Lakers Drift Into Era Of Post 'General Hip'

They may lose the finals to the Bulls, but they have already lost the crowd - a letter from Inglewood

EVEN Jack Nicholson has lost his lizard grin. After eight appearances in the National Basketball Association world championships in 10 years, both home team and home crowd are suffering from dynasty fatigue.

Whether or not the Chicago Bulls slam the door on the Los Angeles Lakers in June 12's Game 5 of the NBA finals, the signs are growing that the city's 10-year love affair with basketball is being laid to rest:

*-"Laker Celebrity Scoreboard," a local television feature that kept tabs on which TV and film luminaries showed up for each game, has closed shop.

* The Chicago media corps traveling west to cover the series for the fans back home is nearly six times larger than the L.A. media contingent traveling east.

*-The number of three-foot gold styrofoam hands with the finger shaped into a "No. 1" has dwindled from mezzanine to rafters. "We give 'em away but people don't want to bother anymore," said one arena official.

"There are too many things to do on a Sunday in southern California besides drop a couple hundred bucks for what has become just another Laker game," Keith Olbermann, sports director for KCBS-TV, told me during Game 4.

The lack of pre-game traffic outside the Great Western Forum proved his point. With 30 minutes until tipoff, I drove undelayed up Avenue of the Champions, parked across the street, and ambled inside the giant, puck-shaped arena without so much as brushing an elbow.

Such is the natural cycle on L.A.'s "what's-hot" continuum, says Mr. Olbermann. It's a cycle that hits the Dodgers (baseball), the Clippers (basketball), the Kings (hockey), and the Raiders and the Rams (football) in turn.

When a franchise is either brand new, or has a hot new personality, an elite few start a quiet "new wave," staying mum about their attendance. When the more populous avante garde set- including a few top celebrities - starts showing up, the the phenomenon graduates to "inside hip."

The trend peaks with "general hip," when the gum-chewing masses pour in to imitate what their opinion leaders have decided is the thing to do. The truly chic now head for Wayne Gretsky and the Kings.

"How do you expect to get your team psyched-up if the crowd doesn't care?" asked one Chicago sportswriter.

Santiago Alcanda, a producer for TeleMadrid in Spain, concurred: "Your city has the world's best basketball team, but the fans have grown tired."

Maybe it was just the building - too squeaky clean, too air conditioned, too orderly. Or the weather outside - too typically Californian to foster a communal experience within four, dark walls. Or maybe it was the crowd - 95 percent white, hardly a reflection of country's most diverse ethnic population outside.

A parking lot attendant pointed to Cadillacs, Mercedes, and Porsches gleaming in the bright sunlight. "During the year, those are Toyotas, Nissans, and Chevies," he said. "The finals bring those who care less about basketball than about showing up at a primo sporting event."

I saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers's retired center, yawn and look up forlornly at the six championship banners adorning the high walls. When Chicago took a 10-point lead with two minutes left, his eyes seemed to say, "What a way to go."

Unlike the days of Lakers crowds past, a mass exodus ensued. Even the 14 siss-boom-bahing Lakers girls were of no avail.

Outside, a man yelled, "Tickets for Wednesday, who wants tickets for Wednesday?"

``I'll be watching that one on TV at the beach," said a voice in the crowd.

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