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STANLEY CUP FINALS | J.A. Adande

For Two Teams, It's More Like Lou Jersey

June 10, 2003|J.A. Adande

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — "Arena of Champions" proclaims a huge banner hanging outside Continental Airlines Arena -- a banner that went up before the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup.

Perhaps it was a bit presumptuous, but there was no doubt that for a 27-hour period this building in the midst of a paved-over swamp was the center of the sports universe. Thanks to the successful seasons of the Devils and New Jersey Nets, the championship series of the NHL and NBA were held in the arena on back-to-back nights.

Two teams, two championship bids. And the common denominator is one man.

Lou Lamoriello.

He has been the president of the Devils for 16 seasons, and he became the chief executive of the Nets two years ago when George Steinbrenner's group took over to form the funky-named YankeeNets umbrella company.

And it's no accident that every team he's associated with has developed into a winner.

"Lou has always been committed to team, professionalism, to commitment," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "And it reflects in the teams he put together."

And no, Bettman isn't surprised at all that Lamoriello managed to bring his winning ways to the NBA.

"You have to remember, he was the athletic director at Providence," Bettman said. "So he's used to dealing with multiple teams."

He also coached the hockey team for 15 seasons at Providence, his alma mater, where he was captain of the hockey and baseball teams as an undergraduate. But the greatest accomplishment during his time at Providence was when his hire, Rick Pitino, coached the basketball team to the Final Four in 1987.

Now, he's about as close as possible to achieving an unprecedented double. None of the seven previous times the same building hosted the NBA and NHL championships resulted in banners for both teams

The Devils won their third championship with their 3-0 victory over the Mighty Ducks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night. And the Nets, down 2-1 in the NBA Finals, are only three victories from winning the Larry O'Brien trophy.

"I think what you do is you have pride in the people that you work with," Lamoriello said of these heady times. "I'm so fortunate just to be surrounded by great people. I believe everything in life is a people business. Sports are about people. That's all you want, is a chance."

Monday night, Lamoriello had his chance to bask in the glory. The Devils won the Cup at home, the arena rocking so much after each goal that the upper concourse swayed. But when it was over, Lamoriello didn't walk onto the ice for the postgame celebrations. He stayed in the hallway beneath the stands, shaking hands with the players as they returned to the dressing room.

"It's not that I wasn't tempted [to go on the ice]," Lamoriello said.

He doesn't crave public attention, but everyone inside the organization must answer to him. He has little tolerance for inadequacy and errors. (I wouldn't want to be the person responsible for the words "New Jeresy Nets" appearing at the bottom of every page in the team's postseason media guide.)

"I don't want to ever apologize for asking a person to give everything he has," Lamoriello said. "I believe that you shouldn't cheat yourself. If I'm condemned or criticized for asking anybody to get the most out of themselves, I'll accept that."

He keeps the written words of Vince Lombardi close at hand in his meticulously organized office, and he readily quotes Red Auerbach.

From Lombardi, he learned to respect the players.

"It's all about feelings and how he cared for them and how he got other players to care for them," Lamoriello said.

Although Lamoriello's tough tactics came as a shock to Net staffers after he began running them, they can't argue with the results for the former Clipperesque team. He has allowed General Manager Rod Thorn to operate unobstructed, and Lamoriello even helped convince Net ownership to make the Stephon Marbury-for-Jason-Kidd trade that turned the franchise around.

Now there are some budding signs of unity with the two franchises.

Net Coach Byron Scott came to an earlier playoff game, and forward Kenyon Martin attended Game 7 Monday.

After winning the Cup, Devil Coach Pat Burns paused before speaking to reporters to tap the Nets' logo outside their locker room.

"Go get 'em, guys," Burns said.

Lamoriello has not been an unmitigated success. Despite the teams' deep playoff runs, which resulted in an extra 13 home games for the Devils and 10 more for the Nets, the combined entity probably will lose money.

And he has not been able to procure a new building to replace the 22-year-old Continental Airlines (nee Brendan Byrne) Arena. A proposal for a new arena in downtown Newark, in which the city would provide at least $200 million, has not been accepted yet and the deal is reaching the do-or-die phase.

Those are all things to deal with once the champagne dries. He was in an unusually happy mood, with the occupants of each room he left behind laughing.

"I think right now I'm trying to enjoy this for a few minutes," Lamoriello said. "There's certain things you can't control."

That doesn't mean Lamoriello will avoid the office today.

"I'll be in there early," he said. "We've got a Nets game coming up the next night."

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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