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 2� 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.
"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."