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BILL PLASCHKE

Kiss Cam moments at Staples Center tell you a lot about L.A.

Far more than just a promotional gimmick at Lakers home games, the Kiss Cam provides a two-minute glimpse into a city's soul.

May 22, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Midway through nearly every Lakers game at Staples Center, in a manner so pure and unscripted we sometimes cry out in wonder, it happens.

It's about twisting, spinning, lunging, stretching, feinting, grabbing, clutching and, ultimately, scoring.

It's about kissing.

Strip me of my fedora and cigar, but I'm puckering up today for what can be the most vibrant, humorous and even compelling part of a Lakers home game.

All praise the Kiss Cam, a promotional gimmick that, when practiced in a darkened Staples Center for an energetic Lakers crowd, becomes a two-minute glimpse into a city's soul.

If you've attended any professional sports event in the past few years, you've probably seen it. During a break in the action, a giant heart appears on the video scoreboard and various pairs of unsuspecting fans appear inside that heart. If you and your partner are shown, you kiss, and the camera moves on.

It's a simple exercise accompanied by a cheesy love song. It's often a testament to romantic awkwardness, and in places such as Dodger Stadium or at Clippers games, it is forgotten as quickly as the next pitch or dribble.

But not with a Lakers crowd. Nobody does Kiss Cam like a Lakers crowd.

Nowhere, it seems, are the couples as animated, or the crowd as involved, or the message about the heart of Los Angeles any more clear. In a night filled with supermen, it is a brief, heartwarming reminder that the Lakers have been built upon the hopes and ideals of those who are real.

In a town where everything is supposedly disposable, no Kiss Cam moment is cheered louder than a smooch between an elderly couple. In a town that supposedly doesn't trumpet family values, the second-loudest cheers occur for the forehead pecks of a parent on a child.

The third-most popular Kiss Cam moment? Hugh Hefner sitting in a luxury suite kissing three or four bunnies. C'mon, this is still Hollywood.

"It's a time for the fans to show who they are," said Lisa Estrada, the Lakers' director of game operations and game entertainment. "It's not about Kobe; it's not about a Laker girl; it's not about a sponsor; it's about them, and they seem to love it."

Working with video producer Ralph Antunez, Estrada oversees the nightly Kiss Cam segments, which can occur at any break in the game. Sitting in a video room at the top of Staples Center, Antunez chooses each couple from feeds provided by the three in-house cameramen. Sitting at the press table, Estrada decides when enough is enough.

If you're going to be nasty sloppy in your kiss, you're gone. If you're going to maul instead of hug, you're gone.

But if you are sweet and shy and a bit unsure, you'll be back, as many as three times in the same segment, folks cheering you out of your shell, the Lakers momentarily transforming hip Hollywood into middle-school prom.

"When it goes well, it's like a drug," Antunez said. "The charm of old people, the heartwarming feel of a parent and child … you see real love, and you see people supporting it."

You also see frustration, fans loudly booing when the cute girl refuses to be kissed even on the cheek by the nerdy guy, or when the loving elderly wife is given only a cursory peck by her husband. Then there is laughter, usually when the scoreboard shows three people at once and they end up jumping over one another to kiss the right partner.

In the end there is usually wild cheering, because there is usually Dustin Hoffman. Sitting several rows behind the scorer's table, Hoffman has inexplicably become the star of this show, giving the old-fashioned segment a vaudeville ending.

He will kiss wife Lisa passionately, or with popcorn coming out of his mouth, or mysteriously behind a program. Recently he topped himself by kissing her before the cameras found him, as if he's always making out in the middle of the game.

The cool thing about Hoffman is the cool thing about Kiss Cam. Not once have the Lakers talked with him about his participation. Not once have they warned him that he was going to be shown. Like everything else on the Kiss Cam, it just happens.

"People are always asking me to be in other promotions, but nobody ever asks me to be in the Kiss Cam, like they know it only works if it's spontaneous," Estrada said.

The spontaneity has been truly lost only once in 11 years, earlier this season, when two actors from the TV sitcom "Modern Family" appeared on Kiss Cam during a game as part of an episode. Yeah, it's gotten that big.

"It's about the real Laker fans, and there's a real charm in that," Estrada said.

Real fans, real moments and real, heartfelt, tearful, forever gratitude to the Lakers for never focusing the Kiss Cam on my spot on the third row of the end-zone press table.

I sit next to T.J. Simers.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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