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Home Court Disadvantage

The Clippers, the Lakers, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Luck & Griffin

By tip-off at The Great Western Forum on April 29, 1992, Los Angeles had already erupted into a great and uncontainable furor. The news had arrived a little after 3 p.m.: Four LAPD officers had been acquitted of beating Rodney King despite videotape evidence of the malicious attack. As the city began its descent into lawlessness, the Lakers faced the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series. On May 4, five days later in Utah, the Clippers were playing the final game of their first playoff series since moving to L.A. in 1984. In the long history of both franchises, the games are mere footnotes. Their significance, though, lies in the relationship to the larger story. April 29 and May 4 are central to Los Angeles’s local imagination, bookending the six-day uproar that captivated the country and brought a city to its knees.

April 29

The day began as most spring mornings do in Los Angeles: cloudless and without worry. The Lakers arrived back in town down 0-2 in the best-of-five series, hoping to finally get on course. They’d been outscored by 35 points, outrebounded by 37, and overpowered over the course of the previous two games by a physical Portland team. Even though they were back home, Game 3 was likely to turn out the same. “All the good opportunities we get, we have to convert on. And then we’ve got to do the job on the boards. Until we do that, we’re not going to have a chance,” then-head coach Mike Dunleavy told the Los Angeles Times. It would be a day of unexpected fates — in more ways than one.

Over in Inglewood and minutes from the Forum, Clippers star power forward Danny Manning was having lunch with friends at a local soul-food restaurant, discussing the usual things guys in their mid-twenties talk about: women and pseudo-relationships. He’d led the Clippers to a playoff win the night before, and his spirits were high going into Game 4. Then the news arrived: The four officers who’d beaten Rodney King had been acquitted. All of them. Innocent. Right away, Manning was unsure of just how safe he and his friends would be in the area. “We need to wrap this up and start heading home,” he said. “It was chaotic,” Manning remembers now. “There was a lot of disbelief on both sides, everybody had an opinion — everybody thought the way they felt is the way the verdict should’ve been decided. That night, seeing the images we saw on the news, it was mind-blowing. It definitely put you in a feeling of uneasiness, regardless of where you were in the city.”

Eventually, Manning and his teammates would be in the heart of the riots. Two days after the violence broke out, Clippers players were called to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, their home court. They’d been asked to clear all personal belongings from the locker room to make way for the armed forces that were now using it as a base of operations. “The first time I actually drove to the Sports Arena, I felt like I was in a movie,” Manning says, “with the smoldering buildings, the glass in the street, the damage done to properties — it was just unbelievable.” The Sports Arena is located in the heart of South Los Angeles, and its placement provided a tactical advantage in containing the uproar. “We’re walking through the concourse level, or on the lower level of the Sports Arena, and you have guys walking around with live ammunition on their bodies,” Manning remembers. “When you see something like that, it’s just like, Wow.” He pauses for a moment, almost as if he’s back at the Sports Arena. “The magnitude of these events was gigantic.”

Back over in Inglewood, the Lakers game was under way as the storm intensified. Led by Byron Scott, the team started out strong. They outrebounded the Trail Blazers 27-14 in the first half, utilizing the speed of a three-guard offense to undercut the controlling physicality of players like Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Buck Williams. But midway through the third quarter, the Trail Blazers, who’d been dominant all season, began looking like their old selves again. From that point on, as Times beat writer Mark Heisler put it, “they traded haymakers.” After Terry Porter hit a baseline 3-pointer (his fourth of the night) to tie it up at 102 with 29 seconds left, the game went to overtime. Despite more than 10 lead changes and a career playoff-high 42 points for Drexler, Vlade Divac converted a 3-point play to put the Lakers ahead by one, thus securing a Game 4 matchup. The postseason had just been saved, but celebration would be short-lived.

Outside the Forum, the streets surged with declarations of injustice from the King verdict. Rioting swelled and would worsen with each passing hour. Earlier in the day, Reginald Denny, a white truck operator, and Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan construction worker, were violently attacked by a mob of protesters at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, just minutes from the Forum. The Lakers were forced to move Game 4 to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas as a result of the massive unrest.

We Have to Go

When we fled, there were things we left behind. Clothes. Family photos. Books. Toys (for me, at least). Our house sat at the bottom of Baldwin Hills on Cochran Avenue, on the interior of the highland, just off La Brea Avenue. La Brea is one of the city’s most notable drags, and one that — if you let it — will lead you into the heart of South Los Angeles. From the bottom of Baldwin Hills, the southern and eastern sections of the city begin to unfurl, and the Spanish boulevards transform into a grid defined by avenues named for former presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hoover.

We left on May 1. It was a Friday, and I now remember my mother’s words as clear and sharp. “We have to go,” she said. Her unbending tone was not to be met with nascent wonder or inquiry. But the mind of a 6-year-old child does not work that way. I didn’t understand. I probed further. “But why?”

People were angry, my mother said, and had begun to riot near our house. As a precaution we were going to stay with Aunt Vivian (my father’s aunt), who lived in Ladera Heights, which was quickly becoming a neighborhood for the rising black middle class. We would be safe from the swelling disorder, she said. So we packed. We gathered what we could, loaded the Volvo, and set out just before sundown, uncertain if anything at all would be there when we returned.

How we’d arrived at this juncture, and the events that followed the shocking verdict, are a lot less mystifying.

In the spring of 1991, on March 3, Rodney King, Bryant “Pooh” Allen, and Freddie Helms were driving west on the 210 freeway through Lake View Terrace, a breezy suburb in the San Fernando Valley. They had just left a friend’s house and, on the suggestion of King, decided they would find some women to party with. It was nearing 1 a.m. when California Highway Patrol officers noticed a Hyundai speeding down the highway. The police car signaled for King to pull over. Foot to pedal, King decided he would try to escape the reach of the CHP officers. He was out on parole from a former robbery charge and feared he might be jailed again. The high-speed pursuit, which ended near Hansen Dam Park, culminated in a lot less glamorous and suspenseful of a fashion than usually depicted on local news channels like KCAL 9 or KTLA 5. As King exited his vehicle, four of the five LAPD officers who’d arrived at the scene tried to subdue him. King, who had been drinking, resisted. Officers then began to beat King — over and over and over again. For nearly two minutes they would not stop. Awakened by the ongoing commotion, George Holliday, who lived in a nearby apartment complex, walked to his balcony and began filming the events before him. After two Taser shots, 56 baton blows to the body, and six kicks, King pleaded for his life. “Please stop,” he was reported to have said. He was then dragged to the sidewalk on his stomach, barely conscious.

A black man had just been savagely beaten. And Holliday caught the entire incident on tape.

The four officers were later charged with “assault and use of excessive force.” Three of the officers were white, the fourth Latino. Police brutality, cried some. Racism, cried others. But the cries of the community did nothing for the case. After a two-month trial (which included a seven-day jury deliberation), all four officers were found innocent. Two of the police officers, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, were later found guilty in federal court for violating King’s civil rights. King won $3.8 million, and both officers were sentenced to 30 months in prison.

But the catalyst for the eventual uprising was not solely sparked by the King verdict. A year before King’s vicious beating in 1992, Latasha Harlins was shot by Soon Ja Du, owner of Empire Liquor, a local convenience store in South Los Angeles. Du thought Harlins was attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice. An argument and scuffle ensued, followed by Du shooting Harlins in the head. She died instantly. In her left hand: two one-dollar bills. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a five-year probation term, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. She would serve no jail time. Days later, a Los Angeles Times headline read, “A Senseless and Tragic Killing: New Tension for Korean-American and African-American communities.”

Coupled with high unemployment, widespread poverty, an increasing lack of quality resources in the area, and the Harlins murder, the verdict from the King trial served as the final straw.

May 4

With help from over 4,000 law enforcement officers, the city mostly returned to order by Monday. The Clippers, too, had returned order to their series. Larry Brown, who came on as coach midway through the season after being fired by the Spurs, led the Clippers to their first playoff berth since moving to L.A. from San Diego. For some Angelenos, the Clippers’ sudden change in course provided a much-needed escape from all the surrounding disorder.

The Clippers had capitalized on a significant moment in NBA history. At the start of the season, Magic Johnson, who’d recently tested positive for HIV, announced his retirement from the league. For the first time since Johnson was drafted in 1979, the Lakers would be without their court general, and with Brown’s help the Clippers filled the void. No longer were they just “the other team.” It had been a hard-fought but prosperous year on all fronts: They achieved their first winning season in over a decade and finished with more regular-season wins than the Lakers, who were (and still are) largely considered hometown favorites. “Nobody noticed them,” Jim Murray wrote of the Clippers in the Los Angeles Times. “They were stepchildren. The Lakers manhandled them six times a year with contemptuous ease. But then, so did everybody.”

The no. 7-seed Clippers were underdogs against the no. 2 Jazz, and the series played out as predicted in Games 1 and 2. The Jazz won by more than 10 in both matchups. But Games 3 and 4 went to the Clippers. Game 4 had been delayed by three days because of the riots and was played 30 miles away at the Anaheim Convention Center. Still, Manning managed 33 points, and the Clippers triumphed in spite of Karl Malone’s 44-point onslaught

Game 5 was set for May 4 at the Delta Center in Utah. By halftime, the Clippers were in control and led the Jazz by 12. But the Jazz rallied, coming within four by the end of the third, and by the middle of the fourth, they took a commanding lead. It was a crushing loss to end the season, but the team would return to L.A., hopes high, and to a city that had begun to recover.

“We had an opportunity and weren’t able to seal the deal,” Manning says now. “That was disappointing. I knew what was going on back home, but was focused on the fact that the season had come to an end.”

The Geography of Rage

A Fox 11 News camera pans out from the street — a wide stretch of Western Avenue — and reveals a maelstrom of quick-tempered bodies running in and out of Sav-On, the local convenience and drug store. “Looting has picked up as police pull out of position,” announces the silver-haired news correspondent. “It’s really a game of chess. Where the police are, there is no looting, and as soon as they pull off the looting begins. There are simply not enough of them.” To further paint the unimaginable disarray — and to better frame “the debate that’s going on in the community” — the newsman turns to interview a black man who looks to be in his late twenties. He is of substantial height and wears a navy-blue and orange Auburn Tigers T-shirt. “Once all this stuff stops, we need to get more stuff back into the neighborhood. It’s gonna be hard to get businesses that are worthwhile and that are gonna be beneficial to the community back here.” There are strains of hurt and hope in his speech. A breaking and desperate sadness, even. It is spring and Los Angeles is burning.

Fifty-three. Ten thousand. One billion.

That is how we measure the chaos and destruction, how we quantify the outrage. Fifty-three dead, more than 10,000 arrested, and nearly one billion in property damage. These numbers are how we measure the looting, the assault, the arson. They are how we will forever mark the anger and unimaginable despair.

“The passion that people had,” Manning says now, “the energy — it was all just unbelievable. Just the raw energy from people’s actions — it was explosive and dynamic. A lot of people got to the point where it was just like, What else?

On November 17, six months after the riots faded and the National Guard withdrew, rapper Ice Cube released The Predator. The album featured a song that perhaps best summarized the ideology behind much of the collective outrage. It was titled, “We Had to Tear This Motherfucka Up.”