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Charmed Lives

Superstitious fans assist the Lakers with rituals, lucky items

June 12, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Lakers lost the two playoff games that super-fan Caleb Osborne had videotaped, superstition set in. All taping stopped at his house. Not only that, he refused to watch a game in any room where it was being recorded.

"It would have been bad luck," said the Orange resident, who dons Laker shorts, jersey, warmups and his special good luck hard hat for games.

When radio personality Matt Smith was selecting his garb for the first game of the NBA championship series, it didn't take him long to decide what to wear: a Sparks jersey. He'd worn the women's league shirt in the last two games of the Lakers' semifinal series against the Sacramento Kings. Clearly, the magic of the jersey had propelled the Lakers to victory.

Nine-year-old Dylan McCarthy of Santa Monica helps out his Lakers when they're in trouble by fixating on a single player as he watches the game on TV; usually, it's Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal. He says the results are almost always good. "When I stare at Kobe or Shaq, they usually make a three-pointer or a slam-dunk," said Dylan.

Then there's the radio caller who bemoaned his role in a Laker loss to the Kings. His crime? He left his lucky Laker cup sitting in the dishwasher unused while he was watching the game.

Such is the variety of sports superstitions and good-luck charms, which especially come to the fore when championships are on the line. Out come the lucky T-shirts and jerseys. Baseball caps are turned at a certain angle. Superstitious fans who positioned themselves on the sofa for last year's win plant themselves in the same place this time around.

While fans profess the powers of all manner of good luck paraphernalia, the most common are jerseys and hats, though some are hardly garden variety. For Game 3 of the championship series on Sunday night, 21-year-old Karina Ruvalcaba wore a lucky hat to Yankee Doodles sports bar in Long Beach. The ornate headdress was fashioned only that afternoon at a local chili cook-off. So did it bring her luck? "Everything will bring good luck as long as I'm cheering for them," said Ruvalcaba, a housing counselor.

People even return to sports bars abandoned in the interim, not necessarily because they had such a great time there, but because that's where they were when the team made its previous championship run. "Now that we're in the finals, we're getting a lot of the people we haven't seen since last year's games," said Jeff Miles, a manager at the Burbank Bar and Grille, which caters to the sporting crowd.

Clearly, something is working. The Lakers have all but toyed with the New Jersey Nets for the first three games and are poised to capture the NBA title tonight in a sweep. And even if they don't win tonight, no team in NBA history has won the first three games and gone on to lose the championship. So who knows what role all those little rituals and crazy hats might have played?

Superstition, of course, is not just for sports fans. Most people learn from childhood that black cats and walking under ladders bring bad luck, and don't even mention broken mirrors. But sports fans have a spot high in the pecking order of the superstitious because of the lengths they are willing to go to give their teams an edge.

Take, for instance, the fans that once arrived at the Burbank Bar and Grille, decorating an entire section of the place with Wheaties boxes that sported images of favorite players. And that's just for starters. "They littered the table with every possible collectible for their teams," said Miles.

Michael Meyers, a Los Angeles lawyer whose office is filled with sports memorabilia, grew up in the shadow of Chicago's Wrigley Field and is a die-hard Cubs fan. He tapes every game he can't see in real time. But he won't read the paper or listen to the radio until he's actually seen the game. "I think that if I know the score, it will change the likelihood that the Cubs will win," said Meyers, deadpan.

This is the same person who, as a boy, wore the same socks and underwear for more than a month--much to his mother's dismay--when he was in the middle of a baseball hitting streak. "I'd be wearing them to this day, but I went into a batting slump," said Meyers.

Kevin Burke, the coordinator of the sports psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University, believes sports superstitions by fans are about empowerment, especially by those who are watching on television rather than in person. Hence, if a certain kind of potato chip is served when a team wins, it's Pringles for life. "It's another way of wanting to take control of our world," said Burke.

It is important to distinguish between rituals and superstitions, Burke said. Bouncing a basketball the same number of times at the free-throw line is a ritual that gets a player ready to shoot. Superstitions are things players and fans feel they must do to affect the outcome.

"A player controls ritual, whereas a superstition will control the player," he said.

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