The Knicks were in trouble and they knew it. The team was loaded with high-priced players who had done a curious thing last season--they won on the road but not at home.
New management was puzzled. Hadn't they spent $200 million to refurbish Madison Square Garden, the Spruce Goose of arenas? Hadn't they cut the edge of both substance and style when they hired coach and sex symbol Pat Riley? This season would surely be different.
The Knicks couldn't win on the road, losing their first two games. But at home a surprise was waiting. A new, lovely, designer-outfitted, pony-tailed present. The cavalry was called and the Knicks City Dancers came to the rescue, riding in on a blare of hip-hop and funk, arms and legs jerking as though they were possessed puppets. New York's hard-bitten fans were smitten. The players were rejuvenated and the Knicks have gone undefeated in the Garden.
The Knicks, who were 21-20 at home last season, are dancing to a different beat now. Some in New York are tempted to say, "Three cheers for cheerleaders, and aren't we glad we thought of this," except they aren't cheerleaders, they are dancers , thank you, and someone had already thought of it 12 years ago. Someone on the other coast.
Guided by Petra Bolton, the former manager of the Laker Girls, the Knicks City Dancers have helped the Knicks seize the home-court advantage they have lacked. The dancers, according to Knick management, have energized the somnolent Garden crowd, which has in turn perked up the team. No one in the Knicks' organization is going so far as to suggest that the presence of 12 snappy dancers has translated into points on the scoreboard. But in the minds of some at Madison Square Garden, the dancers have at least earned an assist.
In these days of parity in professional sports and competition for the fans' dollar, teams believe they have to provide more entertainment punch. It's good for business and, it can be argued, it helps the team.
Listen to Laker owner Jerry Buss, who in 1979 formulated the now much-copied Laker Girl concept, on the value of the dance squad to his team: "Put it this way. We've improved our home record incredibly in the last 15 years. They (Laker Girls) haven't hurt."
THE INCREDIBLE MONEY (NOT!)
Know that if you are a Laker Girl it is not possible to live off what you earn from the job. Lisa Estrada, who has been a Laker Girl since 1987 and is the group's manager, estimates that if a dancer was at every game and every appearance, the most she could expect to earn in a year is $20,000.
The Knicks City Dancers, who get paid more than the Laker Girls but who, as a group, have fewer promotional opportunities, hope to make about $15,000 each.
"They understand they aren't going to pay the rent with this job," Estrada said.
The message is to get a day job, and keep it. That is why there are Laker Girl aerobics instructors, Laker Girl part-time students and Laker Girl waitresses.
Each Laker Girl is paid $65 per game. Since there are 17 Laker Girls and only 12 perform, five are "benched" each game. Everyone is paid $24 per rehearsal, held twice a week. By contrast, the Knicks City Dancers are the highest paid in the league at $85 a game and $45 for rehearsals.
Said Pam Harris, the Knicks' marketing director: "People won't perform for less."
They will in Texas. The venerable Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are paid $15 a game, which works out to $13.98 after taxes.
But in this business, salary is merely a token. Most of a dancer's earnings comes from "promos"--appearing or performing at conventions, grand openings and bar mitzvahs. For this, a Laker Girl is paid $75 per hour, a Knicks City Dancer $100. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 12 elite show dancers selected from among the 36 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, you get a share of the $6,000 the group charges for its one-hour variety show.
Yes, there is money to be made by the enterprising and the ambitious. In a world where the right connections can be the difference between getting a foot in the door or having one slammed in your face, being a Laker Girl is a valuable entree.
"At the end of a game or an appearance, I've got a pocketful of business cards," Laker Girl Dana Cuartero said. "If you want to meet people who can further your career, you can."
In Dallas, cheerleaders have gone on to become television news readers, to star in "CHiPs" and marry surgeons. To each, according to her ambitions. From each fan, according to his business. In Dallas, oil and car dealerships. In L.A., television and music. In New York, fashion and publishing.
"This is a great opportunity," Harris said. "If you could see the people who sit in the front row at the Garden . . . "
FOREVER YOUR (LAKER) GIRL
In part, it is the success of Paula Abdul and her story of being plucked from the Laker Girl line and going on to fame that has embellished the image of being a Laker Girl. Abdul's ascension to stardom has made the Forum sideline the Schwab's Drugstore of the '90s-- the place to be discovered.
This scenario brings shudders to those who run spirit squads. It evokes an image of a movie set taken over by ham actresses, each trying to upstage the other.
"They better not be out there hoping a producer is waiting for them," said Kelli McGonagill, director of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. "I wouldn't want that. We keep them so booked that if I had girls going off all the time for auditions and rehearsals for something else, we couldn't keep the quality that we have. I've got to have a team effort. I can't have a bunch of individuals trying to get noticed."
On the other hand, if a Laker Girl alumna goes on to a career as a pop icon, and if in reviews of her concerts--she is now a singer--she is identified as a "former Laker cheerleader," is that a bad thing for the Lakers?
"We're not cheerleaders!"
No, indeed. Paula Abdul, Valley Girl, former head cheerleader at Van Nuys High, made the Laker Girl line in 1980 at 19. A year later she was choreographing the routines.
Laker owner Jerry Buss recalls: "My son John came to me and said, 'Dad, there is a Laker Girl who is incredibly talented,' I said, 'Yes, they all are.' He said, 'No, Dad, she's going to be a superstar.' Then he laid out the rest of her career for me, as he saw it. It was Paula Abdul. John was right."
Abdul is credited with updating the Laker Girl style and infusing it with a funky, tighter look. Jackie Jackson was so impressed after attending one Laker game that he asked Abdul to choreograph the Jacksons' music video of "Torture." Next, Abdul taught Janet Jackson rhythm for videos from her "Control" album. Abdul also choreographed the MTV Video Awards.
It was a case of the day job overwhelming the night job. Abdul eventually left the Laker Girls to nurture her new career, first as a choreographer, then as a singer. Her debut album went to No. 1 and sold more than 11 million copies. In 1990, Forbes magazine estimated that Abdul had earned $23 million in two years.
Make the Laker Girls and become the next Paula Abdul? A girl can dream, can't she?
THE GLARING SPOTLIGHT
If there is anything less interesting to the average person than the problems of the rich, it is the problems of the very pretty. Which is not to say that the Laker Girls don't have their share of complaints.
"It's really hard to dispel the stereotypes people have," Dana Cuartero said. "That we aren't smart or we're airheads."
"Or that we date the players," said Laker Girl Stacey Lyons, who is married. "I'd say that's the No. 2 question I get, 'Do you date the players?' "
What is No. 1?
"Easy," she said. "It's, 'Do you know Paula Abdul?' "
Asked if they ever hear critical remarks from the fans, the Laker Girls laugh.
"They let you know," Estrada said. "These uniforms are small and tight. If you're getting to where you don't fit in it, people might yell out, 'Hey, cow!' People can be really cruel."
Chris Shaver, a second-year Laker Girl, said: "You can't believe what people say. Raider fans will say rude stuff to the Raiderettes. They've been known to hold up cards that say, 'Dance 0, Body 10.' "
The most common complaint might be the cheerleader question.
There was a pause as Pam Harris of the Knicks considered the question of cheerleaders.
"We would have been laughed off the court if we had come out with cheerleaders," Harris said. "That's not going to happen. That's not New York. The whole cheerleading concept wouldn't work. In Texas they have drill teams. In New York, it's great dance companies."
The thought is intriguing. Gimme a K, gimme a N, gimme an I ... gimme your wallet or I'll kill Y-O-U.
"Oh, yeah, we get this all the time--'You're a Laker cheerleader, aren't you?' " Estrada said. "I just grit my teeth, smile and say, 'Yes, I am.' It's not worth explaining."
Now that this is out in the open, what is it with this cheerleader vs. pompon girl vs. song girl vs. dancer thing? Why are cheerleaders considered a lesser order? True to their code of cheerfulness, the cheerleaders seldom fight back.
Except in Texas.
"I think (everyone) gets a little uptight about it," said McGonagill of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who have been around since 1972. "Anyone associated with being on the sidelines of any sport--people are going to call them cheerleaders. That shouldn't be taken offense to. I think it's absolutely obnoxious for someone to get offended at being called a cheerleader."
The cheer-dance set also hates the widely held public notion that to select, say, a Laker Girl, you must find Malibu Barbie and hire her. The fact is that most persons in the business downplay the role of looks.
"I'll be honest with you, we're not a beautiful squad," said the Laker Girls' Lisa Estrada.
Each new Knicks City Dancer was treated to a makeover during which she was assigned five "looks." But only to refine, they say, not to underline.
Then there's Texas. Beauty is such an incredibly obvious condition of being selected to being a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader that it's not openly discussed. Dallas attracts the sort of woman who has a "pageant look," the big hair, glossy lipstick--lips slightly parted--the big body parts and acres of teeth.
In Dallas, cheerleaders are required to have their lacquered look all the time. Don't expect to be able to run out of the house to get a can of hair spray with curlers in your hair. You're fired if you're found out. Dallas requires 24-hour glamour, or you are off the team.
Naturally, there are complaints.
To the no-nonsense mind of McGonagill, it all comes with the job.
"You need to look like you do in all your pictures, so that the same glamour you associate with us on the sideline, you see on the street or when you are shopping or what have you. We groom the girls from the beginning that when they are out at any time they have to be real careful about everything from hair to makeup and nails, down to being really friendly. People are constantly judging. People like to find flaws."
THE FABULOUS CLOTHES
Pam Harris was saying of the Knicks City Dancers: "Part of the concept was the dancing, and part of the concept was what they are wearing. They aren't wearing these little midriff tops and these little spandex tights like the Laker Girls.
"We have worked with designers like Donna Karan, Jemma Khang, Anna Sui, and Jeanette Kastenberg. We wanted to plug into the fashion industry here in New York. Their outfits are totally cool. One outfit is a Donna Karan velour cat suit with a scoop neck with a short cut-off motorcycle jacket. With wrestling boots.
"We have about eight total outfits, but everything goes together. Mix and match. We were really careful in the first game. We tried to be conservative. We know people wanted to see more. But . . . it's not about skin. It's about dance.
"One outfit we have is a sequined Jeanette Kastenberg. In the stores for more than $1,000. We paid $300 wholesale.
"The first night we used a really cute outfit from Anna Sui. A little black and white houndstooth jacket and skirt. But we way over-accessorized it. We put hats on, boots. Earrings. Jewelry. It was too much. They looked cute, but when they started dancing, things started to fly off. It wasn't a good idea."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dancers are wonderful as an abstract concept, but the Laker Girls are part of a package. They are an important public relations arm of the organization.
"Jerry Buss is always thinking in terms of putting a show on," said Lon Rosen, the former Laker publicist who is now Magic Johnson's agent. "Everything the Lakers do, everything is planned. They have a marketing effort. The crowd gets the players into the game. You can't play to a dead crowd. I think Jerry Buss understands that you can't just throw a ball out and that's it. You really do need to put on a show."
This season, 16 of the 27 teams in the NBA have some sort of dance-cheer group. What do these teams know?
Pam Harris, marketing director of the Knicks: "Tickets are expensive throughout the league. We thought about how to make our event as fantastic as possible. How do you get someone to come to the game and leave saying, 'I saw great basketball, I had a great time, I'm a Knicks fan and I'm going to come back'? The dancers enhance the experience that fans have here. How do you provide something for everybody? This is it."
Buss, who conceived and packaged the basketball philosophy of "Showtime," also nurtured the Laker Girl concept. He proudly acknowledges that his team probably spends more money on costumes for the Laker Girls than other teams spend on their entire dance squads.
"Of the 12 million people who have seen the Lakers (in the Forum) in the last decade, not one will probably go home and not remember the Laker Girls," Buss said.
Now that's something to cheer about. Or is it dance?