So do Johnny, Jimmy and Jeanie. Though their parents divorced without nuclear warfare, the emotional fallout was devastating for the children. "It left us confused about who our father was," says Johnny, who was 12 at the time of the breakup. "We knew Dad only as the guy who came over on weekends and took us to McDonald's. I could never understand why he'd want to go to Las Vegas with the Playmate of the Year rather than take us to Disneyland. Even though he provided for us wonderfully, we were starved for the love of a father."
Johnny may never have recovered from the pain of his parents' divorce, but he tries to hide his feelings behind a pensive bearing. Like a military governor occupying an obscure province in the country of Basketball, he issues fiats from his father's bordello-red Forum war room. It has a worn leather sofa, a massive, uncluttered oak desk and, on the credenza behind Johnny, five gleaming NBA championship trophies.
It's a late afternoon in late July, and the fiat of the day concerns Julie Rousseau, coach of the Sparks. "I just fired her," says Johnny. "We've still got 10 games to play, yet we're out of playoff contention. I offered Julie suggestions, but she didn't follow them. Which confused me." A year ago, 11 games into the Sparks' maiden season, Johnny became the first WNBA owner to fire a coach (Linda Sharp). Now, 20 games into the second campaign, he has become the first to fire two coaches. Which puts him in the slightly embarrassing position of having three head coaches on the payroll.
Johnny sits erect in his father's armchair, gazing at his Batman watch. He is a mild, melancholy man of 42, prone to long silences and dark anxieties. Johnny is Hamlet, a prince of indecision, to his father's Lear. Small things plunge him into despair. At Janie's 1992 wedding reception, he was undone by a fellow guest. "Johnny got into an argument, stormed out of the party and spent the entire evening sulking in the back of the bus my dad had chartered," says Janie. "That's the way my brother has been his whole life."
That may or may not have anything to do with the Sparks' failure to ignite. The team has yet to have a winning season, and though L.A. is the WNBA's second-biggest market, the Sparks' average attendance this season was the second lowest in the 10-team league: 7,653 fans. That was 1,300 fewer than the Sparks attracted last year, some 3,000 fewer than the league average and less than half the attendance averaged by the Washington Mystics, an expansion club that won three games all season.
What's more, Johnny's general manager, Rhonda Windham, is a fellow USC alum whose main qualification for the job was seven years in the Lakers' public relations department. Windham signed Sharp, her college coach, to a three-year deal and then—with Johnny's approval—replaced her with Rousseau, who had coached only in high school. "I hired [Sharp] because she knows so much about basketball," says Johnny. "She just needs to hone her skills and develop more knowledge." What kind of knowledge? "About how to coach in the pros. We'd certainly like to see her back." Coaching in L.A.? "Well...not this team."
Johnny sounds no less confused explaining his reluctance to promote the team to L.A. lesbians, an obvious fan base: "I know the lesbian community is showing up, so I leave them alone. I'd rather focus on pulling in more males. Would it hurt if most of our spectators were lesbian? That's hard to say. Right now, 67 percent of our fans are women, 8 percent are men and 25 percent are kids. I doubt that every woman who comes to our games is a lesbian. If, say, half were, then to have a lesbian majority, more than half the kids would have to be, too."
Johnny doesn't have a natural affinity for the business. He was just born to it. "Originally, I wanted to be president of the United States," he says. "But I wasn't much of a student, so that option was out." He wasn't much of an athlete either. He quit the Pacific Palisades High football team two plays into the first day of tryouts. He got kicked off the gymnastics squad for not cutting his hair, and he was kicked out of school for cutting class. Johnny finished up at another high school and enrolled at Santa Monica College, where his record was equally spotty. He signed up for courses; he just didn't attend them.
In 1976, at age 19, Johnny became the boy toy of Australian tennis player Dianne Fromholtz, then No. 2 on the women's tour. He carried her gear and chauffeured her around for two years, until she wrote him a Dear Johnny note. Unhappy in love, he enrolled in the USC drama department. Unhappy in college, he went to work for Dad. He was managing a real estate company in Las Vegas when Jerry called him back to L.A. in 1982 to run the fledgling Lazers of the Major Indoor Soccer League. But after three seasons in which he felt he was being regarded as an unnecessary evil by Forum executives—who in turn felt that Johnny simply didn't understand that the Lazers did not deserve the same treatment as the Lakers—he quit. "I had wanted to be part of a team and make something of my life," he says. "I was part of one, and failed."