If you’ve been keeping tabs on Arena Digest, you may have seen the news that Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is negotiating to construct a new arena for the Clippers in Inglewood to open as soon as the 2024-2025 season.
If Ballmer and the City of Inglewood prevail against Madison Square Garden Co.’s lawsuit and plans fall into place, the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers will once again play their home games in separate arenas.
The last time this happened was 1998: The Clippers played at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, built at a cost of $8.5 million and opened in 1959, and the Lakers played at the fabulous Great Western Forum in Inglewood, built by Jack Kent Cooke for $16 million and opened in 1967.
Enter Ed Roski, Jr., and Philip Anschutz, who acquired the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings in 1995 with plans to move the Kings to what they envisioned as a downtown facility in Los Angeles. The plan was presented before Jerry Buss, who had bought the Lakers from Cooke in 1979. Soon, Anschutz and Roski had purchased a 25% stake in the Lakers and Buss was on board, planning to move the Lakers in with the Kings into the coming state-of-the-art arena.
Before the building could ever arrive, there was a major obstacle to clear. Wrote T.J. Simers and David Wharton for the L.A. Times, “Roski and Anschutz tried to persuade L.A. city officials to provide more public money to the project, suggesting that Inglewood might be the better financial choice otherwise. Eventually, the parties to the Los Angeles site reached an agreement, only to see it undone in disputes between lawyers trying to work out the details.”
Frustrated by Los Angeles, the two owners took their cause to the City of Inglewood, home of the Forum, “but,” continued Simers and Wharton, “they were brought back to the bargaining table by John Ferraro, president of the [Los Angeles] city council… Ferraro wrote a series of memos nudging the process forward. He called the parties together and assembled a team of administrators from various city agencies to help with the nuts and bolts of the deal.”
Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke turned in a different direction. He asked Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was working to lobby for a new cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, to step in and promote the arena’s cause with the City Council. “I said we needed to get something like Staples [Center] in downtown Los Angeles,” Mahoney recalled to Daily News reporter Rick Orlov. “I felt that downtown should serve as a cultural and political center…”
The negotiations were fierce, with Anschutz, Roski, Ferraro, and their backers locking horns with councilmembers Rita Walters and Joel Wachs, who refused to give up public money to allow the construction. The battle continued up until October 21, 1997. Walters and Wachs were victorious: the council approved all necessary agreements for the proposed arena on the grounds that Los Angeles not give Anschutz and Roski any city tax money. The arena had to be privately funded. There was outcry on both sides. One anonymous committee member, it was recorded in the Daily News, said of the arena, “What happens if this is a bust?” The general manager of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena, Pat Lynch, declared it the “worst arena deal in the country” for owners Roski and Anschutz. But now, at least, there was a deal in place.
On March 26th, 1998, a special groundbreaking ceremony was held on site. It was hosted by Al Michaels and featuring Anschutz, Roski, Ferraro, Leiweke, Mayor Richard Riordan, members of the Kings and Lakers front offices, and, lastly, Kings star Luc Robitaille and Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal. Donald Sterling later signed on to bring his Clippers to the party, and the number of tenants under the STAPLES Center roof increased to three.
By October 1999, at a cost of $375 million, STAPLES Center was ready to rock: five concourses, an eight-sided video board, and a capacity of 19,000-20,000. The very first event, on October 17th, 1999, was a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert. The Kings arrived on October 20th for their first official home game, a 2-2 tie with the Boston Bruins, thus opening what would prove to be a 39-27-12-4 season, good for second in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference. The Clippers took the hardwood for the first time on November 2nd, falling to Seattle, 104-92, the first of 67 losses in 82 games. And on November 3rd, the Lakers made their own debut, coasting past Vancouver, 103-88, in the first of 67 regular-season wins. They didn’t stop there. Shaquille O’Neal was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and the Lakers won the NBA Finals in six games over Indiana, bringing a championship to STAPLES Center in the arena’s very first year.
With the passing of two decades, the history and memories have grown rich at STAPLES Center. It has now hosted seven NBA Finals in all, including subsequent Lakers championships in 2001 and 2002, completing a three-peat, followed by back-to-back titles 2009 and 2010; three WNBA championships courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks, captured in 2001, 2002 and 2016; two Kings Stanley Cup championships, achieved in 2012 and 2014; two NHL All-Star Games, in 2002 and 2017; and three NBA All-Star Games, in 2004, 2011 and 2018. It saw Lisa Leslie slam home the first dunk in WNBA history in 2002 and Kobe Bryant pour home 81 points vs. the Raptors in 2006.
STAPLES Center has also hosted a Democratic National Convention (2000); a U.S. Figure Skating Championship (2002); an NHL Draft (2010); three NCAA Tournament Regional Finals (2013, 2015, and 2018); the Pac-10/Pac-12 NCAA Post-Season Conference Tournament (2002-2012); 11 Summer X-Games (2003-2013); Lennox Lewis’s final bout, vs. Vitali Klitschko for the WBC and IBO Heavyweight Championships (2003); WrestleMania 21 (2005); Sugar Shane Mosley’s WBA (Super) Welterweight Championship victory over Antonio Margarito (2009); Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service (2009); Nipsey Hussle’s Memorial Service (2019); and every Grammy Award ceremony since 2000, with the exception of 2003 and 2018. From its near collapse at the negotiating table, STAPLES Center has thus become exactly what Anschutz and Roski intended it to be: a true west coast entertainment staple.
Two decades after its opening, the STAPLES Center has also heralded a renaissance of development for the surrounding community. On October 7th, 2019, Jim Alexander wrote in the Daily News that STAPLES Center’s location in Los Angeles’s South Park neighborhood “has become the sort of civic gathering place that didn’t previously exist downtown, which is where a great city should have its communal space.” What happens if it were a bust? No need to worry about that now – there’s no bust to be seen.
But what is the future of STAPLES Center? Ballmer’s Clippers make no secret of their intention to leave, and the Lakers, now owned by Jeanie Buss, the late Jerry’s daughter, shockingly explored their own exit plan, revealed earlier this year by the Los Angeles Times. Irving Azoff, representing Madison Square Garden Co., had emailed with Buss and advisor Linda Rambis about repurposing the Forum and bringing the Lakers back to Inglewood. Responded Rambis, “That’s an incredible dream count me in!”
But, said Madison Square Garden Co. in an official statement, “ultimately nothing came of it.” The Clippers may well depart the city, but the Lakers will be sticking around some years yet, looking to bring more glory to a downtown arena that has celebrated its fair share already. And in capital letters no less.
Image courtesy STAPLES Center.
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