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But in Los Angeles, Cooke's surge of creation ran into trouble in the form of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, a nine-man board in charge of the 93,000-seat Memorial Coliseum and the adjoining 15,000-seat Arena. Over the years the commission has made some dazzling decisions. Bill Veeck ran into one of them when he wanted to take his dying St. Louis Browns to Los Angeles in 1954. Walter O'Malley encountered others when he did take his Dodgers out there four years later. And now Cooke knows, too.
Cooke came on stage in 1960, a new boy in town. The commission took one look at him, shivered and made him a bad guy. Cooke, with his $5.2 million Lakers, also was a candidate for the National Hockey League franchise. The league was to expand, and Los Angeles was in on it. The other chief contender was Dan Reeves, whose Los Angeles Rams already played in the Coliseum. Reeves, who along with Cooke and several others figured that big-time hockey would be successful in Los Angeles, had bought into Canada's Saskatoon team, changed its name to the Blades and had brought it to town via the Western league. It was a stunning flop. The Blades ended up at the bottom of the league, and Californians did not exactly storm the gates to see them.
The critical factor in the competition for a Los Angeles NHL franchise was a playing arena. Without a guarantee of that, NHL President Clarence Campbell would not grant a new franchise. So when the commission, ignoring the fact that it is a public body, announced its support of Reeves in September of 1965, Cooke was shut out of the Arena, the only hockey rink in town.
"Unfair partiality," Cooke pointed out. Still no lease. For his Lakers, he asked a 10-year lease such as Reeves and his Rams had for the Coliseum. Instead he got a counteroffer of three. Cooke got angry.
Betting in Los Angeles financial circles was that Reeves was a shoo-in for the franchise. But in November Cooke warned the commission that, unable to gain any promise of a long-term hockey lease, he had submitted his NHL application on the basis that he would build his own arena. On Feb. 8 of last year Cooke flew to New York and repeated his offer to the NHL expansion committee. He must have sold a lot of soap in that meeting, because the next day he was awarded the franchise.
Quickly attitudes changed. Cooke, ready to build his own sports center, said he would now accept that two-year Arena lease. That was all he would need. This time the commission urged him to take 10-year leases for both teams.
Meanwhile L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, who played a bit part in all this—the guy who does not get the girl—tried to find some federal land for Cooke's new Forum, in order to keep the teams and their rich revenues in Los Angeles proper. But the plan fell through. The commission, still figuring Cooke was bluffing about building a forum, announced it was giving the Blades a three-year lease. If Cooke defaulted the franchise by not producing a new arena, they figured, the Blades would be back in again. But Cooke took his franchises and moved out of town—to a vacant lot in nearby Inglewood. And there was Mayor Yorty, wielding another ceremonial shovel, breaking ground for another outfit that was taking money away.
"I did try hard to keep them here," said Yorty, "and I believe I could have succeeded if it hadn't been for the rather impetuous, shortsighted, if not spiteful, attitude of some members of the Coliseum Commission."
One of the commissioners, Mel Pierson, quit the board in disgust. Losing Cooke, he said, did it. "The commission keeps telling people Los Angeles is the sports capital of the world," he said, "but we have lost at least four major franchises in the last five years. The Chargers went to San Diego, the Angels to Anaheim and now the Lakers and Kings are gone."
The Forum—on 29.5 acres hard by Hollywood Park—has everything. It sits smack in the center of four major freeways, a situation that Cooke makes much of. Still, all of Los Angeles sits smack in the center of freeways. But The Forum site will park 4,000 cars and the building will seat 16,602 for basketball, 15,048 for hockey and 17,526 for boxing, all on four escalator-served levels.