L.A. Will Be the Loser if McNall Becomes a Relic of Sports Scene

Versed as he is in the study of ancient Rome, possibly Bruce McNall can comprehend as few can the concept of "Fabian tactics;" that is, the endeavor to tire out an adversary by delay or evasion, rather than by direct confrontation. In the sovereignty of coins and antiquities in which McNall became a king and amassed an amazing fortune, more than once he endured crises by doing a little sidestep, stalling for time until a market could rally or until a shady business associate or incensed foreign government could be assuaged with promises that whatever had gone wrong, McNall would make it right.

Unquestionably he had counted on maneuvering and treading water long enough to avoid some of the very tribulations in his professional life that have now surfaced, such as McNall's having to abdicate his title as one of hockey's chief executives, having to abandon some of his most loyal subjects in a Black Friday purge at his Century City headquarters and having to respond to an inquiry from his own nation's government. This is a faceoff that Bruce Patrick McNall cannot afford to lose.

One of the downsides of befriending an owner, coach or athlete, or, for that matter, anyone in any livelihood, is in its inherent difficulty in believing the worst about that person. Throughout the last few years, so many individuals have become so smitten by McNall--an undeniable charmer and bon vivant described by one old and dear acquaintance as someone who "could sell pictures to the blind and snow to the Eskimos"--that many have been willing to overlook or dismiss his self-acknowledged penchant for prevarication or embellishment, his know-how at how to succeed in business by trying practically anything.

It is with this in mind that acquaintances dread the thought of McNall being jeopardized by bankruptcy, corruption or anything else that would reduce his role as one of the most popular and fascinating Players ever to populate the back lots of California sports, a jocular jock mogul with a endearing accessibility that makes one root for McNall to emerge from this morass of hassles he has gotten himself into, if for no better reason than the sheer vivacity of his personality. Face it, the guy has been valuable to Los Angeles sports in ways too numerous even for a numismatist to count. We have no desire to see his empire crumble.

McNall came striding into the various sports of kings in a limitless collection of dapper dark suits, sort of the anti-Jerry Buss, dressed for success. Step by step, the ambitious McNall went from being a minority investor in such losing propositions as the L.A. Kings of hockey and the Dallas Mavericks of basketball to becoming a legitimate bigwig, an American sportsman who tacked hockey teams, football teams and thoroughbred horses onto his walls like the trophies of a hunter. He was not so much an owner as a collector.

Shrewdest of the wheeler-dealers, McNall went out and bought one of the most expensive, unattainable athletes in North America, then co-opted that individual, Wayne Gretzky, into investing in the most expensive, unattainable picture of an athlete extant, a gimcrack of Honus Wagner valued as though painted by Renoir. This transaction was negotiated by McNall with the same sanguine resolve that had enabled him two decades ago, at the tender age of 24, to sit inside a Zurich boardroom and outbid agents of Aristotle Onassis and Valery Giscard d'Estaing for a decidedly rare 5th-Century coin. Not long ago he put up for sale another coin, a gold commemorative so historic that it was said to have been minted by Brutus on behalf of Caesar.

This is no piker, Bruce McNall. And yet what was often ignored in eventual tributes to McNall's status and sociability were the means by which he accumulated many of his holdings. Inside his portfolio, for example, reportedly were mentions of his graduate studies at Oxford or of his financial consolidations with Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty, all of them figments of a vivid imagination. McNall cut corners and took chances, sneaking genuine coins of the realm, to borrow a phrase from Sydney Greenstreet, out of foreign lands even inside his socks or shoes, or acquiring artifacts with methods tantamount to smuggling. His was a risky business.

On the sports page, however, his identity was solely that of a marvelously wealthy eager beaver, intent upon making a go of ice hockey in Los Angeles in a venture only slightly less difficult to sell publicly than snow to Eskimos. For nearly a quarter of a century, the Kings had entertained audiences with scarcely more competitive legitimacy than skaters in the Ice Capades. Seldom had one team been so poor for so long. Never champions, they were rarely even challengers.

McNall was a breath of fresh air. Not that the previous owner hadn't been committed to winning, but Buss' attentions were divided, whereas McNall was single-minded. He was a boy with a great new toy. Unlike other boys, however, McNall did not merely play with his toys; he built and built upon them, like Lego blocks or electric trains. He spent. Money seemed to be no object. When the winning would begin, McNall would unearth other methods of making something on his investment, among them an escalation of ticket prices that made rinkside seats affordable only to those who did not have to inquire what they cost.

With the great Gretzky came renewed interest, and with each triumph came the band wagoneers. The locker room became a place where players could no longer undress or accommodate interviews without first socializing with musicians or golfers who were invited into the private sanctuary by McNall as though it were some members-only Sunset Strip lounge. It became not uncommon to find a Goldie Hawn or a Candice Bergen milling about the dressing room, as though having been appointed honorary assistant coach. McNall had finally begun to derive from hockey what Buss had long enjoyed from basketball, a juicy mixture of success and glitz.

And in the process, he had even made the selfless gesture of removing himself, at least theoretically, from the everyday role of immediate superior to the team's ranking hockey expert, turning it over to two men who ostensibly would oversee the entire operation. Insiders insist that this was little more than posturing, that McNall was as involved the past two seasons as ever. Nevertheless, it was at the very least a clever maneuver during a time when other owners of teams refused to accept any responsibility for their teams' failures. In a world of George Steinbrenners and Jerry Joneses, here was a boss who seemed willing to buy the horses but let his hired hands handle them.

This has been the public McNall, a hail fellow well met. In his uncomfortable struggle to keep up appearances, McNall has been contending of late that all is well, that his pockets remain deep, that his sudden move to sell majority interest in the Kings reflects no dire straits on his part, that parting with high-priced football player Rocket Ismail brought him little sorrow, that his reported $92-million debt to Bank of America will be addressed and that, fortuitously, the volatile rare-coin business is bouncing back. Yet creditors are at the door. So are investigators. McNall must find a way to hold them off.

In one fell swoop Friday, meanwhile, he relinquished his role as pro hockey's chairman of the board and laid off some personal employees. Tumult has come to the Byzantine house of McNall.

Businessman, movie producer, mover and shaker, on the sports page Bruce the boss remains, although his story by now certainly transcends his status as employer of a bunch of hockey players. Given time and means, perhaps McNall will extricate himself from this sinkhole and go back to the simple pleasures of watching a stallion gallop, watching a skater skate. The guy has been in tough fixes before but usually got out of them, richer for the experience. Bottom line, good luck figuring a way out of this.

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