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COOKE'S RECIPE: BUILD THE FORUM : His 'Fabulous' Monument to Defiance of Establishment Opened 20 Years Ago

December 30, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

The Inglewood ornament known as the Forum was built by a man who has moved to northern Virginia.

He returns frequently, however, and you might even see him in a limousine at Manchester and Prairie some afternoon this week. "I make it a point to drive past the Forum every time I'm in Los Angeles, though I haven't been inside the place for years," Jack Kent Cooke said the other day at his farm near Middleburg, Va. "They tell me that it's still the only privately built sports arena in the country--and I'm rather proud of it."

Said broadcaster Chick Hearn: "He should be. Those 80 white columns, the true-circle design, the color scheme. The Forum is a beauty night or day."

Clipper President Alan Rothenberg, who once worked for Cooke, added: "It could have been built yesterday."

It could have been, but it wasn't. As of today, the arena that Cooke built is 20 years old. It opened for business on Dec. 30, 1967.

Hockey was played that first afternoon at the Forum--the faceoff was at 2:30 p.m.--and it is characteristic of Cooke that the only thing he clearly remembers about opening day is the final score of a game between the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers.

"We lost, 2-0," he said. "Gad, was I disappointed."

Cooke at 75 is still slim, natty and tirelessly competitive--a born, driven competitor who has pushed his net worth to $900 million, some say $1 billion, since selling out to Jerry Buss and Frank Mariani in 1979.

Thus his disappointment in the Kings, both in the beginning and ever since, runs deep--so deep that he can't even remember the Lakers' Forum opener that 1967 holiday week.

"All I know is that they opened on New Year's Eve," he said.

Aging basketball writers remember something else. In Cooke's preoccupation with a stadium design that would have pleased residents of ancient Athens or Rome, he forgot a few things about a more modern concept or two, such as electricity.

And so it was that the Forum's press box, like the great hall of the Parthenon in 500 B.C., was built without lights.

On the night of the Laker opener, when the game was over and the crowd had dispersed, Cooke's electrician turned off the master switch and went home.

Upstairs, entirely in the dark, reporters cussed and shouted about deadlines and tried to carry on by lighting matches at their typewriters.

"We finally found the light switch," Cooke's former publicist, Hank Ives, recalled. "But some guys did miss a deadline."

That the press was really upstairs was another Forum first. For 69 years, since the invention of the game, basketball writers had sat at desks on the floor, around the edges of the court, or in bleachers, usually at midcourt.

With the advent of radio coverage, announcers moved in alongside.

Cooke wasn't having any part of that. The man didn't pile up $1 billion, or even $900 million, by putting sportswriters in his best seats. Court-side tickets could be sold for $100 and up, and in Buss' hands they've gone up and up.

The press has, too, figuratively as well as literally. In 1967, the loudest protest was entered by Hearn, who told Cooke: "This is a terrible, horrible place for a press box."

Said Cooke: "Try it."

So he did, and eventually, Hearn said, he adjusted.

"When Jerry Buss bought the club, he offered to put me back on the floor," Hearn reported. "I asked him, 'What about the visiting announcers?'

"He said, 'They'll have to stay up there.'

"I said, 'Then I'll stay up there, too.' "

That ended that, although writers have since returned to tables at the end of the court.

Cooke built the Forum in 54 weeks, installing it in the middle of 29.5 acres that he had acquired in 1966 for $4,014,340.63.

"They sold it by the square foot, and I couldn't get them to knock off the 63 cents," he said.

Charles Luckman was brought in as the architect. The contractor was C. L. Peck.

Cooke budgeted $11 million for construction and wound up paying $12.2 million.

All told, in two stirring decades as a Los Angeles resident, he invested $27 million in ranch land and toys--including the Lakers, Kings and a place for them to play--before selling the works to Buss and his associates for $67.5 million.

That meant a profit of $40 million or so, some of which Cooke used to become sole owner of the Washington Redskins.

On the other hand, the worth of the Lakers alone is now estimated at twice as much as Buss' syndicate paid for the whole empire.

The Lakers also have a different kind of boss.

Lawrence J. Paben, who was the Laker dentist for more than 20 years, said: "Jerry Buss is a warm man and more lenient. Jack Kent Cooke is a perfectionist and more formal."

To Buss, sport shirts are beautiful, Dr. Paben said. To Cooke, an employee minus coat and tie is on his way to hell, or worse.

After 20 years, nonetheless, the Lakers remain the empire's crown jewels. The Forum is the palace.

Even before he completed it, Cooke, who had the whole palace in his head, down to the last column, said modestly:

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