How Beckham Blew It (cont.)
Beckham's bodyguard pulled the waiter aside to explain. Soon the maître d' came over. "I don't care who they are!" the players heard the waiter say to his boss. Finally the maître d' prevailed, and Beckham and Xavier got their wineglasses in time to join their teammates in a toast.
The Morton's dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. "You can break his balls," said defender Chris Albright, "and he'll break your balls right back." Kyle Martino, a midfielder, was stunned that Beckham could be such a regular guy.
And then the check came.
Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 -- before taxes -- and living in one of the U.S.'s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking, Is Beckham going to pick up the check? But nobody said anything. Beckham, meanwhile, had never been in this situation before. The players on his other teams had all been millionaires, and Real Madrid paid for all team meals anyway. The Galaxy provided only a $45 per diem on the road. What would Beckham do? What should he do?
Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates' dinners in the past, and he'd made his position clear even before Beckham's arrival. "He'd better be picking up meals too," Donovan had told teammates, "or else I'll call him out on it." But defender Chris Klein, one of Donovan's best friends on the team, had a different viewpoint.
"If you're out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine," Klein said. "But if you start to feel like you're being used, these aren't your friends anymore. These are leeches. You can look at it two ways: Here's this guy that's making a lot of money, and maybe he should pick up the tab. But the other side of it is, maybe he's trying so hard to be one of the guys, if he's paying for everything then he's not one of the guys anymore."
Beckham didn't pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. "None of us care," said Kelly Gray, one of Beckham's frequent dining companions. "It's just nice to go out to dinner."
Donovan didn't call Beckham out at Morton's after all, but he could never get over Beckham's alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.
Injuries limited Beckham to seven games in 2007 as L.A. missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. But when Yallop resigned after the season, it wasn't Lalas who conducted the search for a new coach.
With his manic energy and masterly talents for theater, promotion and spin, Lalas was the sports equivalent of magician Doug Henning. But Lalas knew the trick facing him at the Galaxy's standing-room-only news conference on Nov. 9, 2007, would be as hard to pull off as any of Henning's signature stunts. Nearly a hundred members of the international media had assembled at the Home Depot Center in front of a dais that included Lalas, Leiweke and Ruud Gullit, the Dutch former World Player of the Year who had just signed a three-year, $6 million contract to become the highest-paid coach in MLS history.
How do you feign rousing support for a coach whom everyone thinks you handpicked, when in fact you had nothing to do with it? How do you sing the praises of a great soccer mind when in fact you counseled your boss against hiring him? As he flashed his most convincing fake smile, Lalas couldn't stop thinking of the horrible scene earlier that day in the Galaxy locker room. Lalas brought Gullit in front of all the players, held out his right arm and announced, "Guys, this is your new coach, Ruud Gullit." Gullit said a few words, and then, out of nowhere, another man stepped forward and took over the proceedings, speaking to the team as if he were in charge.
Most of the players were confused. Who was this British guy who looked like the comedian Ricky Gervais? When Donovan asked whether the players would need to change their Thanksgiving plans, it was this guy, not Lalas or Gullit, who answered him. "That was weird for me," said Klein. "Alexi Lalas is the general manager of this team, and then here's this other guy presenting our new coach. I was like, What is going on here?"
The mysterious figure was Byrne, who was not only Beckham's best friend and personal manager but also a business associate of Beckham's manager, 19 Entertainment chief Simon Fuller, the Brit who created American Idol. Even though Beckham was in the room, he remained oddly silent. Nobody would ever bother explaining to the players (or to the public) what had happened: that Leiweke had hired Byrne as a paid consultant to the Galaxy and Byrne had conducted the coaching search, recommended Gullit and made the first phone calls in the negotiating process. Lalas left the locker room shaking his head. It was inappropriate for Byrne to be there, he felt, and even more so to have spoken. "I walked out," Lalas said, "feeling the team I had been in charge of was no longer mine."
At the news conference introducing Gullit, the 19 Entertainment logo was plastered all over the backdrop. Beckham's handlers had essentially taken over the Galaxy, snatched away Lalas's power and installed their man as coach. At least Leiweke was honest about it. "When Wayne Gretzky was with the Kings, Wayne had a lot of input on the Kings' direction player-personnel-wise," he said. "It's just a fact. You had a dominant guy that was the franchise. When Magic Johnson was with the Lakers, Magic had a lot of input about the direction they were headed. So does Kobe [Bryant] today. When David or his people spoke, we obviously listened."
There was a major difference, however. Gretzky, Magic or Kobe never had his best friend put in a paid management position that was never spelled out to his teammates.
The 2008 Galaxy was a nightmare defensively, but early on L.A. also produced some of the most entertaining attacking soccer that MLS had ever seen. Donovan scored eight goals in the season's first five games, three of them coming from Beckham's passes, and for a brief period the Galaxy's two biggest stars found common ground.
After months of reflection Donovan felt that he had worried too much about Beckham's arrival, wasted too much time and energy wondering whether they and their wives would have a close relationship. It was like the bad parts of high school, and it didn't have to be that way. In fact life was a lot easier now that Donovan realized where he and Beckham did connect: on the field, where their shared passion, competitiveness and talent had a sort of elemental purity that Donovan craved. "We're both soccer players," Donovan said, "and we want to win. It's not much more complicated than that. I don't have to go hang out with David on weekends. So by having that mentality we've gotten along really well this year off the field as well. I think there's more mutual respect than there was last year. Not that it was bad, but there was never any real connection."
Of course, forging that soccer bond had been impossible in 2007 because Beckham had rarely played. Donovan now understood how skilled Beckham really was; he marveled at Beckham's passing precision and efficiency, the way he hit the ball cleanly every time. Donovan had reached the point, unheard of in MLS, of believing a teammate's passes would go exactly where they were supposed to -- and 95% of the time they did. With the combination of Beckham's technical ability and his full-field vision, Donovan was in soccer nirvana. "It's just fun," he said. "When he gets the ball, my eyes light up because I know every time there's the potential that we're going to score a goal."