- Doug Williams
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A few things have changed since the Laker Band started tooting its own horns to accompany one of the NBA’s best and longest-lasting acts.
Those short shorts Magic Johnson used to wear are long gone, the Lakers have moved across town from the Forum to the Staples Center and the team’s big man in the middle has shape-shifted from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal to Andrew Bynum.
Since 1979, however, the Laker Band has played on, with its trumpets, trombones, bass guitar and drums adding to the atmosphere of Lakers home games that also includes the Laker Girls and a regular parade of celebrities.
“When Jerry Buss bought the Lakers, he wanted to have a Hollywood-type of entertainment, a live band and dancing girls” says Rick Cox, a trumpet player with the band since 1981 and its director since 1986.
For 33 years, that band has been keeping the beat for Showtime on the floor below, through 10 NBA championships and the evolution of music from rock, pop, jazz and R&B to hip-hop.
Now situated in Section 308, high above the western basket, the band – wearing Lakers gear and usually composed of a drummer, bass, eight or nine trumpets and six trombones – sorts through its constantly changing list of about 40 songs to play before and after games, at halftime and during timeouts, while its drummer and bass player keep up a constant rhythm for “defense” chants when Lakers opponents have the ball.
The Laker Band is the only one of its kind in the NBA – a dedicated band that plays at every game in its own section. Several teams have drum lines and other teams bring in various musicians. But the Laker Band stands alone.
Lisa Estrada, the Lakers’ director of game operations and entertainment, says it's part of the sideshow to the bigger show on the court.
Without it, a Lakers game wouldn’t be the same.
“People love it,” says Estrada, who’s been with the Lakers for 20 years and manages the entertainment at every game from start to finish. “I think it goes hand in hand with the tradition of the Lakers. At the game, there’s the Laker Band. Without it, it would be kind of like not having the Laker Girls perform. It’s traditional.”
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This isn’t any average band. These guys can play.
When Buss decided he wanted a band, the Lakers contacted USC and recruited current and former members of the Trojans’ marching band. Every member of the current band is from USC including Cox, 50, an assistant band director at the school who first tried out for the Lakers group when he was a freshman at Troy.
Today, several band members are professional musicians. Others have day jobs but relish their chance to play with a talented group in a packed arena.
Cox conducts tryouts each September and makes it a goal to keep the group’s level of musicianship high. After all, the band is miked, and the music reverberates throughout Staples Center. It better be good.
Often, says Cox, fans stop by to praise them, and so do some professional musicians.
Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers who has season tickets, has checked in.
“He’s come up a couple of times and asked to play with us,” says Cox. “He’s a funny guy. And a good trumpet player, too. He’s an incredible bass player.”
In the days when the band was closer to the court at the Forum, there would be more interaction with the players. Cox says James Worthy used to like talking to the musicians, and Abdul-Jabbar, who loved jazz, suggested a couple of jazz standards to play.
Nobody gets rich playing in the band, but the money hardly matters. The horn players get $10 per game, and the drummer and bassist more, because they have more equipment to haul up to their perch. Each member also gets an extra ticket to share with friends and family, which can be like gold in Lakers-mad L.A.
For Steve Herrera, who owns a bike shop in La Mirada and has been playing bass for the band since Staples Center opened in 1999, it actually costs him money to play, because he has to find help to cover his shifts, plus gas. But to Herrera, he’ll keep playing as long as he’s wanted.
“It’s really a huge blessing,” says Herrera. “If you’re a musician and you love to play bass – I’m a lifelong bassist – and you are a Laker fan – I’ve been a Laker fan since I was a kid – and you like live events, it’s like the best of all worlds. To do something you like while watching something you like … I love it.”
Plus, that extra ticket allows him to spread the joy.
“I can use that ticket throughout the year to send not only friends and family but, nicer for me, is to send people who would never be able to go to a Laker game any other way,” he says. “I sent the guy working at a drive-up window at McDonald’s who didn’t know me from Eve. I’ve sent car-wash people, burger-stand people. … I’ll send them to a Laker game, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s awesome.’ So that’s really a great side perk to the whole deal for me."
• • •
The band’s first song, about four minutes before every game, is the “Rocky” theme. If there’s time, it will slip in another upbeat “rock chart” tune. It breaks in with another song at the first or second timeout in the first quarter. At halftime, the band plays eight to 10 minutes of “multiple chart” hits, going back-to-back-to-back, with little dead air. When the game is over, the group will play two pieces, always ending with “Just a Gigolo,” a favorite Buss tune.
The band keeps up its “defense” rhythm, too, and it used to play the “charge” call. That had to stop when a lawsuit was filed in a dispute over the rights to the tune.
Cox, who sets up the playlist, says the “Rocky” theme may the fans’ favorite, but he’s constantly changing the list, adding contemporary music to old standards. Among the songs on the current lineup: “Deliver Me” from Robert Randolph & the Family Band, “Brooklyn” from the Dirty Dozen Brass Brand, “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry and Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t All Right.”
“I change it up,” says Cox.
Along with playing at games, the band has appeared in Lakers championship parades, riding aboard a fire engine, and also played when Buss was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Herrera is convinced the band helps weave an interactive experience that connects the whole scene, the players and fans, through music.
“We add a live dimension,” he says. “With live music, people can relate to that. It’s kind of a nice link between the superhuman feats they’re seeing on the court and this regular real, live kind of jazz music that they’re hearing us play.”
In 31 years, Cox has experienced the great Lakers-Celtics battles in the 1980s, the Shaq and Kobe tandem and now a team that still ranks among the NBA’s elite.
“It’s been awesome,” he says. “Like having season tickets.”
He knows the band isn’t The Show, but just one component of it. Only once has it strayed a bit and had to tone things down.
He laughs, as he recalls a former bassist who eventually had to leave because he was “out of control.”
“He would play all the time, where I’d get a call from the NBA saying ‘This needs to be stopped,’” says Cox. “It was hard to stop the guy. … He was a great bass player and a great fan and everything, but he was just, he would be doing stuff, like ‘nanny, nanny, nanny’ when they [opponents] were shooting a free throw.”
The NBA, he said, let him know it better stop, and it did.
Not a bad record, though, all things considered, for the Laker Band:
Thirty-three years, close to 3,000 games and just one sour note.