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Fast Company : When It's Showtime at the Forum, the Lakers May Be the Stars but Jerry Buss Is the Director

November 30, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER and STEVE SPRINGER | Adapted from "Winnin' Times," by Scott Ostler, a syndicated sports columnist for The Times, and Times sportswriter Steve Springer, to be published next month by Macmillan Publishing Co

In the early 1960s, on Wilshire Boulevard about two miles before it dead-ends at a row of cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, there was a nightclub named The Horn. It featured live entertainment, big names and new faces--singers, musicians and comedians--on a small stage surrounded by 150 or so patrons in cozy booths. The Horn attracted an upscale clientele, L.A.'s hip Westside set. Jerry Buss, a budding real-estate tycoon, was a regular.

The club's show always opened the same way. The lights would dim, and an entertainer planted at one of the tables would stand and begin to sing the establishment's signature tune, "It's Showtime." A singer at another table would rise, then a third, all harmonizing.

Buss loved that opening--it gave him goose bumps. Its theatrics created a mood and charged the room with expectation. He liked to sit back, a pretty woman at his side, and light a cigarette, sip his rum-and-Coke and let himself be swept up in a fantasy of lights, music and entertainment.

When he bought the Forum and the Lakers in 1979, Buss knew exactly what he wanted--a grand-scale version of The Horn. He wanted atmosphere and entertainment. He wanted showtime .

This meant that his headliners, the Lakers, had to be flashy, slick and talented. Buss figured that the purpose of a basketball team was the same as that of a nightclub act--to entertain. Once you booked your talent, you set the mood. Buss dumped the Forum organist and brought in a lively 10-piece band of young musicians. He commissioned the recruitment and training of a team of top female dancers, who became the slick, sexy Laker Girls.

Next Buss mapped out a strategy of packing the house with the right sociological blend of fans. He wanted to make his show available to the working class, the loyal beer-and-popcorn folks who would make a lot of noise. And, for a dash of glitter and glamour, Buss wanted to attract the Hollywood crowd, the city's powerful and beautiful people.

Sprinkle in such touches as hokey mascots, improved media accommodations, a bigger "skybox" for the owner and his friends, and a stack of current soul and disco tunes to blare over the P.A. system when the band needs a rest--then throw in the basketball team--and you've got Buss' version of showtime.

The term wasn't new to basketball. The Harlem Globetrotters were the original showtime team, and college superstar Pistol Pete Maravich came to the National Basketball Assn. in 1970 preaching and practicing the gospel of showtime. But Buss took the concept to new heights, or to tackier depths, depending upon your viewpoint.

"Buss seems to have perfectly mated a product to an environment," says Bob Ryan, Boston Globe sports columnist and a respected NBA analyst. "Try this in Cleveland, or Kansas City. His emphasis is on entertainment, the whole package. The Lakers stand for something now: the break, the instant basket, the blitz. They are a team of the future, the embodiment of speed and dazzle. That's exactly what Buss wants 'em to stand for. They are the vision of an owner."

Buss wasn't the Lakers' first Hollywood-leaning, showtime-loving owner. Bob Short, who owned the team in the 1950s and early '60s, knew the value of showcasing his superstars, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, so he lured Doris Day to the Sports Arena with free courtside tickets, giving the team its first connection with Hollywood. She became the First Fan.

Under Jack Kent Cooke, who bought the team from Short in 1965, the Lakers solidified the glitter image that would come to inspire some basketball fans and nauseate others. Cooke, the former Canadian bandleader, appreciated a good show and despised dullness. He didn't just set the stage for showtime; he built the stage, the Fabulous Forum.

And Cooke, who loves to be surrounded by the bright and the beautiful, instilled in his Forum the Hollywood party ambiance. He gave L.A. fans in-your-face players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson--and in-your-lap thrills from the courtside seats. First, however, Cooke relegated the working press to the cheap seats and bounced Doris Day into the street. All in the name of money.

Before Cooke, the press sat courtside, as they do in all NBA arenas. But it occurred to him that the press doesn't pay for those choice seats. So when the Lakers moved to the Forum, Cooke created a press section high in the western stands, in the cheap-seat zone, and offered those courtside seats to paying customers.

When Cooke bought the team, he took Doris Day off the comp list. Indeed, he did away with the comp list entirely, except for the working press. Day's husband, Marty Melcher, reportedly was indignant.

"The hell with it," he told Cooke. "We've never had to pay for tickets. Doris is a hell of an attraction for your team."

"I'm sorry," Cooke said. "That's the way it's going to be."

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