Buzzing crowds to empty stadiums

The Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
The Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
They say everything is bigger and better in the United States. But is it really? Otago 
Daily Times sports reporter Jeff Cheshire writes of his experience at a Los Angeles Lakers game last year. The game was played before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and live sport around the world went behind closed doors.


You can feel the buzz as the train empties at Pico Station.

A purple and yellow-clad crowd crosses the street, passing about 20 hotdog trollies in one block as the Staples Center rises ahead.

There are plenty of street stalls selling Kobe Bryant tribute T-shirts.

Many people in the crowd have his name emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys — although it’s not as popular as the current star, LeBron James.

LA Live — the open area surrounded by bars and restaurants across from the arena — is already lit up and packed with fans.

They slowly filter past the statues of Lakers greats — Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor, among others — towards the doors.

The crowd passes through security at the door, emptying their pockets and walking through the metal detectors — getting wanded if something sets them off.

From there people move on to have their tickets scanned and pick up the free giveaway — tonight’s is a Lakers bag.

The atmosphere becomes increasingly palpable as people progress to the packed concourse.

The Staples Center in full buzz before the Los Angeles Lakers take the court.
The Staples Center in full buzz before the Los Angeles Lakers take the court.

It is similar to the anticipation of an All Blacks test.

But this is not a one-off match.

It is one of 41 regular season home games this season — and one of 82 home games the arena will host, when counting the Clippers’ games, too.

The concourse is flash.

Food and drink outlets charging exorbitant prices are littered around the place.

Popcorn is a popular choice, as are nachos and hotdogs — American style.

Soft drinks, or sodas, seem far more prevalent than the alcoholic drinks you might see at a rugby match.

And everyone is wearing Lakers gear.

The team store seems to be making a killing, again despite the exorbitant prices.

Perhaps it is not a surprise.

This is a big city — 18.7million people live in the Greater Los Angeles area — and it is not short of wealthy people.

It is hard not to think of that as fans move through the gates to the good seats, while I take the escalator to the top level.

My ticket was worth $NZ325, and it was the cheapest one I could find.

Yet they are still selling out every night at the moment.

Inside the arena it is like a theatre.

The seats are padded and comfortable, there is plenty of leg room and the view is good.

On court the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis are warming up, while down the other end is tonight’s opponent — Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks.

Genuine stars playing in a game you know is being watched not only in the United States, but all around the world.

There are other stars there too, the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Michael B Jordan take their courtside seats.

It becomes clear straight away that the Lakers want it to be a show on and off the court.

The starting line-up introductions are a production and as the game tips off, the crowd is fully into it.

There is always something happening in every break, be it a contest or an interview with a star or some kind of pre-recorded video with the players on the jumbo-tron.

The Laker band is in full force too — the background music prompts the defence chants.

It keeps the atmosphere buzzing the whole game, something you just do not get in New Zealand.

You do not have people coming and going either — if you leave your seat you have to wait until the next break in play before they will let you back in.

The game itself is top quality.

The athleticism is so much more impressive in person, while the pace seems that much faster and the passing that much better.

It is hard not to marvel at how people that big can move that well.

They make the court look small and the game look easy.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (with ball) posts up against Milwaukee Bucks forward...
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (with ball) posts up against Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo during their match at the Staples Center last year.

It turns into a thriller.

The Bucks lead for most of the first half, before James takes over in the second.

At one point in the third quarter he catches in the mid-post, Antetokounmpo guarding him and the rest of the players cleared out.

The crowd’s noise lifts to its highest of the night and James takes one dribble, blows past his man and finishes on the opposite side.

It is a statement play and chants of "MVP" ring out from the crowd whenever he shoots free throws from that point on.

He closes out the game and it is a happy crowd that slowly exits back down the escalators, some having left early to beat the traffic.

It is close to 10.30pm by the time it finishes.

The hotdog vendors are still in full force, and again seem to be doing pretty well. There are still Bryant T-shirts for sale everywhere you look.

LA Live seems to be filling up, for those that want to stay late.

It will be an hour before the train arrives back in Santa Monica and at least another 20 minutes until my Uber gets me back to my room.

That is fine for me, but it makes you wonder about the people that do this on regular weeknights and have to be up for work the next morning.

Los Angeles is like that, though.

It is so spread out that it takes ages to get anywhere — I left for a 7.30pm tip-off at 4.30pm,
allowing time for travel and a quick meal at a food court.

That certainly makes you appreciate Forsyth Barr Stadium and the ease of getting around Dunedin.

In terms of the event, though, the Americans do know how to put on a show.

It was all pretty good.

But at the moment it is an experience no-one is having. As Covid-19 continues to spread through the US, the Lakers now play in empty arenas.

That is certainly a shame.

It is just another one of those things that makes you appreciate the freedom New Zealand has, as much of the world continues to battle the pandemic.

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