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BILL PLASCHKE

Real fans missing at Staples

June 15, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Of all the NBA Finals injuries real and imagined, we've sorely neglected to detail the severe bruising suffered by many Staples Center patrons' hands.

You know, from sitting on them.

As if battling history and hopelessness is not enough, the Lakers will have to beat the Boston Celtics today with one home court tied behind their back.

They will have to keep their season alive in a place that's gone dead.

They will have to wound a giant with plastic Staples.

In two games in these Finals, a Lakers home crowd that once soared like Kobe Bryant has had all the impact of DJ Mbenga.

No, no, no, this is not a rip of Lakers fans, who are among sports' most passionate and loyal.

At the Finals, there's just not enough of them.

"Maybe only 50% of the Finals crowd is Laker fans, and that makes a huge difference," said Geno Apicella, a 22-year season-ticket holder from Burbank.

"When things happen, most people are either afraid to wrinkle their shirts or standing in line at McDonald's."

Or waiting for Justin Timberlake to dance, or Will Smith to kiss, or David Beckham to clap.

"Think about it -- has anyone ever seen David Beckham actually clap?" Apicella said. "Do many of these people even watch the games?"

Judging from the reaction during Thursday night's historic 24-point meltdown, the answer is no.

While the skidding Lakers bounced off guard rails and bumpers, many of the 20,000 witnesses simply rolled up their windows and stared.

Kobe Bryant was shooting free throws down the stretch, yet there were no huge chants of "MVP, MVP, MVP."

A weary team was trying to guard a refreshed team, yet rarely were there cries of "Dee-fense, dee-fense."

That the Lakers lost is certainly not the fault of folks whose $300 entitles them do to whatever they please.

But during a postseason when home-court advantage reached historic levels, it's important to note that Boston has it in shamrocks, and the Lakers only barely.

"Late in Thursday's game, my wife whispered to me that the woman sitting next to her had no idea what was going on," said Michael Balzary, a season-ticket holder better known as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Flea."

When the camera puts him on the giant video board, he never immediately notices, because he is always crazily cheering, which puts him in the Finals minority.

"More people are coming for the big-deal event, and fewer for the basketball," Flea said. "And I notice that when the Lakers get down, people have gotten real quiet."

This never happens in earlier playoff rounds, where Lakers fans are at their howling best, and it shows.

Since Staples Center opened, the Lakers are 43-8 (.843) in those earlier rounds.

But in the Finals, they are 8-3 (.727) at home, including two home losses in their last four Finals games.

If you don't think having a home-court advantage matters, then you haven't been watching this year's NBA playoffs, where home teams are 62-20.

Your building is supposed to be a big deal. Your building is supposed to be your built-in bonus.

The Celtics almost blew a similar 24-point lead in Game 2 at the TD Banknorth Garden, but it was as if their fans wouldn't let them, screaming and supporting them with every final possession.

Granted, there were plenty of Staples Center regulars cheering themselves hoarse on Thursday night.

"But because of the way the sound filters out of the building, if everyone isn't cheering, it's hard to hear anyone," Apicella said.

Apicella, a water-sports equipment businessman who attends about 30 games a year, saw there would be a problem in these Finals even before the first cheer.

"I looked down my row and realized that the only person I recognized was the guy sitting next to me," he said. "These are all new people here, people who came for the one-time thrill."

How do they get tickets?

Some season-ticket holders are transplants whose love for the Lakers is nonetheless surpassed by their love for the big bucks. So they are willing to sell a Finals seat that a lifelong Boston fan would never relinquish.

There are also many season seats owned by businesses, who use these games for their sleek clients instead of their Lakers-jersey-wearing clerks.

You see fewer Lakers jerseys at the Finals. And would it have hurt the Lakers to pass out some of those fan-bonding T-shirts?

When fans new and old looked up and realized the Lakers had lost Thursday, they filed out of the building in a collective funk perhaps never before seen in this town.

"Everyone staring at their shoes, dead silent, a 20,000-person funeral march of zombies," Flea said.

And when they march back into the building today for what could be the Lakers' last game of the season?

"I think people are going to be down, I don't know if they're going to have the gusto to give," Flea said. "But I know that the Lakers need it, and they need it now."

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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