Lakers I Miss: The Fabulous Forum

Gatinho —  September 5, 2008

“Let there be a new NBA basketball champion ensconced in my fabulous new Fabulous Forum.”

Jack Kent Cooke

A building that in its later years seemed dated and cavernous. The place where all the tired Laker fan stereotypes were born. The same ones that were trotted out once again during this years Finals. Fair weather celebrity fans, those who went to the game to be watched instead of watching. The format of the Forum being unique to arenas of today where one could walk around the “inside track”, while still being able to watch the game.

But those of us who cut our NBA teeth in its confines, have other more positive memories of the column encircled edifice on Manchester Boulevard and Prairie Avenue.

Its story is inextricably entwined with the man whose eccentric vision spawned its existence.

Hey, Jack, why do they call this place Fabulous?”

“…That’s the most stupid question ever to pass through your lips,” Cooke answered. The Forum was packed. Chandeliers hung high over customers ordering drinks from lovely, toga-draped waitresses. A highly paid basketball team cavorted below in its underwear. “What else could they call it?”

When Cooke first owned the Lakers, bought from previous owner Bob Short for in excess of $5 million dollars and paid for in cash, he wanted a hockey team, too.

In order to acquire the expansion NHL franchise that would bring professional hockey to the west coast, Cooke would have to promise to build a new building, and that he did.

“About 2,000 years ago and 6,000 miles east of here.”

Cooke tabbed the architectural firm of Charles Luckman and Associates who had just designed the newly built Madison Square Garden and would later design the LAX Theme Building among other famous American structures. Cooke disliked the preliminary drawings that were presented and asked for something that recalled the architecture of antiquity, a modern day Roman Coliseum.

Cooke would end up spending upwards of $16 million dollars on the land and property combined for Hollywood Park’s new neighbor. It would be Chick that would dub it “Fabulous” and Cooke that would remark that for such a great idea, Hearn would receive “something extra” in his next paycheck. In a vintage Cooke maneuver, Hearn would open the envelope to find a wallet sized photo of the Laker owner.

The Kings would have the honor of playing first on December 30, 1967 with a win over the Philadelphia Flyers. A day later the Lakers would follow suit, christening the new building and the New Year by pounding the San Diego Rockets.

“The most confusing, complex transaction in the history of sports.”

Cooke was getting divorced and his wife was about to be awarded a huge chunk of his $100 million dollar empire. (People’s Court judge Joseph Wapner would preside) Subsequently and for tax reasons, Cooke wanted to trade Jerry Buss the Forum, the Kings, and the Lakers for land holdings instead of cash. Buss would have to tap friend and Clipper owner Donald Sterling for help with funds in a deal that was said to include the lease to The Chrysler Building.

Buss would turn the court side seats that Cooke had famously kicked the press out of to the hottest, and most expensive, ticket in town. With Magic Johnson, who Buss famously insisted the team pick instead of Sidney Moncrief, at the helm the Lakers would dominate the ’80’s and solidify Inglewood as “The City of Champions”.

Like watching the game from the top of a building across the street…

Buss, whose customary seat at the Forum was in the “end zone” underneath the retired numbers, a trick he learned from football scouts so he could see plays develop, was also an innovator. A hybrid owner who placed winning as a priority while still having the business acumen to find new ways to bring in money for the team and the building. He was the first owner to sell the naming rights to a building. In a move that was painful to most fans and begat such silly names as Petco Park, Buss had the Forum renamed The Great Western Forum in a licensing deal that would net $17.8 million dollars.

But the lack of luxury boxes to attract corporate buyers would be the death knell of the Lakers stay. And in 2000 the Lakers would baptize their new building with another championship. Ringed with luxury boxes and having “cheap seats” that were ridiculously high above the action would solidify the perception that the Lakers were a team of the famous, the corporate, and the privileged.

But last year in a move that was applauded by all, the team paid homage to the charm of the Forum with its Lakers only “Lights Out” theatrical flair.

Championships clinched in the Forum:

West and Riley hugging as they ran off the floor in 1972

Cooper battling Dr. J as the Lakers would take the title in 1982

Kareem and Magic hitting big free throws down the stretchin 1987

Isaiah Thomas’ valiant effort in defeat and Big Game James Finals MVP in 1988

Other memorable non-Laker Forum events:

1968: The first Forum concert featured the duo of Tony Bennett and Duke Ellington.

1973: Muhammad Ali defeats Ken Norton in a split decision, avenging a loss that saw Norton break Ali’s jaw.

1984: Venue for the basketball competition of the XXIII Olympiad in which both USA teams won gold.

I was 11 in 1981 when I saw my first game… When was your first time? What are your best memories?

A Laker I Miss… The Fabulous Forum

-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho