Into the Chick Hearn media room they flock, news, business and sports reporters alike, mingling uneasily if affably in the bowels of Staples Center. No journalist can afford to miss this news conference: After an absence of seven years, the NFL is absolutely, positively coming back to Los Angeles.
In the room are the civic leaders whose political and financial clout will deliver the only missing piece in L.A.'s sports landscape--a football team playing in a proposed $450-million, 64,000-seat football stadium near Staples. On the dais, Tim Leiweke, president of the sprawling conglomerate that built and operates Staples, confers with developer-partner Edward Roski Jr. Sitting quietly between them is a handsome young man with neatly tousled black hair, a strong nose and a toothy grin. He is Casey Wasserman, whom GQ magazine dubbed a ''Jewish Tom Cruise, a kosher Kennedy.'' Today, dressed in a gray three-button suit, his white shirt splashed with a baby blue tie, he looks like an earnest college grad readying for a job interview.
His age, 28, and a determined deference to his elders peg him as ''junior partner.'' On the surface, he brings to the partnership little more than ownership of the one professional football team in town--the Avengers of the indoor Arena Football League, a fringe sport that has failed to capture much public attention. As Mayor James K. Hahn emphasizes that no public funds will be used for the stadium, and Leiweke muses that the new stadium could bring millions of tourist dollars to Southern California by hosting Super Bowls, the media ignore Wasserman.
Perhaps they shouldn't. For while this news conference is, ostensibly, about a new stadium, it's also the coming-out party for Wasserman. Born to Hollywood royalty, platinum spoon squarely in mouth, he has been groomed for a life of wheeling-dealing by the man who invented and perfected those very moves: his grandfather, legendary MCA/Universal head Lew Wasserman. Indeed, Casey has used his family's name and fortune to amass a networking base that rivals Leiweke's. He's on almost as many boards of directors as Phil Jackson has championship rings--including the Amateur Athletic Foundation, the L.A. Sports Council and the Jules Stein Eye Institute. His advisors include Democratic Party stalwart Vernon Jordan, former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and prominent entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren, who also happens to be his father-in-law.
It was Wasserman who ignited this football stadium plan, approaching the partners, including supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. With Leiweke and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz's firm, Anschutz Entertainment Group, Wasserman quietly scoured South Park for the proposed site along 11th Street and purchased options for the land. Finally, he established a beachhead with the NFL through a friend, executive vice president Roger Goodell, to pave the way for league approval of the deal and, not so incidentally, a $150-million loan. The only remaining question, it seemed, was which team would move to L.A.: the San Diego Chargers, the Arizona Cardinals or the Minnesota Vikings.
As Leiweke says, only half-jokingly: ''If this works, Casey gets all the credit. If it doesn't, he gets all the blame.''
Wasserman smiles. The heir apparent is ready for some football.
Weeks later, Wasserman's world has turned upside down. The stadium deal unraveled swiftly. After meeting vociferous resistance, the partners withdrew the proposal. And, Lew Wasserman, whom Casey describes as "my best friend, my father and my grandfather all in one person,'' succumbed to complications from a stroke at the age of 89. ''I can only do what would have made my grandfather proud, which is to continue on with life,'' young Wasserman says. ''You can't sit around and mope.''
It is a summer day in Wasserman's office. Wearing tan pants and a blue Oxford shirt open at the neck, he looks nothing like a GQ poster boy. Sniffling with allergies, his face sullied by two days of bearded scruff, he appears exhausted. ''My grandfather is the first family member I've lost,'' he says. ''And to have the most dominating presence in my life be the first . . . '' His voice trails off.
As advertised, he seems wizened beyond his years. The comparison to John F. Kennedy Jr. is ambitious but not without some merit, and not necessarily because of his looks. Rather, he carries gracefully the expectations of his family's name. ''Casey has a kindness to him, a lightness to him, that attracts people to his humanity,'' says longtime friend Skip Paul, a former Universal board member and chairman of IFilm, an online collection of movie clips and short films.