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Court Strategies : With Their Own Basketball League, O.C. Lawyers Can Fight Fair, Be Aggressive and Blow Off Steam

February 06, 1996|STEVEN LOWERY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Laws are inoperative in war.

--Cicero

*

It is not everything you'd expect. What you'd expect is a lot louder and a good deal meaner.

Competitive? Of course. That's why losing teams show up with 6-foot-6 guys who have just been hired in the mail room.

Intense? "They're intense when they mow the lawn," says one wife.

They're lawyers. Yet this scene, 10 of them running and sweating and banging bodies in a Corona del Mar elementary school gymnasium, is practically devoid of nastiness. There's little yelling, few arguments and nary a deliberately thrown elbow.

So you like lawyer jokes. You'd hoped to see these banes of modern life, from some of the most powerful firms in Orange County, drive up to the Lincoln Elementary School gym in their late-model sports sedans and utility vehicles, lace up their scruffy basketball shoes and commit some serious habeas on one anothers' corpus.

But not this night in the Newport Beach's Lawyers League. As it turns out, not most nights.

There was that time a lawyer made the winning shot at the buzzer, then screamed something obscene in the referee's face before sprinting out the door. But that was an exception.

The closest thing this night to belligerence in the game between the Latham & Watkins law firm and the Rutan & Tucker law firm, both of Costa Mesa, is Latham's Tom Tobiason getting hit in the mouth by a stray elbow. The guy who hit him comes over, checks whether he's OK and pats him.

The game between Latham and Rutan is typical: Guys in their 30s and 40s, ranging from fit to comfortably expanded, play in mismatched tank tops and drooping socks.

They may have played to a packed courtroom that day, but in this court the stands are empty, except for a wife or two.

The talent level is pretty standard, recreation-league stuff, though these players do show a preference for fakes and no-look passes, tools of misdirection.

Tobiason, 29, who played high school basketball at Woodbridge in Irvine, says games many times deteriorate into "absolute bickerfests." But most of the time words are directed at referees. That's not unusual for a recreation league, except that lawyers aren't always satisfied just arguing the call.

"Guys like to argue the very nature of the rules," says Rick Needham, 31, who plays on the team from Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth of Newport Beach. "I think that's the one big difference between our league and all the other leagues. Instead of yelling, we know how to dissect a ref, how to construct a very good argument around our point."

A fact not lost on referees.

Roy Nykaza, who's been officiating these games for years, has come to appreciate the lawyers. "It breaks up the monotony," he says, and refers to the time a ref called a foul and asked for a lawyer's uniform number.

"Zero," the lawyer replied, "like your IQ."

"Man, I just laughed and laughed when I heard that," says Mark Foley, who has been the official scorer for the league for the past three years. "A lot more thought goes into that than, 'You guys stink!' I appreciated that."

To litigators such as Stradling's Steve Hanle, 33, arguing is part of the workout.

"I like to argue just for the fun of it," he says. "You know our jobs aren't like 'L.A. Law,' where you're in court every day. So at least I can come out here once a week and get in some practice."

The degree to which Hanle and his colleagues agitate is muted compared with some lawyers-only basketball leagues.

A league in Los Angeles, formed in the 1960s, not only has had fights and spitting matches but also has seen players sue each other and the league itself.

The Newport Beach league, formed in the early 1980s, is descended from that Los Angeles league, a result of some big firms like Latham and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher extending operations into Orange County.

As in Los Angeles, the local league formed because of lawyers' similar schedules, love of competition and a real need to blow off steam.

*

On a recent Monday night after playing against Latham, Steve Coleman of Rutan & Tucker did what a lot of players do: He went back to the office. Coleman, 27, figured he'd be there past midnight, but basketball's curative effects are important enough for him to take a timeout, he says.

"I come out here to get my head fresh," says Coleman, who also runs and cycles. "Those other [activities], they're solitary, and you end up thinking about things at the office. With basketball you can't think about anything but the game. It's a great release."

The Newport league attracts lawyers from all over Orange County and runs 10 weeks per season, four seasons a year. There are usually eight teams.

"Everyone knows everybody else," says Scott Williamson, recreation coordinator for Newport Beach. "You don't yell and get crazy with people you might run into the next morning. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but it's pretty friendly."

Still, familiarity can foster rivalries and an intense desire to win. Though not rife with dirty or belligerent play, the games are played for keeps.

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