LOS ANGELES — A crew of about 35 event floor employees at Staples Center waited for Thursday’s NHL Western Conference finals game between the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes to end, so that their grueling 21 / 2-hour exercise could begin: The Los Angeles Lakers’ hardwood and hoops needed to be placed over the worn-down ice in preparation for Friday’s NBA Western Conference semifinal game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The prospect of hosting playoff games in the same arena on consecutive nights is rare for most cities — especially since only 10, including Verizon Center, have hockey and basketball sharing the same building. But for the Staples Center, the most chaotic and riveting sporting spectacle ever witnessed in one building will just be starting once Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington exit the premises. Over the next 48 hours, the event floor will be changed four more times — from Lakers to Clippers, Clippers to Lakers, Lakers to Kings and back to Clippers. In all, Staples Center will have hosted six playoff games in about 80 hours.
“This is unprecedented, in the history of any arena, I believe, in the United States,” said Lee Zeidman, Staples Center’s senior vice president and general manager. “And, it will never be duplicated anywhere else.”
On Sunday, the sports world will revolve around the corner of S. Figueroa Street and Chick Hearn Court, because in addition to a hectic Kings to Clippers changeover, the final leg of the country’s largest stage cycling race, the Tour of California, will end near Staples Center, with tens of thousands of fans awaiting the finish.
About three miles away from Staples, the first-place Dodgers will host the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals. And the defending MLS champion Galaxy will play rival Chivas in the “SuperClasico” in Carson, Calif., contributing to a hectic day for sports fans in the city. The WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks had their scheduled home opener pushed back to Tuesday to accommodate the madness.
“I’d argue there’s been no better time in our city’s history to be an L.A. sports fan than now,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “We have the Clippers, Lakers and Kings all in the playoffs at the same time and the Dodgers are comfortably in first place. This weekend will be absolutely electric in the area around Staples Center. It doesn’t get much more exciting for our fans, our local businesses and our local teams.”
After this weekend, the Staples Center will have hosted 17 hockey and basketball postseason games this season. “There are buildings that don’t do that many in years,” Zeidman said. “It’s a phenomenal feat.”
The extra traction should help the arena overcome the losses it incurred after missing out on 16 combined regular home games for the Lakers and Clippers because of the lockout. Staples Center was probably hardest hit, since it is the only arena with two NBA teams.
The compressed schedule also left open the chance for back-to-back games in the second round of the playoffs, which became the case when both the Clippers and Lakers played seven games in their first-round series. The Lakers will play Oklahoma City on Friday and Saturday, while the Clippers will play the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday and Sunday.
“This has obviously been an arena manager’s dream to have all his teams in the playoffs. I’d love it to go one more step: I’d love the Lakers and Clippers to beat Oklahoma City and San Antonio — which is a tough challenge for both of them — and play each other in the Western Conference finals,” Zeidman said.
Zeidman would also like to see Staples Center become the third building in the past 20 years to host the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup finals, along with Madison Square Garden (New York Rangers and New York Knicks in 1994) and Continental Airlines Arena (New Jersey Devils and New Jersey Nets in 2003).
The Lakers, Kings and Clippers have shared the same building for the past 13 years but they haven’t all advanced to the postseason in the same year since 1993 — when the Lakers and Kings played in the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and the Clippers played at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
Since winning an NBA title in the Staples Center’s first year of existence, the Lakers have always kept the building thriving at this time of year, with seven trips to the NBA Finals in the first 11 years. But their co-tenants were rarely around, with the Kings missing the playoffs from 2002 to 2010 and the Clippers making their lone previous postseason appearance in the building in 2006.
The once-lowly Clippers — a franchise with just five playoff appearances in the past 36 years — became relevant after pulling off a controversial trade to acquire all-star point guard Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. The Kings lost in the first round the past two seasons and didn’t become a playoff contender until Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray as coach in December, leading them to the eighth seed. They have been on a remarkable postseason run, winning 10 of their first 11 games and failing to lose on the road.
Zeidman didn’t know that all three would be forced to play on the same weekend until the NBA notified him last Saturday that the Lakers and Clippers would both play back-to-back games this weekend. The NBA and NHL had also agreed to Sunday’s troublesome and rare hockey-to-basketball playoff doubleheader, which has the potential to be disastrous if the hockey game goes to multiple overtimes.
“We had always thought, no one is going to do that. They are not going to try to do that because when you have to go hockey to basketball in the regular season, you can do that because it’s a five-minute overtime, and then you do a shootout. In the playoffs, as you well know, it’s a different story,’ ” Zeidman said.
But the NHL, NBA and its network partners did it anyway, leaving it up to Zeidman to keep his fingers crossed. The Kings and Coyotes will drop the puck for Game 4 about 71 / 2 hours before the Clippers and Spurs tip off. But that time could get squeeze if the hockey game is extended. Each extra period would be another hour added on and, if the Kings were to close out the series on Sunday, another 45 minutes would be needed for an awards ceremony.
And, with 168 luxury suites and 53 concession stands, the job of getting a 1-million-square-foot arena cleaned, restocked with food and prepared for another throng of 20,000 different fans is much more complicated. “Let’s just hope the Kings end on time. If it doesn’t, all bets are off,” Zeidman said with a laugh.
Staples Center is otherwise well-prepared, having done 127 doubleheader conversions since the building opened, including 19 so far this season. But nothing will compare to what’s in store this weekend. “This will be the wildest,” Zeidman said.