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The Lakers Lesson 

Maybe the NFL wouldn't be the worst thing for L.A.

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
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So when was the last time you saw Los Angeles happy?

I mean, happy like it was happy Friday morning, when the big guys, Shaq and his titanic pals, trundled down Figueroa Street, not in sumptuous convertibles like a bunch of mere astronauts, but atop double-decker sightseeing buses.

And the crowd went wild but in a nice way, a contained, friendly way. No one hit anyone, no one set fire -- so far as I can tell -- either to trash cans or to one another’s personal transportation -- as they did two years ago, the last night the team won the trophy here. Of course, that was night and this was day. And of course the Lakers clinched it someplace else, on the hardwood of the East Rutherford Nets. Where cheery mobs have lately been in short supply.

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No, the joy had moved to Figueroa Street. Early on, even the cops looked happy: Lined up in force along the parade route, they wore smiles they had probably not shown the public since Academy Graduation Day. And as I walked out of Dick Riordan‘s Pantry, a Sheriff’s deputy even held the door for me.

So Los Angeles belonged to the Lakers and vice versa. And isn‘t that what great sports teams are supposed to be all about? And great cities? To bring us all together, and to make us feel better than we’d ever feel all alone?

It took the Lakers to remind us of that. After a year of rancid, self-polluting local politics, from the 2001 mayor‘s race to urban fission to a particularly venal City Council redistricting, of which more anon.

At nearly the same moment that L.A. shared its triumph, Anschutz Enter-tainment Group ostentatiously pulled the plug on its latest NFL--Los Angeles flight of fancy. Maybe the parade was blacked out in Denver. I don’t know. But had it not been, Mr. Phil Anschutz might have seen the better part of a million Angelenos trooping downtown to a procession that not only celebrated L.A.‘s championship, but also climaxed yards away from his proposed stadium site.

It didn’t make sense to me, although in truth I am no billionaire. The reason Anschutz‘s people gave was that the Coliseum Commission had finally got its second wind and floated a $1 million promo program to grab its own new team. Anschutz, or rather his viceroy, Timothy J. Leiweke, implied that there would be only one football proposal in L.A. or there would be none at all, and walked off in what can only be described as a huff.

But Coliseum honcho Pat Lynch’s pitch for the big arena has so far offered nothing that the NFL didn‘t turn down in 1999 -- the previous quarter of our near-decadelong game to get pro football back in the Southland proper. Even if there were a Coliseum-loving team owner in prospect, Lynch reportedly needs a $150 million subsidy to make the thing happen in Exposition Park. There seems a shortage of such subsidizers, so far.

Some of us may think, after this month of marvels, that the Lakers are enough for L.A. But others say the big win proved the opposite. For instance, the guy next to me at the Pantry counter before the parade said he thought the three-peat turnout proved L.A. could also support NFL ball. And he said the Coliseum plan was loony. ”Right here downtown is a great place for a stadium. I feel safe bringing my son here, my whole family here. We can wander around like we’re doing today. Back when the Raiders played in the Coliseum, we got out of there as quick as we could.“

It‘s been said, and I’ve said it, that such talk shows bad attitude toward the Coliseum‘s minority community. I didn’t raise that point, however, since my friend happened to be African-American. The Coliseum‘s ultratraditional ivied mass of concrete and stone is a handsome landmark five years older than City Hall. It’s a museum of memories of 20th-century American sports: two Olympics, two great pro football teams; it even gave the fledgling L.A. Dodgers their early California perch.

But just because the old building encompasses so much of L.A.‘s sports past doesn’t mean the future belongs there too. Every passing year makes it less of a place for modern sports. Even its 1999 promoters proposed that it be torn halfway down and completely rebuilt. There goes your history. But however you tweak it, to the NFL, the 80-year-old Coliseum belongs back with the Model T and the T-formation. Its only real advantage is that it‘s already there, and local government happens to own it.

Maybe the recent Anschutz walkaway was an act. After all, Leiweke didn’t slam the door on the way out. Even NFL owners know that you can‘t plant a pro team just anyplace and expect it to flourish into something worthy of the blessed harvest of national network coverage. Maybe Odessa, Texas, can afford a team, but what New Yorker would belly up to the bar to watch it play? L.A. isn’t just the nation‘s prime untapped football venue. It’s a world identity, a global brand name, a cultural steamroller. Of course, no one‘s going to just give the city a football team. It’s never easy making something like this happen; these things cost money, and you can always expect under-the-table dealing. It‘s fitting and proper and prudent for both the politicians and the media to wonder whether all the finagling and flummery is worth it, just for another pro team, of which we’ve already got at least a few. And to those of us who remember what Al Davis put the city through 20 years ago, all for the sake of a long moment‘s lease on the Raiders, the NFL may never be worth the cost.

That’s the sense of it. But as we all saw Friday, you can‘t always put a price tag on what such a team might come to mean to Los Angeles. Whatever that is, it can even make a cop smile.

Unjust desserts

After 15 years of generally distinguished service as 6th District councilwoman, Ruth Galanter deserved better. But she didn’t get it. Her colleagues, not without a good dollop of saccharine hypocrisy, last week catapulted her district from the Westside into the heart of the San Fernando Valley. All for the good of people in her district past and future. Even after all of the constituents in both areas who were present spoke against the proposal.

So for the next eight or nine months, Galanter and staff will have to learn an entire raft of new communities, streets and constituents. And by the time they can reasonably be expected to have done that, they‘ll very likely be out of their jobs after next March’s election. This has never before happened to a living Los Angeles council member.

But its accomplishment suggests something that no one thought to predict about term limits when they were passed 10 years ago, supposedly to protect us from professional career politicians. Instead of a bunch of little Cincinnatuses, returning to their plows after a couple brief terms of office, what we got looks more and more like a pool of political piranhas, intent on using their eight-year spans to prepare the ground for election to a higher office. And doing whatever they have to do to reach that goal.

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