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Stanley Cup FINALS : Collecting Coins and Cups : It Took Years, but Bruce McNall Finally Became a Nut Case About the Kings--so He Bought Them

June 05, 1993|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man didn't know a puck from a pancake.

The year was 1969, and 18-year-old Bruce McNall knew all about Sandy Koufax and Jerry West.

But hockey? Forget it.

McNall nearly did forget about it after his first hockey game at the Forum.

A friend took him to see the Kings against a long-since-forgotten opponent. They sat in the colonnade section. There were relatively few fans, not much excitement on the ice and, in McNall's case, scant understanding of the rules.

"I wasn't overly impressed," he recalled. "It wasn't like, 'Wow, this is the greatest thing.' I didn't understand it at all."

McNall spent much of his time in coin stores, where he was amassing a fortune as a collector, a fortune that would eventually include coins, antiques, sports memorabilia, thoroughbred horses, a movie studio, a Canadian football team, and the world's most expensive baseball card (a 1910 Honus Wagner for which he and Wayne Gretzky paid $451,000).

Plus, of course, the Kings.

McNall kept returning to his crummy seats at the Forum, kept learning the rules and eventually found that the strange sport he had never dreamed of playing as a kid was the sport in which he would someday dream of winning a championship.

The man who once outbid Aristotle Onassis for the Athenian Decadrachm, known as the "Mona Lisa of Greek coins" and valued at more than $1 million, eventually became fixated on another rare item--the Stanley Cup.

By the mid 1970s, McNall was becoming a regular at King games. He found a convenient scalper at the corner of Manchester and Prairie, and the scalper found he had a steady customer at $20 a ticket, which was then face value.

"I went to virtually all the games I could," McNall said, "but I never went to road games. I was too busy working, so I was never able to be a nut case about the Kings."

In 1976, McNall bought season tickets. Most people would be satisfied with that. But Bruce McNall is not most people. Never has been.

When he was a teen-ager, he would learn the value of ancient coins, purchase them at a cheap price from the operators of an Arcadia coin store and resell them at a huge profit.

By the age of 14, McNall was working in the store. By 15, he had bought it.

And the first thing he did?

Fire the people who had been selling him those coins all those years. After all, he figured, he knew they didn't know how to make a profit.

In the early 1980s, McNall's interest in coins and stamps brought him into contact with a fellow collector--King and Laker owner Jerry Buss.

McNall decided he wanted to add Buss' hockey team to his collection of valuable items.

"I started hinting," McNall said.

He had already made an initial venture into the world of sports in 1979 by buying one-twenty-fourth of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, forming at that time as an expansion team. McNall paid half a million dollars for his share of the Mavericks and sold it four years later at double that price.

By then, hockey had become his passion.

Finally, in 1986, Buss, who had set his sights by then on buying a football or baseball team, was interested in McNall's offer.

"All right," Buss told him, "you want a little piece. You can buy a quarter of it, and we'll go from there."

At that point, the Kings were valued at $16 million. McNall put in $4 million.

With his Lakers embarking on back-to-back championships and his Kings struggling as always, Buss gave McNall more than merely a piece of paper that said he was part owner. Buss gave him authority, let McNall attend league meetings and try to improve the fortunes of the club.

McNall, whose business plate never seems full enough, loved it. This is a man who will call his home office in L.A. from a hotel room on the road, ask Suzan Waks, his chief financial officer, what's going on, head downstairs to a waiting limo, and then call Waks again from the car to see if anything's new.

In 1987, McNall put in another $4 million to give him 49% ownership and, one year later, he paid an additional $8 million for $100% control.

The Kings were recently valued at $71 million, although McNall says he has been offered $100 million to sell.

Would he?

"No," he said. "My goal now is to get a new building to play in. If that required some partnership, I would do that."

McNall, whose exact worth has never been made public, desperately wants out of the Forum. He has gone as far as he can go in that building, where he is merely a tenant without the benefit of luxury boxes. He feels he has raised ticket prices as high as he can, yet his expenses and payroll keep rising.

McNall is currently negotiating with an international corporation to build a new arena.

The Kings have proved to be a break-even proposition in the regular season. In the past, McNall has netted about $1 million for appearing in two playoff rounds.

With four rounds this year, McNall may net a $2-million profit, still small change on such a huge investment.

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