In 1982, when the Oakland Raiders moved 400 miles south to become the L.A. Raiders, bands played, flags flew, there was dancing in the streets.
It was a marriage made in heaven. It had cost the city practically nothing. In fact, it turned into a $30-million bonanza for the strapped L.A. Coliseum, which had just lost its principal tenant, the Rams.
The politicians were all happy, the fans were happy, it looked as if they were all going to live happily ever after.
Nobody had any qualms of conscience over Oakland. L.A. is used to getting its teams from other municipalities. They got the Rams from Cleveland, the Dodgers from Brooklyn, the Lakers from Minneapolis, even the Clippers from San Diego. We break up happy homes all the time out here.
Now, it's barely seven years later--the average life span of most Hollywood marriages--and the relationship is breaking up in a spate of name calling, blame fixing, legal shadow boxing. It's a field day for the supermarket tabloids, painful for the participants and anguishing for the public.
This weekend, the Raiders are going back to Oakland for the first time since they left in a cloud of dust (and a shower of garbage). Will it be the prodigal son returning? Or just a sentimental journey?
I went to the one man who would know. Al Davis is a one-of-a-kind human being. There is no one quite like him on the horizon of sports. He is, like his team, tough, aggressive, somewhat ruthless, fearless, crafty. Unpredictable. No man to get in a card game with on a boat. Or a fight in a dark alley.
He is so non-judgmental that his team sometimes looks as if it were gotten out of a police lineup. Or the crew of a pirate ship. Davis wants athletes, not archbishops.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man and, when the Raiders get in the sun, you see Al Davis' silhouette on the ground.
Al's great strength is, he doesn't give a rap what the world thinks of him. He is as impervious to criticism as a leopard. He has been in more courtrooms of late than F. Lee Bailey but relays of adversary attorneys have found him unembarrassable. He has a reputation for being devious, but he is about as devious as a bulldozer. He says what he is going to do--then does it. Like his team, Al Davis is a big-play man.
He would have to go out more to be considered merely a loner. The biggest laugh of the whole move from Oakland was the whisper by the wise guys that Al Davis wanted to move south to be near the fleshpots of Hollywood and his show-biz pals.
Al Davis' idea of a good movie is shot on the 10-yard line of the Chicago Bears. Al Davis' idea of a celebrity is Henry Aaron, not Henry Fonda. He's not a flash guy. His attire has been described as "Second Avenue glitz" but that doesn't bother Davis, either.
He thinks he was put on this earth to win Super Bowls. He does that better than anyone else in the game except the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.
"They won theirs (four) almost in a row," he says.
"I got in four Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different coaches," he also reminds you.
He's not so much a complex man as he is direct as a punch in the nose. He brought his team south purely and simply to make it economically more competitive.
"I believed all the promises," he says. "They were going to fix the Coliseum. They were going to put in luxury boxes, improve the line of sight, bring the crowd more into the game."
The Raiders weren't going to be a team, they were going to be a dynasty. The royal family of football. Instead, they became peasants.
Not even when the Coliseum Commission collected its windfall $30 million--$10 million of which went directly to the lawyers--did the commissioners move to honor their promises, he says. Davis finally despaired of their pledges and started to build luxury boxes himself. The Commission stepped in. He hadn't gotten the necessary permits.
"Harassment!" snorts Al Davis. "Can you imagine a reputable construction firm not getting the proper permits?"
There is a point in every failing marriage when one partner or the other perceives his or her mate as not the person they thought they were getting. The relationship degenerates into name calling, backbiting, lawsuits. It's messy. The principals become bores. Their friends duck them.
If Al Davis made a mistake it was in not perceiving that Hollywood is a hall of mirrors. Image is more important than substance in this town--maybe in this country. Al never had a slick PR firm to whip the politicians into line. Al fought City Hall himself.
Still, he hates to be stalled on the 20-yard line.
The Los Angeles Coliseum is a historic edifice, a proud part of Los Angeles' heritage and history. It has been the site of two Olympic Games and is a monument to sport second only to the Caesars' playground, the Colosseum in Rome.
But it is a slum. It is antiquated. It smells bad on summer nights. It is a faded old bawd who occasionally daubs another coat of rouge or dons a veil to hide the ravages of time.
"It's run by a commission that has no responsibility to anyone," Davis says. "We got them all that money--$30 million in the antitrust suit--at a time when they were hard put to meet the arena bonds.
"Then, out of the clear blue, they said they weren't going to do anything about the promises to redo the Coliseum. Now, they're even suing to revoke my option to remain another three years after the contract expires (in 1991)."
Adds Davis: "They might have done me a favor. A lot of people woke up to the fact the Raiders might be available."
Other communities are throwing sockfuls of money at owner Davis--Sacramento, $50 million; Oakland, $32 million. Even New York is in the picture. The L.A. Coliseum Commission is throwing lawsuits at him. Kind of here's-your-hat-what's-your-hurry variety.
Will he go? Is the divorce final?
Al Davis sat over lunch in Oxnard the other day, picked at a salad and sighed. "I honestly don't know," he said. "I have this dream, I want to settle in somewhere and throw out the anchor and concentrate on football. But then, I thought that's what I was going to do here. I thought that, by now, we'd have a done-over Coliseum, a facility we could live with and the community could be proud of.
"One of the things I do not want to be is a lame duck. We had to do that in Oakland two years because of the league litigation blocking our move. I want to get back to football. I've spent nine years on the witness stand.
"We were the best things that could have happened to the Coliseum. But when we get here, they start complaining we make noise eating soup. If L.A. doesn't want the Raiders, there are a lot of places that do."
L.A. appears not to be one of them. When last seen, the L.A. Coliseum Commission appeared to have its hand on their elbow, ushering them out the door.
But then, they're getting good at that. They also said goodby to the Lakers, the Kings, the Rams and the UCLA Bruins in recent years.
You'd think the place was haunted. In a way, it is. Soon, there'll be nothing there but ghosts. Unless the Coliseum Commission runs them out of town, too.