LOS ANGELES -- When Art Modell took the Cleveland Browns away from their rightful owner, the city of Cleveland, after the 1995 season, the city lost its collective mind. It was such a dramatic, emotionally violent move -- a psychological gut shot, a gaping hole right in the middle of the city's soul -- that the NFL scrambled to get a team back to Cleveland as soon as possible. It turned Modell into the most hated person in Cleveland, surely forever; when he died, a Cleveland man urinated on Modell's grave. The charges were dropped. Cleveland is a town that needs its sports.
Los Angeles, for all the diehards that live here, does not need its sports. The same year the Browns went to Baltimore, both the Rams and the Raiders left town -- Both teams! Two different ones! Leaving at once! -- and the town did a collective yawn. For more than two decades, the city was so indifferent to having the NFL that it refused to lift a rule that any team that wanted to come to Los Angeles would have to commit to playing in (and improving) the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl, non-starters in a landscape of NFL Jerry Worlds. The league left and L.A. was fine. Hell, as someone who lived in Los Angeles in the '90s, let me tell you, it was fantastic. You could roll out of bed at 9 a.m., watch the best first games at 10 a.m. -- because there you didn't have to watch whatever lousy game involving a Los Angeles team was on instead -- then the next best games at 1 p.m., then the "night" game at 4 and have it all over with in time for "The Simpsons." Or I could skip the games entirely and do one of the million other things there are to do in Los Angeles. The sports scene in L.A. can be vibrant and thriving. But it doesn't have to be there. Like New York -- and maybe only like New York -- you can live a full, active life in Los Angeles and conceivably never notice there are any sports going on at all.
This makes the mundane, the grinding, team-in-transition, rebuilding-period teams of Los Angeles difficult to break through. A team that plugs away doesn't work as well in Los Angeles, or at least blends into the tapestry more easily, because there's just so much else to distract attention. There are diehard, devoted fans of those teams in Los Angeles, just like there are in every city, but unless there's one breakout star, those teams can't quite break through. The Lakers are a halfway decent team right now; not great, not terrible, just a young team figuring itself out. This has made them virtually invisible in Los Angeles for the moment, even less noticed than when they were horrible but Kobe was having his never-ending goodbye tour. This is a city of stars. If you don't have a star, shoot, you might as well be Cleveland.
But if you have a star -- again, other than maybe New York -- there's no place a star is bigger. This has a darker, different tinge to it in the wake of O.J. Simpson, who was the biggest star this place ever had and was ever going to have, someone who seemed to represent everything great and glorious and possible about Los Angeles until he came to represent something equally true, but far less flattering, about the city. But this was a place that loves its sports stars so much that it damn near turned Steve Garvey into a senator, until he was felled by scandal back in a time when politicians were actually damaged by their scandals. Kobe, Shaq, Eric Dickerson, Kirk Gibson, Gretzky and, of course, Magic and Kareem. You learned the only lesson you really needed to learn about Dwight Howard when he decided not to become a star here. This is a place that desperately wants heroes. It's the primary industry, whatever your field.
That is not to say that all of Los Angeles sports is glitz and glamour (he Los Angeles Kings, the last L.A. team to win a title, was anything but). Still, it's just easier to break through when you have those qualities. Wayne Gretzky never won a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles and was only here for six and a half years. He's not even in the Kings' all-time top five in goals. But he -- and Luc Robitaille, the guy who does lead the franchise in goals -- is the one with the statue outside Staples Center. This is a place that loves to build statues.
As we begin our fourth Leitch Across America trip this week -- after Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago -- that's what we'll be trying to explore. What teams matter more? How does the city interact with the Rams, its new team? The Lakers, its favorite but the one with a long road back and much turmoil? The Clippers, the historical doormat at a pivot point? The Dodgers, beginning the post-Scully age? The Angels, with the biggest star of all and essentially nothing else? What's the future of this city look like in regards to sports? What have the tumultuous changes of the last decade, with new stadiums and the city itself, done to change the sports culture? And mostly: What kind of sports town is Los Angeles?
As an outsider, I can never understand it the way the locals can. But I've spent this past week, and the days ahead, going to various Los Angeles sporting venues, talking to (and drinking with) all different sorts of fans, trying to get a sense of where this place stands, now and in the future. It's Leitch Across America: Los Angeles edition. Let's go there together.
Tomorrow: The new Rams, same as the old Rams.