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The Ultimate Sports Bar : Athletes unwind at the Forum Club after games, and celebrities are often present. Jerry Buss’ private dining room is there. And non-VIPs will go to any lengths to try to get inside.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The beefy, blazer-clad doormen at the entrance to the Forum Club see and hear it all--the whining and pleading, the lies and deceit--anything, it seems, for a chance to rub shoulders with the crush of celebrities inside.

“I’m Magic’s cousin,” is one common refrain. “I’m with the band” is another. Some Forum Club hopefuls do not say a word; they simply reach out and try to surreptitiously slip the doorman a bill.

Buried inside the Inglewood sports arena and accessible only through a special VIP entrance, the Forum Club is the ultimate sports bar, a place where athletes gather after games to unwind. It’s also Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ private dining room for an entourage of notable guests, and a singles hangout extraordinaire. Where else in the South Bay is one likely to catch a glimpse of Tony Danza, John Candy or Michael Eisner?

Joining the party is the hard part, and those without memberships or connections go to extraordinary lengths to get in.

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Harold Zoubul, regional general manager of Ogden Entertainment Services, the company that runs the Forum Club, attributes the club’s appeal as part Hollywood celebrity, part sports mystique and part wanting what you cannot have. Whatever the cause, it makes outsiders crane their necks to gawk at the crowd inside and try every trick in the book to join them.

Empty, the club is no different than any other moderately upscale restaurant or bar. But pack it with the beautiful people and turn on the omnipresent television monitors, and the club is as full of action as the court, the ice or the stage.

“When you can’t get in without a pass or when you have to be a guest, it adds an exclusive feel,” said Linda Ash, the club’s manager and arbiter on who gets in and who stays out. “There are always curious people waiting at the door asking, ‘What’s going on in there? How do you get in there?’ When I tell them it’s a private club, they have this wondering look on their faces.”

So exclusive is this club that memberships are usually reserved solely for season ticket holders, for an extra $300 a year. But sales have ceased at roughly 1,000 because the small kitchen and dining room cannot accommodate any more patrons and at the bar the crowd is frequently half a dozen people deep. There is a waiting list for those wishing to join.

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But some people just can’t stand the wait. They deviously copy the hand stamp that doormen put on each guest’s left hand. Or they forge the Forum Club passes. Others very subtly lean over the podium at the door, read a name off the guest list and instantly become that person.

“You hear everything,” Ash said. “You see everything. You think you’ve seen it all until an hour later. Everybody always knows somebody or is related to somebody or has some connection that should get them in the door.”

Others try to slip a bill to the doormen, who are so aggressive that they mistakenly turned away Mickey Rooney one night.

“People offer us money all the time, but we can’t take any bribes,” said Paul Provencio, the security guard supervisor. “A while back, I fired a guy on the spot when I saw an exchange of money.”

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The guards are rotated frequently throughout the Forum to limit the possibility of bribery. And there’s a new policy for when the guards recognize someone from the movies or television who is not carrying a pass: Call Ash over and let her decide.

The Forum Club comes to life two hours before game time. Members flow into the dining room for their meals at a rate of about 300 per night. Fifteen minutes late and their reservations are canceled. The biggest problem is those members who show up unannounced, often with several guests in tow.

That’s where Kinue Nakano, the dining room manager comes in.

She knows the names of the regulars and she knows how to finesse them, easing them to less-than-desirable tables and moving them along when their one-hour dinner is up.

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The menu offered by executive chef Toshi is clearly more elaborate than the hot dogs and Cokes served at the stands. No concession stand offers Dom Perignon at $140 a bottle or Seafood Medly, a $22 salad with shrimp, crab meat, marinated scallops and smoked salmon. Entrees are in the $25 range, and dinner tabs can exceed $250 for a party of four.

“In 2 1/2 hours we do what a regular restaurant does in eight hours,” said Nakano, as her 40-person crew churned around her one afternoon. “We aren’t dealing with people who go to Denny’s. We’re dealing with CEOs who expect the best. These people are catered to. They come in limos. These people are pampered all the time.”

Nakano learned how to deal with celebrities while running a plush Japanese restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. “The hardest thing is getting these egos away from their tables so we can get other egos to take their place,” she said.

The tenor inside the Forum Club helps to gauge what is happening on the court below. During a Lakers blowout, the club is packed during the second half with fans getting a jump on the celebration. When the home team is losing big, gloomy fans leave the arena early and the Forum Club is, as Zoubul put it, “as quiet as a morgue.”

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During the day, the Forum Club’s exclusivity dissolves, and it is open to the public for lunch. It’s a popular spot for South Bay businessmen who are making deals, and it’s catching on as a tourist spot.

“Tourists walk in with shorts on and cameras around their necks,” Ash said. “They’re amazed by all the sports photographs (on the walls), and they always ask if we can unlock the doors so they can see the arena.”

Cameras are taboo at the Forum Club, a policy aimed at ensuring diners’ privacy. Film has been ripped out of cameras by doormen, and no photos could be taken inside the dining room for this article.

But there is no way to stop the gawking that takes place.

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Most diners vie for a seat in the “celebrity room,” the small eating area where Buss and his guests gather. It is the most likely place to catch sight of a star. And autograph hounds wait to pounce.

Most of those milling around the oak bar are not television personalities, sports stars or rock ‘n’ rollers. During halftime at a recent Lakers game, the bar’s patrons included a 27-year-old physical therapist from Hawthorne who got his tickets through a client and a 22-year-old aspiring model who said her boyfriend gets her in.

“That’s why I like him,” she whispered as he stared at an overhead TV a few feet away.

“Anyone who can get in the Forum Club during a Laker game feels like they’re up on everyone else,” said Garland Hardeman, a Los Angeles police officer who gets his Forum Club passes free because he is an Inglewood city councilman. “You never know who might walk in. I’ve seen Mike Tyson, M. C. Hammer, Whoopi Goldberg, Paula Abdul. . . . People have even walked up and asked me for an autograph. ‘Don’t you play football?’ they said.”

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The Forum Club is also known as a hangout for groupies, those young women trying to lure athletes their way.

Ash sees it all the time: “The girls are 21, 22, 23--in that area. They have met these guys at one time or another, and their brief acquaintances have taken on lasting importance to the girls. . . . I say, ‘Girls, you can’t stand by the front door. The fire marshal won’t allow it.’ They scoot back and they are right back by the door when I turn around. I’ve spoken to some of them. They travel, literally following the players around.”

A 24-year-old woman whose brown hair was almost as long as her mini-dress waited alone by the bar during a recent Kings game. A few feet away was an older couple bedecked in hockey sweat shirts and caps.

“I’m no groupie,” the woman said, sipping a diet soft drink through a straw. “I hate that term. It makes me seem desperate. I’m just standing here. If someone notices me, someone notices me.”

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She paused for a few seconds, surveyed the room, and then added: “I have to admit though that this isn’t a bad place to stand.”


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