L.A. riots: Chaos, hope and hoops
Twenty years ago, the Lakers and Clippers were in the playoffs, and the city burned
LOS ANGELES -- As Mike Dunleavy knelt down in front of his team during a timeout in the fourth quarter of a tie game to draw up a play, he noticed his players' attention shift from his dry erase board to the scoreboard above him as the booming voice of the public address announcer was telling the crowd it would not be permitted to drive east or south after the game.
"Do not go east on Manchester. You must go west on Manchester toward the beach, north on Prairie toward Culver City."
Dunleavy finally stood up and looked up at the scoreboard as well. He had become accustomed to distractions during timeouts at the Forum as the Laker Girls performed behind him and celebrities walked to and from their courtside seats, but the reaction he heard from the crowd on April 29, 1992, was unlike anything he had ever heard before.
"Typically I don't see or hear anything during a game when I'm coaching," Dunleavy said. "I'm so focused on what I'm doing, but I got up and asked what was said."
As the announcement was repeated, the reality of what was happening outside the Forum began to sink in.
"When they said, 'Don't go east on Manchester,' I knew what was going on," said former Los Angeles Lakers guard Byron Scott. "The riots had pretty much started."
As he drove to the Forum that Wednesday afternoon, Scott heard about the acquittals of the four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King. The verdicts came down at 3:15 p.m., about four hours before the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers were set to tip off Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, which Portland led 2-0.
The television sets throughout the Forum were tuned to news reports of what was unfolding around Los Angeles after the verdicts were announced and as players and coaches arrived before the game. Most of the footage was of protesters in front of the Los Angeles County Courthouse and Parker Center, which was the headquarters for the LAPD.
"The guys on the team were in disbelief," Scott said at the time. "There wasn't a lot to be said. It was just a lot of head-shaking. When it was about 6:15, I got dressed and watched tape of the Portland Trail Blazers and tried to dismiss it."
None of the players, coaches or early-arriving fans could have imagined how quickly the unrest around the city would escalate and spread prior to tipoff. The turning point and seminal image of the riots occurred while fans were filing into the Forum and players were already in layup lines on the court.
Fewer than four miles away, Reginald Denny, who had loaded his red 18-wheeler with 27 tons of sand, was driving to a plant nearby the Forum in Inglewood. After entering the intersection of Florence and Normandie around 6:46 p.m., he was stopped by rioters, pulled out of his truck and brutally beaten. The jarring video of Denny's beating, which was shown live on national television and became almost as infamous as the home video of King's beating, wasn't seen by many at the Forum, as most of the televisions had already been switched to the arena feed of shootaround.
One of the few in the building who saw Denny's beating and was monitoring news reports was Claire Rothman, the general manager and vice president of the Forum at the time. With tipoff in about 30 minutes, it was clearly too late to cancel the game. The concern shifted to getting everyone home safely and fielding all the calls coming into the Forum from concerned family members of fans who were already there and unaware of what was unfolding less than 10 minutes away from the arena.
"You have to remember, this was before everyone had cellphones, so these fans are at the game, about three miles from the riots. Their families are at home watching this on television, and it was terribly frightening," Rothman said. "We received over 1,000 calls that night, and if they knew the location of the person with the seats at the game, we went down and got those people and told them they should call home. We would just say your mother or father or whoever called, they're OK, but you should call home."
Many fans were able to call home from the Forum offices while others used pay phones in the arena. There were several patches of empty seats at the Forum by halftime, and the usual sell-out crowd of 17,505 was far from capacity by the end of a playoff game that went into overtime. In the extra period the lead changed hands eight times, including on seven straight possessions, before the Lakers finally pulled out the win, 121-119, to extend the series.
During the game, Jerry West, who was the Lakers general manager at the time, was in constant communication with the Inglewood Police Department. He was just as worried about the safety of everyone in attendance as he was the outcome of the game as he heard updated reports of the unrest nearby.
"It was frankly one of the most awkward moments of my life," West said. "It was scary. It really was pretty scary. It was not only a scary time for everyone there, but I don't think unless you had been there you can fully comprehend the importance and severity of it all. It wasn't a pleasant time for the people in the city of Los Angeles. That night we were concerned about the safety of our fans and players because everyone was so angry."
Despite the win, the emotions of the Lakers players in the locker room were somewhat subdued as the reports of the riots were relayed to them. As fans headed for the exits quicker than usual, Lakers players were once again reminded of the safest routes to take home. The seriousness of the situation hit many Lakers players as they walked out of the Forum tunnel to their cars and found a deserted parking lot that would normally be filled with fans and autograph seekers after the game.
"It was pretty much a ghost town heading to my car, which was pretty alarming because that had never happened before," Lakers forward A.C. Green said. "When I finally got in my car, I wasn't more than a half a block away before I saw emergency lights and drove a few more blocks and actually heard gunfire. That's when I put the windows up, turned the radio off and tried to get out of there and off the streets as fast as I could. I didn't know what would happen next."
Olden Polynice can still picture the line of tanks and the soldiers positioned behind sandbags around the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
The night before the verdicts were announced, the Los Angeles Clippers had beaten the Utah Jazz 98-88 at the Sports Arena for their first playoff win since 1976, when they were still the Buffalo Braves. It was the franchise's first playoff appearance since leaving Buffalo. Now, much like the Lakers, the Clippers didn't know where or when their next playoff game would be.
"It looked like a third-world country," Polynice said. "It was absurd. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."Larry Brown, the Clippers' coach at the time, decided to pick up his girlfriend (now wife), Shelley, leave Los Angeles and spend the night in Malibu until the team figured out how it would proceed.
We started driving out and we turned and looked back at the city when we got on the highway, and all you could see was smoke. It was crazy.” -- Larry Brown, Clippers coach in 1992
"A normal 30-minute drive took about four hours," Brown said. "We were in traffic listening to what was going on, and it was surreal. We started driving out; we turned and looked back at the city when we got on the highway and all you could see was smoke. It was crazy. I was trying to make contact with the players and let them know I didn't know what was going on. I was waiting to hear what would happen."
While the riots continued to rage throughout Los Angeles on Thursday and Friday, Lakers and Clippers executives scrambled to figure out alternate destinations for their respective playoff games, while also working with the league on dates.
"We had a lot of conversations with the league office at that time," West said. "We wanted to do something in the city and for the city, but the turmoil that was going on there -- which you could see on TV -- made it impossible. It would have been grossly unfair to jeopardize the safety of our fans and the safety of our players while the riots were going on. So our conversations with the league indicated Las Vegas would be the most viable place to go."
As much as the Lakers wanted to keep the game in Southern California, they quickly agreed that the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV, where they held annual preseason games, would be safest place for the game to be held.There were several suggestions on where to move Game 4 the Clippers-Jazz series, including one by Utah's then-general manager Tim Howells to move the game to Salt Lake City if no suitable venue could be found in a timely fashion. "I'd rather play it in a studio," Brown said at the time.
The Clippers came as close as possible to playing it in a studio by settling on the Anaheim Convention Center, which seats 7,400 and hadn't hosted a professional basketball game since the Anaheim Amigos of the of the ABA moved to Los Angeles in 1968.
"Our organization was vehemently opposed to moving the game out of the state and giving up home court in a playoff game," said Carl Lahr, who was then the vice president of sales for the Clippers. "I don't think anybody knew what to do those first 24 and 48 hours. The league kept pushing us to make a decision, and Anaheim seemed like the best option."
After the decision was made to move the game to Anaheim, the Sports Arena staff loaded U-Hauls with the Clippers' court, baskets and benches and attempted to make it feel as much like a home game as possible. Clippers equipment manager Pete Serrano did his best to make a nondescript meeting room at the convention center feel like a home locker room. He had loaded the Clippers' uniforms and equipment into his van during the riots and kept them at his home until further notice.
"When I was driving into downtown L.A. to get the equipment, I was the only car on the freeway with smoke and fire everywhere, and the one song I remember hearing was Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On,' " Serrano said. "Whenever I hear that song today, my mind flashes right back to that time."
As the teams and the league sorted out when and where the next games would be played, some players grew restless, not only with the wait but with the unrest in the city as the importance of basketball games in the midst of what was taking place around them seemed insignificant.
"If we win, great, let's go to Portland," Scott said at the time. "If we lose, then we have to go back to L.A. and live through this hell."
The hell that engulfed Los Angeles for the previous four days had all but subsided by Sunday afternoon. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lifted the dawn-to-dusk curfew, and many who had been fearful of leaving their homes since Wednesday night finally were able to enjoy a sun-kissed spring day in the city.
With the Lakers opting to play their playoff game in Las Vegas, the Clippers' game against the Jazz was the first sporting event held in Southern California after the riots. It was a fact that wasn't lost on the Clippers players before the game as they sat in folding chairs in their makeshift locker room inside the Anaheim Convention Center.
We knew we were playing for more than that game. We were trying to help the city recover and heal.” -- Olden Polynice, former Clipper
"Thank God for basketball," Brown said. "This was a way of getting things back to normal, because by us playing it seemed like it helped get things back to normal, even though you realize what had just happened and how difficult it must have been for the people directly involved. The fact that we had that outlet and that opportunity to play and help everyone move forward was a good thing."
Said Polynice: "We knew we were playing for more than that game. We were trying to help the city recover and heal."
Of the 11,400 tickets sold for the original Game 4 in Los Angeles, an estimated 6,950 were used in Anaheim, with another 200 buying walk-up tickets. Convention officials had set up three big-screen televisions and 2,300 chairs in an adjacent hall to accommodate an overflow crowd, but they weren't needed. The fans who did show up, however, witnessed perhaps the biggest victory in franchise history as the Clippers defeated the Jazz 115-107. Danny Manning scored 33 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Billy Crystal, who sat courtside, congratulated the team after the game. The Clippers not only pushed the series to the limit: They helped begin the healing process for a city that didn't have much to cheer about.
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While the Clippers enjoyed a home-court advantage in their game, the same could not be said for the Lakers, more than 250 miles away in Las Vegas. Unlike the Clippers, the Lakers were unable to transport their home court and benches, and many of their fans didn't make the trip. The game not only had the look and feel of a preseason game -- that's exactly how the Lakers played as Portland easily eliminated them, 102-76.
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It was the ending of a surreal season. The Lakers started the season in Paris, endured the shocking retirement of Magic Johnson due to HIV and ended with a playoff loss in Las Vegas during the L.A. riots.
"It was a year of turbulence," Green said. "It was a test of nerves, a test of character and a test of faith. Anything that could have been shaken was shaken that year. From the start to the end, you really had to expect the unexpected. It was a challenging year for all of us."
The images are forever etched into Larry Brown's memory, too.
"Looking back on it now, I can't imagine it happening again in our country," Brown said. "I just can't imagine it. If you were a part of it and involved in it, you would never like to see anything like that happen again. Even the thought of it is upsetting."