afternoon's Game 3 of Spurs-Clippers, he gives Sharon and Joe a fist bump. "It doesn't get any better," Sharon says. Except the Clippers squander a 24-point lead and fall behind 3--0 in the series.
Sharon and Joe retreat to their condo across the street, and through floor-to-ceiling windows Sharon cranes her neck to make out Dodger Stadium up the 110. She then peers down at the Staples Center roof and the convention center next door. "There's the football stadium," she coos. Ten members of the Hernandez family gather in the living room, watching three side-by-side flat-screen televisions. She insists she is no more a fan of the Kings than the Lakers than the Clippers than the Dodgers. "I root for L.A.," she says.
Back at ground level, scalpers work every corner, reporting more business than at the NBA All-Star Game and Game 7 of the Finals combined. Once the evening's game starts, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook torches his hometown team with a series of 15-foot pull-up jumpers. Westbrook, who went to Leuzinger High School in nearby Lawndale and college at UCLA, scores 37 points but also slips twice on the court. Thunder players speculate that condensation from the ice below the floor is to blame.
The Lakers wilt at the end of the back-to-back, losing in the final minute and falling behind 3--1 in the series. Sharon Hernandez is headed to WP24, but the downtown revival extends well past L.A. Live. Cedd Moses was running a money-management firm 13 years ago when Staples opened and the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was passed, facilitating the conversion of historic downtown office buildings into housing units. Moses became convinced that this was the next frontier for the city's bar scene. "Everybody thought I was nuts," Moses says. Now nicknamed the Cocktail King, Moses owns nine bars downtown, including Casey's Irish Pub, where Lakers fans are drowning their sorrows as they avert their eyes from highlights. Kershaw's masterpiece is the only bright footage from the day.
SUNDAY, MAY 20: THE WORKHORSE
Six months ago Staples Center employees complained about the paychecks they lost to the NBA lockout. Today, there is no shortage of overtime. David Edford, the 34-year-old operations manager, reports to work at 7 a.m., having put in 14 hours in each of the past three days. But this will be his most challenging shift by far. Before the weekend, arena general manager Lee Zeidman told his staff, "It doesn't get any bigger in the sports-entertainment industry."
Zeidman was worried about everything from the microphones to the food. "What if we run out?" he asked. After all, they bought only 21,600 hot dogs in advance. But Zeidman's most pressing concern was the changeover between the Kings' and the Clippers' games on Sunday. Even though he brought in 500 extra workers for the weekend, and more than 2,000 in all, they needed time to sweep, mop and convert the arena from hockey to hoops. "It's a tsunami coming our way," Zeidman said. "If the Kings go to overtime, we could have 20,000 people trying to come in here while 20,000 are trying to leave."
Edford supervises the 35-person changeover crew, which turns an ice rink into a basketball court in 2½ hours. "The eyes of the world are on us," Edford tells his crew. "We're not just working for ourselves. We're working for everybody who does this kind of work and never gets this kind of recognition." Edford was the one who wiped the floor after Westbrook slipped. He asked everybody from cheerleaders to referees if they noticed condensation. They swore they did not.
Before the puck drops on the Kings' game, the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California finishes at the arena's front door, won by a 22-year-old Slovakian named Peter Sagan. RadioShack captured the team competition after cyclist Chris Horner yelled, "Pedal faster! The hockey game is about to start!" The Kings do not go to overtime, falling 2--0 to the Coyotes, and Edford rushes onto the ice with his crew. They lay 520 sheets of rubber composite across the ice. Then they cover the rubber with 223 pieces of hardwood, hammering them into place with mallets. They yank off the glass and the boards, roll in the basket stanchions and erect seats behind the baselines. All the work is done by hand. The changeover is completed in two hours and 20 minutes, and it would have been faster, except they needed 14 minutes to find one misplaced chair.
Most of the Clippers are already in their locker room. Forward Caron Butler asks an usher to recap the Kings' game. I bolt for Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers are in the third inning and the sun is starting to dip behind the palm trees. Suddenly the moon drifts in front of the sun, creating what looks like a ring of fire in the sky. On a weekend in which all the sports planets aligned, the Dodgers witness the first annular solar eclipse in 18 years.
His team down 5--3 with two runners on base in the seventh inning, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly summons pinch hitter Scott Van Slyke, son of former All-Star outfielder Andy Van Slyke. On a 3-and-0 count the rookie gets the green light and drives a fastball over the leftfield fence. By the time the Dodgers wrap up the game, I am back at Staples Center, for the Clippers' last gasp.
They lead by one point with 2:27 left, but San Antonio, which has won every game for the past six weeks, does not allow another basket. There is no shame for the Clippers, a team that was thrown together in training camp. "They were great," says Penny Marshall, sitting on a folding chair outside the locker room, hugging every player who emerges. "They just need more time."
For all the home teams, except the Dodgers, the weekend has been a disappointment. But it has proved that more than 100,000 people can pour into downtown on a Sunday and reach their destination in time.
Twenty years ago, when Ice Cube was wearing Kings hats, he wrote a rap about an idyllic day in Los Angeles. In It Was a Good Day he plays a pickup game at the park and watches the Lakers beat the SuperSonics (now the Thunder) and spots the Goodyear blimp in the night sky. I ask him something many locals have wondered, whether that day was real. "It was based on a lot of real days," he says. "It was a portfolio of good days put together in one package." As he reflects on his favorite sports day, he starts chronicling the 11 championships the Lakers have won in his lifetime but stops himself. No, the best day came when he was 14 years old, sitting in a tree with his brother outside City Hall, watching the Los Angeles Raiders' 1984 Super Bowl parade. He held a sign that read, RAIDERS 38, DEADSKINS 9.
Los Angeles is not so different from any other nook of this football-consumed country. Its citizens are thrilled to see three teams in the playoffs and another in first place, but they are hungry for minicamp too.