- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- Ernie Vandeweghe is sitting off to the right of the lighted stage. He's three rows back and invisible to the dignitaries seated atop the dais to honor Jerry West before the unveiling of West's statue outside Staples Center on Thursday.
When the names of guests such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor and Jerry Buss are read during the ceremony, fans cheer loudly, causing a momentary pause before the next name is read. The crowd offers only a respectful golf clap when Vandeweghe's name is announced. It's the kind of ovation you would give at a graduation for someone you had never met before.
Vandeweghe, who played six years with the New York Knicks in the early 1950s while going to medical school, was the Lakers' first physician when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960. The 82-year-old is far from a household name to Lakers fans, but he should be.
If it hadn't been for Vandeweghe, Chick Hearn wouldn't have been the Lakers' play-by-play announcer, the Forum probably would have been located somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and the Lakers might never have become Hollywood's team.
Vandeweghe, the father of former NBA player and coach, Kiki, was an orthopedic surgeon at the UCLA Medical School when he first met Bob Short, the owner of the then-Minneapolis Lakers who was in the process of moving the team to Los Angeles. He wanted Vandeweghe to serve as the team doctor because of his experience in the NBA and with sports medicine. Notoriously frugal Short also wanted Vandeweghe to help him understand the Los Angeles market and build the Lakers' brand in the city.
Looking at the success of the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn two years earlier, Vandeweghe told Short he needed to hire a play-by-play man like Vin Scully to connect with the fans. The only person he could think of was Chick Hearn, who was calling USC football and basketball games at the time.
"I felt Chick would have been the perfect voice of the Lakers and when I went around and spoke to the other sports writers and they all said Chick Hearn was the best," Vandeweghe said. "People in the business all respected his abilities, and that's why I picked Chick Hearn. I knew he was the best man for the job."
Short wasn't so sure. He was unwilling to pay Hearn a full-time salary and was content to allow the radio station to pick and pay the announcer. Short and Vandeweghe got into an argument over Hearn's worth, and Vandeweghe ended up paying Hearn himself to call the Lakers' games in the 1961 playoffs. Hearn eventually would be hired on full time in 1962.
Vandeweghe's other goal for the team besides giving it a recognizable voice was giving it a recognizable fan base. He told Short he should allow him to distribute the courtside seats for the Lakers' home games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena so he could attract celebrities to come and see the team play.
Vandeweghe's wife, Colleen Kay Hutchins, who was crowned Miss America in 1952, was also briefly a Broadway actress and helped him spread the word to their friends in the industry.
"They gave me a pile of tickets," Vandeweghe said. "My wife and I knew a lot of people in Hollywood, and I said, if we put seats around the court, I can put the stars of Hollywood in them, and they would be Hollywood's team. They loved the sport once they got there. I would go to each studio and give them each four tickets, but I said one of them had to go to a star, and that's how we built it."
It wasn't long before Doris Day, the biggest female box office star of that time, became the team's first celebrity courtside fixture. Soon after, as Jerry West and Baylor led the Lakers to seven Finals appearances (and losses) in nine seasons, the likes of Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon became courtside regulars, as well.
The Forum, the arena were the Lakers truly became Hollywood's team and the epicenter of California cool, was almost built in the San Fernando Valley, a sprawling suburb north of Los Angeles most wouldn't, couldn't consider cool at all. In 1965, Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke bought the Lakers from Short for $5 million and soon after made plans to build his own arena after the Sports Arena stood in his way of purchasing an expansion NHL franchise, which would later become the Kings in 1967.
"He wanted to put the Forum in the Valley, and I said no," Vandeweghe said. "He wanted to put it on one of the golf courses in the San Fernando Valley, and I told him you can't do that. I spent a lot of time with Jack Kent Cooke, and I told him you need space and I knew the people at Hollywood Park and they had all this parking. Inglewood was the perfect location for the Forum."
As much as Short valued Vandeweghe's opinion, Cooke valued it even more after purchasing the team. Both were from Canada, and they developed a friendship that extended beyond the basketball court. Vandeweghe's affinity for Inglewood also extended beyond its proximity to the airport and its ample parking next to Hollywood Park. He worked down the street and knew the area well after spending 11 hours a day working with his pediatric practice at the Prairie Avenue Medical Group.
"The Fabulous Forum," as Cooke would nickname it, opened in 1967 on the corner of Prairie and Manchester for $16 million and became the new home of the Lakers and the Kings.
As nice as the arena was, however, it wasn't until Jerry Buss, a chemist turned real estate magnate, bought the Forum, Lakers and Kings (as well as a 13,000-acre Kern County ranch) in 1979 from Kent Cooke for $67.5 million -- at the time, the largest transaction in sports history -- that the Forum became as synonymous with movie stars as the Hollywood sign.
Josh Rosenfeld has been a sports writer for the Newark Star-Ledger for the past 11 years. He spends much of his time these days at high school basketball games in New Jersey as the paper's high school basketball expert. It doesn't take him long, however, to drift back to another time and place when he is asked about his days with the Lakers.
Rosenfeld was the Lakers' public relations director from 1982 to 1989 after spending the previous two years as a sports writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
Although Hollywood's relationship with the Lakers was born in the early 1960s, it blossomed into a full-fledged marriage that continues to this day in the early 1980s when Magic, Kareem, Pat Riley, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis helped usher in the "Showtime" era. The Lakers suddenly became intertwined with Hollywood celebrities who would flock to the Forum to see them play, and no national Lakers broadcast was complete without at least one segment going over the courtside celebrities.
"Any time CBS did a game at the Forum, they wanted a celebrity list and wanted to know where they were sitting," Rosenfeld said. "Our deal with them was we'll give you the list and the seat locations as long as you shoot from a distance and don't go up to them and put a camera in their face. This was a directive that came from Dr. Buss not to bother the celebrities. The feeling was they were here as paying customers to watch the game not to do media interviews or be hassled."
By the time Buss bought the team, nearly all the fans at the Forum, even the celebrities, were "paying customers." The days of Vandeweghe walking to different studio lots with a pile of tickets and asking celebrities to come out to watch the Lakers were long gone.
"One of the biggest differences between the Forum and Madison Square Garden, at least while I was working there, the celebrities at the Fourm were paying for those courtside seats," said Rosenfeld, who was the PR director for the New York Knicks from 1995 to '96. "At Madison Square Garden, they comped celebrities. They had a person that would call and reach out to celebrities to come to games, and they would give them courtside seats. At the Forum, the only person I know of who was comped was John McEnroe, and that was in exchange for playing some exhibitions at the Forum."
Jack Nicholson has paid for his Lakers season tickets since 1973, never wanting to feel obligated to do anything for the team outside of sitting in his courtside seat near the visitors bench and cheering for the Lakers.
"That was one of the first things that struck me about the Lakers was the support from the celebrities," Magic Johnson said. "Jack Nicholson, the Jacksons, Dyan Cannon; I remember Walter Matthau used to sit down there. All these great celebrities used to come to the Forum and made it great for guys like myself to be able to see them and be able to perform in front of them."
The Lakers were so popular at the height of the Showtime era that some celebrities couldn't even buy tickets to games they wanted to go to when they contacted the team.
"I remember before a Celtics game in 1987, I got ticket requests from Ted Danson and Michael J. Fox," Rosenfeld said."This is back when they were superstars. I went to Dr. Buss to see if we could get them some tickets, and I remember his question back to me was, 'How many other games have they requested tickets for?' The fact that they just wanted to come at the end of the season to watch the Lakers play the Celtics, we weren't able to get them tickets."
When Jack Kent Cooke built the Forum Club, a restaurant and lounge inside the Forum, his idea was to give the arena a family-friendly locale where fans could grab dinner before or after a game. When Buss purchased the Lakers, he transformed the Forum Club into the hottest nightclub in Los Angeles. The image of limousines pulling up to the VIP canopy entrance of the Forum Club often was juxtaposed with Rolls-Royces driving down Rodeo Drive to highlight the decadence of Hollywood in the 1980s.
"That was the only real VIP club at an arena at the time," Rosenfeld said. "I would get just as many requests for passes to the Forum Club than I would get for tickets to the game. Especially after the game it was a big deal. To be able to get dinner at the Forum Club was a really big deal. It was a private club that only certain season-ticket holders were able to purchase memberships to. It was as hot a commodity as tickets."
Buss would normally have a private dinner inside the Forum Club with his guests before making his way to his "box," which was basically a partitioned-off area of about 30 seats, high above the baseline underneath the American flag at the Forum next to the USC band.
Lon Rosen, who was the team's director of promotions in 1981 before becoming Magic Johnson's agent, remembers sitting in Buss' box many times but can't remember much of what was said, thanks to its location.
"When you sat up there with him, you couldn't hear a doggone thing because the band was right next to you," Rosen said. "But he would always have celebrities sit with him up there. I remember seeing Don Johnson and Lee Majors and whoever else was hot at the time. If they didn't have a courtside seat, they would want to sit with Jerry."
Sometimes Buss' celebrity guests in the box would roam around by the court and grab an empty seat if it was available -- as Rosenfeld found out one time.
"Muhammad Ali was a guest of Dr. Buss at a game and sat up in the box and came down in the second half and ended up sitting in my seat on press row," Rosenfeld said. "I said to him, 'Champ, you're in my seat, but it's OK; the one thing I ask is, if the phone rings, could you answer it?' Back then, we would get calls during the game from the sports ticker and wires wanting to know the score of the game, and so Muhammad Ali was picking up the phone and telling these people what the score was."
The interaction of Buss, who rarely gives interviews now, and his celebrity friends with the media was far more affable back then than it is now. Many times after games, the press lounge at the Forum was just as happening as the Forum Club. It was a room where Jack Nicholson might grab a coffee and watch a game on TV before the Lakers tipped off and where Jerry Buss might be playing poker with some Playmates while Chick Hearn mixed drinks after the game.
"The press lounge was the greatest place," said Steve Springer, who covered the Lakers in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Times. "We used to go in there after games, and Buss would be in there with three or four of his [young women] on his arms and Chick would be in there tending bar and players would sometimes come by. We would be in there sometimes until 5 in the morning. It was really the greatest place. It was a great time to cover the team."
As much as the Lakers' performance on the court (five championships in nine years) helped attract celebrities to games, one of Buss' best additions from an entertainment standpoint was forming the Laker Girls soon after he bought the team by bringing together a collection of USC and UCLA students to cheer for the team during games. A huge college basketball and football fan from his days as a USC graduate student, Buss wanted that kind of atmosphere at Lakers games, so two of his first edicts as the owner were to have a live band and to have cheerleaders.
"I'm telling you, the Laker Girls had so much to do with the atmosphere around the team and the Forum at that time," Rosen said. "Jerry is a brilliant marketing guy, and he knew this was entertainment. People loved it. There were cheerleaders in college and in the ABA, but not really in the NBA. He just made it a spectacle. When we started, it was just girls from USC and UCLA, but then he turned it into a big marketing opportunity where you had big tryouts and then you had Paula Abdul and I remember Michael Jackson one time helping to choreograph a routine."
Some of the celebrities would even come to just see the Laker Girls, as Arsenio Hall jokingly said he did in reference to his relationship with Abdul, the most famous Laker Girl of all.
"It was an incredible time," said Hall, who was a courtside fixture in the late 1980s. "I was living in Michigan while Magic was going to college, and when he came here, I got to watch the Magic Show shift. Initially, I went to the Forum to meet Paula Abdul, but I left a Lakers fan. By the way, everything was successful that year for me."
It's been about 12 years since the Lakers last played a meaningful game at the Forum. They moved into the $375 million Staples Center in 1999, but their pull on celebrities has never been greater. Instead of asking the Lakers for a list of celebrities and seat locations, TV outlets must now pick and choose which one of the dozens in attendance will make the cut for airtime.
Nooks and crannies such as the Forum Club and the press lounge have been replaced by bigger, flashier versions such as the Chairman's Room, Lexus Club, Hyde Lounge, and a handful of other sponsored bars and lounges littered throughout the 950,000-square-foot arena for VIPs and celebrities.
Despite all the changes, the one constant is that celebrities are still showing up to watch the Lakers. From Doris watching Jerry at the Sports Arena to Jack watching Magic at the Forum to Leonardo DiCaprio watching Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. The only things changing in this ever-evolving production are the performers and the settings.
"The Forum was like the epicenter of where coolness was in the '80s," Rosen said. "It was just so exciting to be around that whole atmosphere, and it's still that way today at the Staples Center. It's different, but in a lot of ways, things haven't changed."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Pieces, many pieces, came together to make the Lakers much more than basketball.