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.
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.