Real Laker Fans Travel the Extra Mile : About 50 Hard-Core Boosters Spend Big Bucks and Alter Schedules to Follow L.A. Team at Home and on the Road

Russell Nichols has a problem.

He lives in New Jersey, but he roots for the Los Angeles Lakers.

This matchup is geographically undesirable, but Nichols, 26, has been hooked on the Lakers since he read all-star Jerry West's book, "Mr. Clutch," in the fifth grade.

So what's a fellow to do when he wants to see his team in the National Basketball Assn. final playoffs? For the slender, 6-foot-1 Nichols, who runs a one-man Irvington, N.J., headhunter firm, the answer was easy:

Total Cost $750

He bought a $300 ticket from a Los Angeles agency for Thursday night's Celtics-Lakers game. Persuaded his fiancee that it's OK to spend the money. Hopped a Thursday morning $348 round-trip flight for Los Angeles. Once here, he ate in restaurants, watched the game at the Forum, bought souvenirs, planned to retire to a hotel and return home this morning. Total cost: $750.

"My fiancee is not happy about this . . . (but) I've got to do it," Nichols said shortly before leaving New Jersey. "I'm in the (financial) hole for a while, because by no stretch of the imagination is this within my budget. But that's OK. I'm young. I can put the airplane ticket on time and pay for it in 30 days. I'm sure it's going to be worth it. I'm just real excited. I can't wait."

Bought Season Tickets

Nichols bought season tickets to the New Jersey Nets games so he could see the Lakers once a year when they appeared in East Rutherford, N.J.

But Nichols is not alone in his devotion to the team. A hard core of about 50 fans, some of them Hollywood celebrities, seldom miss Lakers home games and often travel to road games, especially during playoffs.

As the Lakers met the Celtics in the opening games of the NBA's championship series this week, the Lakers' best-known fan, actor Jack Nicholson, revised his Albany, N.Y., shooting schedule for a movie so he could attend games in Los Angeles and Boston.

Actor Rob Lowe called the Forum seeking impossible-to-get tickets for the coming games in Boston (he got them). Meanwhile, Laker faithfuls Dyan Cannon, Johnny Carson, John McEnroe, Walter Matthau, Kirk Douglas and Veronica Hamel attended the games here.

Less prominent fans also played their usual roles on behalf of the home team. Seldom noticed when television cameras pan the festive Forum audience, they spend $483 to $6,300 for season tickets for 41 games and two exhibitions and plunk down another $250 to $2,475 for playoff games. A $150 court-side seat for the regular season and 15 playoff games cost $8,775 without food or parking.

These longtime Laker fanatics seldom miss a home game and about 20 flew to the playoffs where they watched the Lakers' afternoon practices in empty, foreign arenas and where they stayed in team hotels, sometimes meeting players in the lobbies. Players seldom adopt the fans as friends, but for perks such as these the boosters often accept major schedule disruptions to reach a game.

Capitol Records executive Joe Smith once made an afternoon presentation in Chicago, flew back to Los Angeles for a night game, caught a late-night flight to New York and arrived at 7 a.m. to attend a luncheon.

In the 1970s Smith flew from London to New York to see a Lakers-Knicks NBA finals game on Friday night and returned to London on Sunday.

Gail Coleman of Cheviot Hills, an assistant to the president of a Santa Monica real estate development firm, attended all the Lakers home games and five preliminary playoff games on the road this year with her husband, Ronald, a real estate developer. "You leave your calendar blank during playoff time. You don't plan anything," she said.

"We have been known to miss some of my 8-year-old son's baseball games, which doesn't make him too happy," Coleman said. "We wouldn't make weekend dinner dates because we would be on the road traveling with the team. Your other life kind of goes on hold for a while."

Once arriving in a city, fans often turn the trip into a weekend vacation, but the Lakers are still the main attraction.

Beverly Cherep of Playa del Rey, a sales executive in a travel agency, watches the team practices. Although many practices are open to the public, few fans attend.

"Pat Riley (the Lakers' coach) is really nice as long as you don't make any noise," said Cherep, who attends road games using air fare, hotel and car discounts she gets through business.

"That's fun. It's a whole different kind of atmosphere. It's relaxed and it's professional. You see practice at a different level than the high intensity during a game."

Coleman also watches the players shoot at out-of-town arenas a few hours before their games, and she is sure fans make an impact.

"When you watch them warm up, it's nice to give them the thumbs up sign because you're in an alien arena," she said. "I think it makes them feel good to see a friendly face in an alien situation.

" . . . You'd think they wouldn't notice certain people, but I'm sure they look at certain areas of the Forum and pick out friendly faces.

'Relates to Children'

"Memorial Day weekend at the Seattle airport Magic Johnson came over and said, 'You're everywhere.' . . . I have a little boy and he's always been so nice to him. He's interested in people and he relates to children."

Bob Patrick, who owns a Santa Ana advertising firm, said on the same weekend Johnson approached him and put his arms around his daughters, Wendy, 18, and Jenny, 16, for a picture in the hotel lobby. Patrick asked Johnson if he recalled the last time he was in a picture with the girls.

"It was at the airport in Philadelphia when we won the championship in 1982," Johnson said. "But they were little then."

The Lakers say they're cordial to the fans because they appreciate them.

"It makes a big difference," forward James Worthy said. " . . . When you look up on the road and see someone wearing yellow or gold it sort of gives you a big inspiration. The fact that they're bold enough to stand up and cheer in a place like the Boston Garden gets you inspired."

"It makes you feel special that people take the time to follow you around," center Mychal Thompson said. "Without these fans we wouldn't have a job. You've got to treat them with respect and give them time.

"We used to have them with us all the time when I played in Portland. We'd take an East Coast trip and they'd ride the team bus or take the team flights. It let them know they were appreciated and that they were part of the team, too."

While the players appreciate the fans, rival rooters sometimes do not.

"Last year we had a big fight in Dallas after the game," said Hollywood management consultant Ted Amlin. "There were two guys behind me giving me a hard time and I turned around and we just got into it."

Doused With Beer

Cherep, who usually wears a Lakers shirt or jacket to foreign arenas, recalls Philadelphia fans pouring beer on her back when the Lakers won the championship in 1982.

"They didn't appreciate me yelling for the Lakers," she said. "But I didn't care at that point."

At home the fans find no such problems. They relax and appreciate the game.

"It's a whole aura about going to the Forum," Coleman said. "I know everybody says it's the show time and Hollywood (atmosphere).

"But if you like basketball I don't think anybody does it better individually and as a team than the Lakers. They're kind of poetry in motion.

"If you look at basketball to music, the similarity between the fluid motion of ballet and basketball is amazing. Besides the fact that they're the most incredibly conditioned athletes."

The number of fans who appreciate that ballet grows each year.

Johnna Barlow, a home day-care center owner in Berkeley, recently bought Laker tickets for next season. She plans to commute to Los Angeles for all the home games at a cost of more than $100 a trip.

The expense includes an overnight stay in a hotel. Two assistants supervise her business while she travels.

"I love to fly and I love the game with the Lakers playing," Barlow said. "I'm not buying a season ticket for nothing. You can believe I'll be in my seat."

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