Lakers Beat: Team Dinner

Around 7:30 on Friday night, the crew at the EZ Lube on Highland and Melrose lined up and started cheering. Three of them pulled out cameras and started taking shots like paparazzi. A fleet of SUVs filled with very tall men had pulled up across the street at Osteria Mozza to have a dinner in the private dining room. Somehow word had leaked out. “My guys were very excited,” said EZ Lube’s manager.

Celebrity sightings at Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza occur almost daily and rarely cause a stir. But this was different. The Lakers were having a team dinner.

“Luke Walton called me and said the team wanted to get together and watch the Jazz-Rockets game,” said John Black, vice president of public relations for the Lakers, who swept the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs and wanted to get a good look at their next opponents, either the Utah Jazz or the Houston Rockets. Black, who claims to eat out 350 times a year and is an expert on the Los Angeles restaurant scene, recommended Mozza’s private dining room and made sure a huge flat-screen TV would be available for the team.

Around 8 o’clock, I arrived at the restaurant with Max, 15, a Phoenix Suns follower, and Oliver, 14, a die-hard Lakers fan, who can give you stats on the whole team. Outside, near the parking valet, a kid about 3 feet tall and wearing a Pau Gasol jersey was holding a basketball signed by many of the Lakers. We were at the right place.

Oliver’s mother is Mozza co-owner Nancy Silverton, so I took Max and Oliver into the private dining room through the kitchen entrance — and there they were, your Los Angeles Lakers. The game was on the screen and you could have heard a linguini drop, it was so quiet. Everyone was studying the game; nobody was talking. Except one guy. Kobe Bryant’s security guard. He came up and told me I had to get out. “The Lakers are watching the game.” The guy was about 5 feet 9 — no taller than I am — but with arms like the trunk of the General Grant Christmas tree at Kings Canyon National Park. He wasn’t mean, but he was firm. I started to explain Oliver’s connection to the restaurant, but Max and Oliver gave me a look that said, “Let’s just go.” The Lakers, I explained to the disappointed kids back in the main dining room, were working. Studying.

About five minutes later, the security guy came out and said, “When the game is over, the team would be glad to meet the boys.”

I took the guys to a friend’s house to watch the game, but with the Jazz up by something like 20 points we headed again to Mozza and found ourselves back in the same private dining room we’d been kicked out of an hour before. This time, the bodyguard was a sweetheart and got all of the Lakers, no longer in study mode, to come by and shake Oliver’s and Max’s hands and sign a team picture. Kobe, who got word during dinner that he would likely win this year’s MVP award, was nice. Derek Fisher was nice. But the coolest one was Lamar Odom, who was completely sincere when he was talking to the kids.

When they finished their dinner, the Lakers, who had entered the restaurant silently through a side entrance, left publicly amid the chaos of a packed dining room. The restaurant went still. People couldn’t take their eyes off the team as the players made their exit.

In case you’re wondering, MVP Kobe paid for dinner, and yes, he left an awesome tip.

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