The Knicks were in trouble and they knew it. The team was loaded with high-priced players who had done a curious thing last season--they won on the road but not at home.
New management was puzzled. Hadn't they spent $200 million to refurbish Madison Square Garden, the Spruce Goose of arenas? Hadn't they cut the edge of both substance and style when they hired coach and sex symbol Pat Riley? This season would surely be different.
The Knicks couldn't win on the road, losing their first two games. But at home a surprise was waiting. A new, lovely, designer-outfitted, pony-tailed present. The cavalry was called and the Knicks City Dancers came to the rescue, riding in on a blare of hip-hop and funk, arms and legs jerking as though they were possessed puppets. New York's hard-bitten fans were smitten. The players were rejuvenated and the Knicks have gone undefeated in the Garden.
The Knicks, who were 21-20 at home last season, are dancing to a different beat now. Some in New York are tempted to say, "Three cheers for cheerleaders, and aren't we glad we thought of this," except they aren't cheerleaders, they are dancers , thank you, and someone had already thought of it 12 years ago. Someone on the other coast.
Guided by Petra Bolton, the former manager of the Laker Girls, the Knicks City Dancers have helped the Knicks seize the home-court advantage they have lacked. The dancers, according to Knick management, have energized the somnolent Garden crowd, which has in turn perked up the team. No one in the Knicks' organization is going so far as to suggest that the presence of 12 snappy dancers has translated into points on the scoreboard. But in the minds of some at Madison Square Garden, the dancers have at least earned an assist.
In these days of parity in professional sports and competition for the fans' dollar, teams believe they have to provide more entertainment punch. It's good for business and, it can be argued, it helps the team.
Listen to Laker owner Jerry Buss, who in 1979 formulated the now much-copied Laker Girl concept, on the value of the dance squad to his team: "Put it this way. We've improved our home record incredibly in the last 15 years. They (Laker Girls) haven't hurt."
THE INCREDIBLE MONEY (NOT!)
Know that if you are a Laker Girl it is not possible to live off what you earn from the job. Lisa Estrada, who has been a Laker Girl since 1987 and is the group's manager, estimates that if a dancer was at every game and every appearance, the most she could expect to earn in a year is $20,000.
The Knicks City Dancers, who get paid more than the Laker Girls but who, as a group, have fewer promotional opportunities, hope to make about $15,000 each.
"They understand they aren't going to pay the rent with this job," Estrada said.
The message is to get a day job, and keep it. That is why there are Laker Girl aerobics instructors, Laker Girl part-time students and Laker Girl waitresses.
Each Laker Girl is paid $65 per game. Since there are 17 Laker Girls and only 12 perform, five are "benched" each game. Everyone is paid $24 per rehearsal, held twice a week. By contrast, the Knicks City Dancers are the highest paid in the league at $85 a game and $45 for rehearsals.
Said Pam Harris, the Knicks' marketing director: "People won't perform for less."
They will in Texas. The venerable Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are paid $15 a game, which works out to $13.98 after taxes.
But in this business, salary is merely a token. Most of a dancer's earnings comes from "promos"--appearing or performing at conventions, grand openings and bar mitzvahs. For this, a Laker Girl is paid $75 per hour, a Knicks City Dancer $100. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 12 elite show dancers selected from among the 36 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, you get a share of the $6,000 the group charges for its one-hour variety show.
Yes, there is money to be made by the enterprising and the ambitious. In a world where the right connections can be the difference between getting a foot in the door or having one slammed in your face, being a Laker Girl is a valuable entree.
"At the end of a game or an appearance, I've got a pocketful of business cards," Laker Girl Dana Cuartero said. "If you want to meet people who can further your career, you can."
In Dallas, cheerleaders have gone on to become television news readers, to star in "CHiPs" and marry surgeons. To each, according to her ambitions. From each fan, according to his business. In Dallas, oil and car dealerships. In L.A., television and music. In New York, fashion and publishing.
"This is a great opportunity," Harris said. "If you could see the people who sit in the front row at the Garden . . . "
FOREVER YOUR (LAKER) GIRL