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WINNERS AND STILL CHAMPIONS

Thrice as Nice for Lakers and Fans

Celebration: After a third annual downtown parade and Staples Center rally, Kobe proposes to all assembled, 'Let's do it again next year!'

June 15, 2002|CARLA HALL and PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

You'd think they had never done this before. But no: Fans performed their own three-peat on Friday, converging on downtown, giddy in purple and gold, celebrating the Lakers' third straight NBA championship as if it were the first.

A crowd, estimated by Los Angeles police at 150,000, swept south from City Hall, where the festivities began in the morning, down Figueroa Street and across parking lots in front of Staples Center where the Lakers took to the stage. They carried Laker pennants, video cameras, dazed babies and an undying enthusiasm.

"It never gets old when the Lakers win a championship," said Taylor Ogata, an 18-year-old University of Kentucky student who flew in from Lexington for the occasion.

"He comes out every championship season," said his cousin, Julie Valles, 30, of Torrance, who strolled with him and her 4-month-old son, Joshua.

"Sacramento will never be the capital of California," exulted Shaquille O'Neal at the Staples Center rally, referring to the team's hard-fought seven-game battle over the Kings for the Western Conference title that preceded its NBA Finals victory in a four-game sweep over the New Jersey Nets. "Los Angeles is the real capital of California."

The celebration created traffic headaches that were compounded by large graduation ceremonies at UCLA and USC. But it showed that the city--famously fractured and, this year, possibly literally breaking apart through secession--can be united, at least for a day.

Anyone jaded by the Lakers' third championship in a row stayed home--or at work. And many who work downtown took advantage of their proximity to drink in the atmosphere. Through the open windows of the Wilshire Grand Hotel and Center, people snapped pictures and showered shredded paper on the victorious athletes.

"It's a team that just makes you fall in love with them," said Ramona Streiff, 50, who said she suffers from fibromyalgia but still came out from her Pico Rivera home anyway. "Whenever I'm in pain, I turn on a game and it makes my pain go away."

At 3rd and Figueroa, the crowd erupted in cheers as the cadre of LAPD motorcycle officers revved their engines, signaling the start of the parade toward Staples Center. In contrast to a host of other testy encounters between police and bystanders during L.A. street events of the last few years, officers high-fived spectators as they drove by.

Behind them came the Lakers and entourage--11 double-decker buses, four fire trucks, and the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale horses. In addition to the players and their families on the buses were coaches, staffers, team sponsors and city officials. The Laker Girls and the Laker band--the latter playing the "Rocky" theme--rode on firetrucks.

At every turn of the parade route, fans chanted the names of their favorite players--"Horry! Horry!" or "Kobe! Kobe!" or, in the case of O'Neal, named the Finals most valuable player for a third straight year, simply "MVP! MVP!" The players basked in the attention.

Annie Jewell, 14, of Los Feliz, sported a tribute to Laker reserve Mark Madsen on her white T-shirt that read "I Love You Mad Dog." Kobe Bryant pointed her out to a delighted Madsen, who high-fived his teammate in appreciation.

Madsen tossed his baseball cap toward the teenager. But others in the crowd snatched it first. With Jewell still running alongside the bus, Madsen pulled his own T-shirt off and prepared to toss it to his fan. A group of parade watchers stepped up to form a protective ring around the girl and ensure that no one intercepted the gift. Madsen lobbed the shirt into the girl's hands.

"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me!" she told her mother as the parade moved on.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn sat atop the first double-decker tour bus. Between waves, Hahn snapped pictures of the fans with a pocket camera, showing more interest in the politely applauding spectators than they did in him.

The crowd count, which the LAPD based on an aerial view from their helicopters, according to Cmdr. Gary Brennan, was a fraction of the million figure being bandied about on television during the day.

"I'm shocked," said Michael Roth, director of communications for Staples Center when told the police were estimating the crowd at 150,000. "Honest to God, I think there were that many in Parking Lot 3 alone." Roth estimated the overall crowd from City Hall to Staples Center at 1 million.

There were 1,000 LAPD personnel on hand to control the crowd. Brennan said there was one arrest--a man in a public restroom near Staples Center was unlawfully carrying a handgun. The Fire Department had 26 medical-aid calls, according to Brennan. All were minor.

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