The Goodyear Blimp hangs over Staples Center like a Phil Jackson thought-bubble, plump full of helium and carrying a goodly jigger of airline fuel for its two six-cylinder engines. Down below, LA Live is lighting up, the biggest bangle of cubic zirconium you ever saw. Obviously, I'll go anywhere for a marginal story.
I love L.A. — especially from a distance. In this case, we're 1,700 feet up in what is possibly sport's most recognized icon. It is also, in my odd quest for weird ways to watch a game, the ultimate nosebleed seat.
Staples could use a little paint, by the way. After 10 years, the red Staples sign has faded. In another six months, it'll look like a breast cancer awareness ribbon. Come on, Leiweke, spring for a couple of buckets of Sears latex. I'll give up a couple of weekends. Towns like ours only get better when everybody pitches in.
Till then, I am riding high at a recent Lakers game, Los Angeles laying out beneath us like a lumpy picnic blanket. Matthew St. John is at the helm, Fabian Ochoa working the camera. We left the blimp base in Carson about 4, followed the helicopter corridors up the 110, ducking under LAX arrival traffic part of the way. Yikes.
Blimps are definitely the blue whales of the airways, cruising speed about 45 mph. When an up-draft pistons the nose upward, St. John twists the wheel at his side to push the snout back down. When he needs to turn, he foot-pedals the rudders.
And there are all sorts of restrictions. For instance, when the Dodgers are playing, the blimp must stay out of the three-mile restricted airspace surrounding Chavez Ravine. Since Staples is 2.5 miles away, that means hovering half a mile from Staples Center's zenith.
And here's the most-surprising thing about the blimp: You give and give and give, and what do you get in return? Nothing. Not a game feed, that's for sure.
No kidding, the two-person crew does not see the game itself. It hovers over the arena for almost five hours, capturing blow-torch sunsets and the rush-hour unpacking of downtown L.A., seeing the top of the treasure chest (Staples) but not the jewels within.
So up here in God's lap, with not much else to do, it's tempting to ponder the state of Los Angeles. Of particular note:
— The city's skyline is moving slowly south, a giant glacier of metal and glass filling the corridor between downtown and USC. If they manage to slip an NFL stadium in here, it could make for a veritable Las Vegas of hoops, hockey and gridiron action. Yes, I'm a visionary.
— The Sports Arena, that aged repository of so many great Clippers memories, sits mostly empty and wart-like on the edge of the Coliseum. Why not level it and turn it into a state-of-the-art tailgaters' park? Or at the very least, put up a parking garage — L.A. could always use another one of those. It's what we have instead of pocket parks.
— The Hollywood sign should be lighted at night, at least for special occasions such as the Oscars or the NBA Finals. It is Hollywood's version of the cross, known 'round the world. You could do it on the cheap. They have these things now — solar panels. I could pick some up when I'm at Sears.
— From what I can tell, the Harbor Freeway north might be permanently petrified. This night, it barely moves. If you're trapped there, call me immediately. I'll send Simers out with sandwiches.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is lighting up (what else is new). By 8 p.m. it is glistening like snow on a very cold night.
Off to the east, a full moon is coming up as if on fire. In our headsets, we can hear the TV director calling out cameras.
"OK, billboards are going over this [blimp] shot," the director says. "Love this shot."
It turns out to be our final postcard of the evening. Minutes later, the camera is off and the Spirit of America is lumbering back toward Carson.
By the way, the way they land the blimp, evidently, is to let out a long rope and have the newest guy in the crew (that's me) shimmy down it till he snags on something – sort of like bottom fishing.
It's a charmingly old school way of landing — or maybe just an amusing initiation/hazing. Whatever it was, everybody seemed to have a good time with it, especially me, a guy who really values adventure.
Me, the blimp anchor, a dangling participle, my pocket change spread from Compton to El Segundo.
If you happen to find my keys, please call.
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