David Beckham's L.A. story worth telling
It's been quite a ride, from the international star's acquisition to Sunday's MLS Cup
LOS ANGELES -- The memo that changed soccer in the United States has been through a lot. In its present state, you can hardly read it. Two layers of Post-it notes cover it in most places. Underneath, no fewer than 20 notes and questions are scrawled in the handwriting of one of America's most powerful sports moguls, the reclusive billionaire behind the Anschutz Entertainment Group, Philip Anschutz.
Tim Leiweke doesn't remember what sparked the idea that prompted the memo. It could've been a chance meeting he had with one of David Beckham's best friends, David Byrne, while he was on business in London on another matter back in 2002. It could've been earlier or later, too.
All Leiweke knows for sure then and now was that MLS needed an international star to elevate its status at home and abroad if it was ever going to be taken seriously in the soccer world and survive long term.
The AEG president has had a lot of big ideas in his career. He is one of the men who got the Staples Center built in downtown Los Angeles and the man who hopes one day to build Farmers Field next door so the NFL can return.
This would be huge.
He typed the memo to Anschutz confidently, knowing his boss would need more than facts and figures to green-light the idea. This wasn't just a big idea; it was bold and risky. Most MLS owners preferred a more cautious approach to growing the league. Grow too big, too fast, and it would become the NASL 2.0.
"He took the memo and wrote 20 little notes on it, then ran out of room and started doing Post-it notes," Leiweke recalled. "Then he did a second layer of Post-its. All of them were questions like: How do you know that? How can we assume this? What if this happens? What if this doesn't work?"
So began a five-year courtship that would change American soccer. Leiweke pursued Beckham slowly at first, developing a friendship first and a business relationship second. In 2004 they dined at Beckham's mansion outside of London. In 2005 they met for a late dinner after a Real Madrid game. Eventually both men realized they wanted the same thing.
"Obviously, playing in Europe for a number of years, I felt I achieved everything I could achieve playing in Europe," Beckham said. "I wanted a new challenge. I always said coming to a different country and coming to a new league that hasn't been around for as many years as the European leagues had was another challenge, and it was. It has been."
It has been five seasons since Beckham was mobbed at LAX by a media horde that was staggering even for this town. There is just one game left in a Los Angeles Galaxy uniform before his contract expires, the MLS Cup final against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
What comes next is anybody's guess. Only Beckham knows what's in his heart and his head.
Are there more worlds for him to conquer? Did he conquer this one? Did he need to?
This town has taken him in, not the other way around. He has found a place here, becoming a star in a town full of them. Life is, in a way, about as normal and regular for Beckham, his wife Victoria and their four children as it can be for one of the most famous athletes in the world.
There's a charm in that. One that Beckham won't be able to shake easily.
Yet the decision is complicated. Beckham, 36, is not a young man anymore. His next big move likely will be the last big leap he can make as a footballer. And besides, it's not entirely clear yet to him or anyone else that he has completed the task he embarked on here.
The more Beckham thinks on it, the more it may begin to look like the cluttered memo Leiweke and Anschutz passed back and forth all those years ago.
There is no easy answer, just another question: What does David Beckham want?
Cobi Jones had a better idea than most people of how this all might go. He's from Los Angeles, raised in Ventura County, about 40 minutes northwest of downtown, and was a collegiate star at UCLA.
He was also one of the brightest American stars during the time when soccer first began to emerge from the dark ages here and claimed its first solid foothold in the sports landscape.
"I'm not a big believer when people say someone is going to 'take over a city,' regardless of whether it's L.A. or New York or whatever. I always think those people tend to assimilate into that lifestyle," Jones said.
"I mean, let's be honest, as big as David and Victoria and the Beckham name was, no one is going to take over L.A. This is the home of every star, the biggest stars in the world not only now but years before and years after."
Still, Jones says he thinks Beckham has done what he set out to do and then some. The Galaxy are worth approximately $100 million. Their games will soon be broadcast by Time Warner Cable, which paid a staggering $55 million over 10 years for the right to broadcast games the MLS once paid networks to air.
The league is healthy and growing wealthier by the year. Regular-season attendance rivals that of the NBA and NHL. There are gleaming new stadiums in Kansas City, Toronto, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Utah.
"I think he wanted to expand the game, be an ambassador. Not just for American soccer, but for the game as a whole," Jones said. "To spread it in the United States, one of the final frontiers in the sport, was an ultimate challenge and goal for him.
"You have to admit, he's done a great job of it because people talk about the game in this country all the time now. The national team is probably the main thing, but I think the game has grown on so many other levels, in no small part because of the attention he's brought."
In the beginning there was only attention. Too much of it for Beckham's taste, but unavoidable because of the occasion.
His introductory news conference was attended by 83 camera crews. More than 600 journalists from around the world were credentialed for his first game against Chelsea in July 2007.
Initially, it was so much, so fast that it started to overshadow Beckham's original intentions for coming here. He became too much of a celebrity and not enough of a famous soccer player. It seemed as though he had come here for the hoopla and not for the game. Or at least that's how the public perceived it.
In reality, though, Beckham's intentions were always there to see. In his actions. In his play. In the way he carried himself around town.
Tim Harris, the Los Angeles Lakers' senior vice president of business operations who acts as something of a concierge for the celebrities who sit courtside at Lakers games, said he's never had to give Beckham any special privileges.
"I think people come to games for a variety of reasons, and I think celebrities come to games for a variety of reasons. Not all of them because they enjoy basketball," Harris said.
"We'll get celebrities, especially when we first moved to Staples Center, who would ask if they could meet Kobe or Shaq at halftime.
"David has never been like that. He's not high-maintenance at all. He doesn't ask for anything special. I think he's really a basketball fan. Most of the times he comes to games, he's truly coming as Dad."
It's a friendship that has remained under the radar because each man valued it more than the publicity it would create.
It was a similar story when the female soccer player Marta debuted for the now-defunct L.A. Sol in 2008. Beckham did an initial photo shoot with her but seemed more intent on picking her brain and meeting her than he did with the publicity.
"It wasn't just for the cameras," said Nick Ammazzalorso, the Sol's public relations director at the time who had previously worked with the Galaxy. "It was, 'She's the best in the world at what she does, I'm one of the best in the world at what I do. It makes sense for us to meet on whatever level we can meet.' He genuinely seemed to want to meet her."
Despite the initial circus that followed him to town, Beckham has been decidedly low key ever since. He speaks to the media after every game but only once during the practice week.
He has been a guest on local radio and television stations only a handful of times.
If anything, he has been underexposed during his time in Los Angeles. And contrary to the initial impression he and his wife made here, that seemed to be the plan all along. Or at least their preference.
"I think there's only so much media you can do," Beckham said. "Because people will enjoy it, but people will also get sick of it very quickly."
Around local paparazzi, Beckham and his wife are known as mellow and laid-back. Despite their lower profile here, there is still interest in their lives from European magazines.
When Beckham first came here in 2007, I met a freelance photographer who goes by the name "Twist" outside their mansion. Twist has shot photos for all the major tabloid magazines here and around the world. US Weekly, People, Star. You name it.
Celebrities fall into two categories for him: those who crave the publicity and those who deal with it. Those who crave it are well-known in the industry. (See: Kardashians et al.) They tip off paparazzi to where they are going and whom they are meeting. They get disappointed when no cameras are waiting for them.
"He's definitely not one of those," Twist said of Beckham. "You either doorstep him or you get a tip that he's somewhere. I caught him going into a Starbucks in Brentwood one day, when he was on his way to practice. I didn't get any shots because he covered his face.
"If you notice, they're not smiling in many of the shots people take of them. They're aware people are taking their picture, but they're not into it."
Twist said that photos of Posh and Becks are particularly hot right now because of their new child, Harper. He heard that a photo of Beckham carrying his daughter sold for nearly $40,000 recently.
"That's the shot everybody wants," he said.
While the Beckhams don't encourage attention from paparazzi, they've learned to live with it. No matter how bad it is in Los Angeles, it's worse back home in England.
"He's very low-key with us," Twist said. "Real mellow. I honestly just think he wants to play soccer."
As much as this was about soccer, it was also about life. The kind of life Beckham wanted for himself, the kind of place he wanted to raise his family.
He is famous here in Los Angeles, but so are a lot of other folks. People are used to celebrity, not awed by it.
It's why he has lived in Los Angeles mostly year-round since coming here, traveling only on business. Where else can one of the most famous soccer players in the world drive his children to school in the morning, stop in at a Chipotle for a burrito or In & Out for a burger without being mobbed?
"We've lived a pretty normal life here," Beckham said. "Living in California is something special and something we've enjoyed in the last five years. There's been times when we've stepped back as a family and looked at how lucky we were.
"Just the other day I was driving my kids to breakfast, 8:30 in the morning, and I stopped at a stop sign and looked to my right and Al Pacino is walking. It was surreal. There's moments like that where it's been amazing."
You get the sense Beckham is awed by the stars he meets but more awed at how easily they walk among the rest of the people here.
He values that and knows it will be hard to give up if he ever leaves.
That may be surprising to people who assumed he and his wife came to "take Los Angeles." All these years later, long after the initial hoopla died down, it seems as though they came here for the same reasons actors and actresses originally settled in Hollywood: to disappear into the hills and walk among other stars.
Life is easier that way. Some would say better.
"One thing I completely get with him," Leiweke said. "He's not trying to make friends with everyone or be the most famous guy in town. He doesn't care about that. He was not here to win a popularity contest. That was not his gig, to be seen everywhere.
"He was here because he likes to push himself. Because he thinks about his legacy, and it's important to him."
So much of that legacy is still unwritten. The result of Sunday's game factors heavily. If the Galaxy win, it will feel like more than a victory in a game. It will feel like the victory of an idea.
"There's an urgency this year. He knows it. We know it," Leiweke said. "Robbie Keane, he knows why we did that. I talked to him before we did that. I asked David to help me before we [signed the former Tottenham star]. He did. He knows the reason we did that is to win the Cup. That was us being that driven and saying, 'This is the final piece of the puzzle.'
"He has a vision here. He knows winning this Cup makes this a phenomenal moment. If he does leave, and we're prepared for that, I think he knows how critical it is to leave on a high note."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.