Just outside the Staples Center in the middle of Nokia Plaza, cluttered between restaurants and tourist traps, sits about 25 tons of sand. I have no idea how it got here nor how many people were used to transport it to L.A. Live. Yet, I'm now staring at the stand, which has morphed into a near-10-foot tall replica of the Stanley Cup, providing a rather simple, though telling message: "It's cup time."
As the sand sculpture alludes to, it is May in Los Angeles, California, which means, as it as it does in many places across America, that the playoffs for both the NBA and the NHL are in full swing. As far as I can tell, though, what's happening here in Tinseltown is unmatched. This, as it has come to be known by many Angelenos, is "Sportsageddon." Over the last four days, the Staples Center, which sits in downtown L.A., hosted a total of six playoff games - Game 3 of the Kings-Phoenix Coyotes series on Thursday night, Game 3 of the Lakers-Oklahoma City Thunder series on Friday night, Game 3 of the Clippers-San Antonio Spurs series and Game 4 of the Lakers-Thunder on Saturday, and lastly, Games 4 of the Kings-Coyotes and Clippers-Spurs on Sunday. That's five playoff games in 72 hours. Not to mention the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California, an annual eight-day cycling race, finished in front of Staples on Sunday morning. Following the race's completion, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took the stage and boastfully declared Los Angeles to be the sports capital of the world. (note: Though, in all seriousness, I don't understand how a city without a pro football team can call itself the world's sports capital).
The Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the Staples Center, is accustomed to events, double-headers and congestion in general. Staples has hosted more than 100 back-to-back games since the building opened in 1999. So it's also fairly commonplace for the facility to have a hectic schedule. After all, it calls itself the center of the sports universe. This weekend was different, though.
Estimates suggested that more than 250,000 fans passed through the arena and adjacent plaza over the weekend, roughly 60,000 each day. Staples Center Senior Vice President and General Manager Lee Zeidman called this "unprecedented" and the "perfect storm" when speaking with reporters earlier in the week. The weekend marked a distinctly different scene than usual in terms of event scheduling, and especially more different than 20 years ago, where downtown wasn't much more than a Monday-Friday, 9-5 spot following the cue of the morning and evening commutes.
Mind you: This was the first time that all three tenants, the Clippers, the Kings and the Lakers, have been in the playoffs at the same time since the arena opened. No, that's not exactly much of a surprise. Over the 13-year span, the Kings have been to the postseason on just six occasions, the Clippers twice. The Lakers, comparatively, have been every year but once - the infamous 2004-2005 season post-Shaq where they were coached by Rudy Tomjanovich and Kobe felt inclined to hoist nearly 50 shot attempts each game. You don't need me to remind you: this is very much a Lakers town.
So yeah, May 2012 is slightly different. This year conveys a rather different feeling. The script has been flipped. After splitting their weekend set, the Kings remain one game away from their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1993. Meanwhile, the 16-time NBA champs, the Lakers, blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Thunder, Saturday, falling behind 3-1 in the series. And, well, not everything was atypical: the Clippers were swept by the Spurs.
I have been reminded - and often - that downtown L.A. is vibrant. It is the weekend of "Sportsageddon" and I am sitting atop the balcony of the ESPN Zone. The municipality has changed. It runs past business hours. It features bars, restaurants, music. This is what I'm told and this is why I'm here. The goal was explicit: Visit the Staples Center, and as a fan, experience its busiest weekend ever.
To that end, I spent the last four days either at the arena or in the outlying area of Playoff City - drinking, watching the games, drinking, playing air hockey, yelling, smashing thunder sticks against each other, laughing at the fact someone employs Vinny Del Negro, drinking, etc. I told everyone that I knew I wanted to be in the middle of one of the most exciting months in Southern California sports in recent memory. After all, 2011 was a bit of a downer - from the Frank McCourt mess to the end of the Phil Jackson era - so this new leaf has been pretty darn fun to turn over thus far.
My dad: "What are you even planning on doing there?"
Me: "Not entirely sure ... should be exciting, though."
My dad: "Uh, OK."
Of course, there isn't much direction here. Nobody was requiring me to produce anything in particular. My assignment - even my initial pitch - was always a bit hazy. In fact, all I really said was that I wanted to see what the environment was like.
So, on Thursday, I got there around 4 p.m. and gravitated toward the sand sculpture of the Stanley Cup.
"How long does this take?" I asked - primarily curious, as I haven't exactly seen too many of these.
"Been about two days," said Greg Lebone, who's in charge of the project
"You do this often?"
"Yeah, this is a business. We're commercial artists. We're kind of performing artists, too."
"Oh, raging cool."
Of the six games, the Kings were set to drop puck first, but more or less, I was pretty surprised to see the area decked out in black, silver and purple for a Los Angeles hockey team - the sculpture, too. I mean, this is Southern California and we're watching hockey. Now, I should probably understand that these guys already upended both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Western Conference and have a far greater chance of putting on a parade down Figueroa Street than either of the city's two embarrassingly, underachieving basketball squads. Still, I was surprised. And to be perfectly fair, I wasn't alone. This run wasn't expected.
"If you've been a Kings fan for decades," says a playoff-bearded Jason Friend, who I've met along Chick Hearn Court, "this is like a wet dream. It's surreal."
Friend, 34, has. He's been a season-ticket holder since 1999. He remembers the '93 Finals, still grumbling about a few calls and missed opportunities. And now, his team is nearly there again. Though, he reminds me they still haven't won anything yet and to keep calm, which, admittedly, is slightly less fun, especially when we're both a few feet from a beer garden.
"The same way the players have that discipline not to take dumb penalties, as a fan, you don't want to get let down," he warns me. "It's sort of like getting too attached to a lover that's cheated on you. You don't want to fall in love too much."
Well, darn. Then, the Kings won Game 3 by a score of 2-1 - went up 3-0 over the Coyotes. We exchanged high fives, grinned and went our separate ways. I guess he was right about Sunday's loss. Oh well. You'd figure 3-1 leads are safe, still.
Now I'm back a day later - Friday - to watch the Lakers, and it's easy to sense the anxiety throughout the place. Earlier in the week, Kobe and Co. blew a seven-point lead with two minutes remaining in Game 2 against the Thunder, and everyone is unmistakably pissed. They trail 2-0 in a series, while it could have easily been tied at one with homecourt advantage shifting west. Everyone is worried. Do the Lakers still have a shot? Can No. 24 still shoulder the load and do so consistently? Can Kevin Durant be stopped?
Some suggest other ideas.
"If they win, it's gonna be because of Artest," proclaims a younger man named Marvell, who's also simultaneously trying to get me to buy his mixtape. I politely decline. Though, I'm sure it's quite good.
Before you know it, the Lakers actually win Game 3, 99-96, and people are understandably euphoric. They smile, celebrate and flood a few nearby lounges for post-game drinks or late-night meals - whatever their preference. A number of "Let's go Lakers" chants break out. But things can change quickly. The Lakers play again Saturday - a rare back-to-back contest thanks in large to the NBA's lockout creating a condensed postseason schedule.
And this is where things take a turn for the worse - Game 4. To rehash, L.A. finds itself up by 13 points with about eight minutes remaining, and slowly and ever so painfully, manages to surrender basket upon basket over the duration of the game. Meanwhile, I'm sitting among dozens of fellow purple-and-gold backers outside Katsuya, a Japanese restaurant across the street from Staples, where everyone is yelling, almost desperately.
"Come on, Kobe"
Then it goes final - Thunder 103, Lakers 100 - and hardly anyone speaks. There were thousands of people packed into the area and yet few dared say much at all. Some took notice.
"Y'all are quit out here tonight," a middle-aged man wearing a Durant jersey reminded everyone. "Y'all are quit out here tonight." Of course, that doesn't last long and a few dozen passersby sporting purple-and-gold apparel begin chanting "F*** The Thunder."
For some reason, the person in charge of the music playlist coincidently begun playing "Closing Time" by Semisonic throughout the plaza. I hope this wasn't intentional.
There is no way around it: As exciting as the weekend was in terms of the frenzy and the sheer number of games, it was equally disappointing. Over the final two days, all three teams lost - and the Clippers happened to do so twice and were eliminated from the postseason as a result. The Lakers might also do likewise on Monday night. So not everyone, as a result, was all that peachy.
I arrived at Staples around midday Saturday. In the interest of full disclose, I've never exactly warmed up much to the Clippers, and thus, was perfectly OK with missing the start of the game, which was a 12:30 tip-off, in favor of stopping by a Subway on my way up Figueroa. Oddly enough, the Clips got off to a fast start, leading by more than 20 points - I was surprised, too.
"Go figure," said one restaurant hostess as I glanced up at the score upon my arrival outside L.A. Live.
Then, just about as soon as I got there, the Spurs went on the good ‘ol 24-0 run to retake the lead. It was over - for the most part. Heck, even team superfan Clipper Darrell, or Darrell Bailey, left during the third quarter, dropping a few expletives through the adjacent plaza on his way out.
I'll stop there. He was soon joined by hordes of other fans emptying the building after a near-disastrous second half. They didn't seem all that happy, either.
At last, I finally went inside the Staples Center on Sunday - for the nightcap of the four-day craze, Game 4 of Clippers-Spurs, sitting a few rows up behind the basket on the north end. And as you can imagine, the Spurs won - despite all the hope and roars from the crowd, referred to ad nauseum by the public address announcer as "Clippers Nation."
"Rise up, Clippers Nation." I swear, they said this at least 100 times. It's unfortunate every fanbase for every sports franchise nowadays needs to be dubbed a "nation."
But the way the weekend went, there wasn't much to stand up or celebrate about. Staples Center teams were 2-4 over the four days, dropping the last four games on Saturday and Sunday and the Kings might be the only ones playing at the facility much longer this season. Yet it was fun to be around L.A. sports for the first time in a while, and heck, I can drink to that.