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Sacramento Winces as L.A. Roars

Cities: Starved Kings fans go away hungry again, denied sports respectability as Lakers triumph.

June 03, 2002|GEOFFREY MOHAN, RONE TEMPEST and LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was like waiting for rain. Overdue in overtime.

A town thirsty for bragging rights took on a city so awash in transcendent sports moments it can afford to forget them. Sacramento was left parched.

Los Angeles had Jerry West, Kirk Gibson, Magic Johnson. Sacramento had just the hand-me-down memories of other towns--Rochester or Kansas City, the last places where their Kings were regal.

And after an edge-of-your seat overtime win, L.A. won another moment for its sports resume.

"It's a great feeling," said Veronica Romero, 29, of Pacoima as she left Staples Center, where she had watched the game on television screens. "You can't feel this when you're by yourself watching TV. It's unity."

If Los Angeles was fearful about falling from grace in Sunday's do-or-die NBA Western Conference final, Sacramento was beside itself to win something big and come out strutting with civic pride. Instead, it skulked away to another year of bovine-themed derision.

Over at the packed Marilyn's Bar in downtown Sacramento, the thrill of the Kings' pushing the mighty Lakers into overtime evaporated into deep depression in the end.

"I wanted to go out and celebrate," said one gloomy Kings fan. "Now I feel like hanging myself."

"This is all the town has," said Jason Brown, 28, an auto glass company manager. "This is the town. This hurts all of us."

Even before the game, Sacramento fans were sick of the name L.A. had given them: cow town.

"They call us a cow town, but we are part of the California that feeds the world," said a peeved Capt. John Golder, pilot of the Spirit of Sacramento paddle-wheel steamboat that ferried tourists along the Sacramento River.

Golder's packed pregame sightseeing cruise was festooned with Kings flags and rabid Sacramento fans screaming "Beat L.A." as the vessel passed the upriver restaurants. Cowbells may be fine for some, but not Golder, who casually let a robust blast rip from the air-diaphragm boat whistle to show his support.

At game time, only a few cars traveled on even the busiest streets. Parked cars on residential streets were decorated with anti-Laker graffiti. During breaks, neighbors wobbled between houses, drinks in nervous hands.

Not one of California's legislators toiled Sunday at the state Capitol while security guards attempted unsuccessfully to jerry-rig a TV connection. Already, the cowbells were clanging down at Arco Arena.

Half an hour into the game, and just minutes before the 5p.m. Mass at Sacramento's Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Father James Murphy burst out the doors of the rectory. "I was just watching right now. The Kings are ahead by one point and I have to say Mass. It just kills me," Murphy said.

"I'm going to do it in 30 minutes," about half the usual time for a Mass, Murphy assured an anxious parishioner.

Perhaps the one Sacramentan glad to be at work was Robert Dick, a bounty hunter who was manning the desk at Atlas Bail Bonds, not far from the Capitol.

For the bail bond business, Dick said, the Kings-Lakers series has been a godsend. Relatives are easy to find to post bond, because most are at home in front of television sets.

Not to be outdone, Los Angeles was so deserted by residents flocking indoor to television sets that a plane in distress had little trouble finding a place to land on the San Bernardino Freeway in Alhambra.

Merchants at the usually bustling Los Angeles City College swap meet tore down stalls as crowds thinned an hour ahead of game time. "Everybody's racing out of here," said Daniel Luna, a security guard.

Those still packing up at game time listened from cars and hand-held radios. Tony Ortiz struggled to fix the reception on his dashboard-rigged, 9-inch television set so that his stepdaughter, Pamela Zaldivar, 15, could watch the game on their way home to Long Beach.

With the screen still dark when Zaldivar returned from the bathroom, Pamela fumed. "He better hit beyond 65 mph because we live kind of far and I don't want to miss the second half," she said.

Spurned by the fate of the finals, Staples Center was packed like a home game, but with all the stars missing. And instead of staring down at the court, fans stared up at screens.

No cowbell ringing could be heard. "We have more class than that," assured Leimert Park resident Linda Young. But there was passion enough in a town with a reputation for raising sports blase to a virtue.

Martha Lopez could hardly believe she was inside the Lakers' cathedral, and for $10 at that. "That's why we can't sit down," said the Rancho Cucamonga resident, who arrived with her husband, son and daughter at 9 a.m., and scored seats in the second-to-last row in a corner.

Tony Jase, 50, sat in the pricey seats normally occupied by VIPs, having snagged his courtside tickets for him and his fiance Saturday. "We are Lakers Headquarters," Jase said just before jump ball. "Just living in L.A. makes you have Laker Love," he said. "I like the Clippers, but I love the Lakers."

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