You Hear the Audio, You Roll the Video

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shaquille O'Neal arrives two hours before tipoff.

He steers his silver Mercedes sedan--the one with the Superman headlights--down the steep ramp that heads into the bowels of Staples Center. His stereo is cranked higher than ear-splitting and a half-notch below ear-bleeding.

He comes to a stop, but his magnesium rims are made to give the illusion they're still spinning. They continue to whir even after he unfolds his 7-foot-1 body and makes his way toward the Laker locker room.

"You can usually hear Shaq coming," said NBC cameraman Patrick Rondou, responsible for getting shots of players as they enter. "You can hear the thumping of the bass. I remember when I used to do his arrivals in Orlando and you could hear him a block away. One of his cars at the time was a Ford Expedition that was totally gutted out in the back, it was basically a two-seater in the front, and everything else was a sound system. I knew when to start rolling tape, so by the time he came around the corner my camera was up to speed.

"All of his cars are all custom. He never comes in a stock car. Most of the other players come in beautiful cars--Bentleys, Mercedeses, lot of SUVs--but Shaq, he dresses them up to his taste and style."

Laker players and coaches drive under the building for games, then give their keys to valet parkers who either leave them where they are or move them to a nearby VIP lot. The parkers are not allowed to make any adjustments in the cars, including moving the seats or turning down the tunes. That can make things tricky, especially for parkers who are more than a foot shorter than O'Neal and are merely trying to see over the steering wheel as they drive up the steep ramp, all the while sliding back on the leather seats.

Some of the parkers need to hook their left foot around the emergency brake just to hang on as they head up the hill. Still, they say, it's a gas. On his first day of work, one parker whipped out his cellular phone just so he could call his mother to breathlessly inform her he was driving Kobe Bryant's car.

Bryant arrived Friday in a black Mercedes sedan, ho-hum wheels considering he occasionally rolls up in his wife's Ferrari.

Rondou, one of NBC's top camera engineers, loves the assignment of shooting arrivals. He said almost every NBA player, from rookie to superstar, drives a car worth $50,000 or more.

But there are exceptions. Laker rookie Mark Madsen tools around in a black pickup truck with license plates that read, "THX SHAQ," a nod to the teammate who bought it for him.

Now that's clout: After Game 1, Jack Nicholson was spotted heading off the court and into a tunnel crowded with people shoulder to shoulder.

"He just cleared his throat and said, 'Gentlemen,' " marveled Dave Guingona, senior sports producer at KRON-TV in San Francisco. "The thing just parted like the Red Sea."

Definition of despair: Long after the game had started, there was a large crowd milling about in front of Staples Center. The giant TV screen on the 11th Street side was showing promotional clips of upcoming events, nothing more. People weren't even getting score updates, which was part of the plan to avert an encore of last year's post-victory disturbance.

Still, hundreds of fans stayed and watched longingly as late arrivals picked up their tickets at the will-call windows.

"Yeah, it's depressing, but there's nothing you can do," said Rigo Varela, who had waited in line since 11 a.m. in hopes of buying four of the handful of leftover tickets released by the arena throughout the afternoon.

Varela had about 20 people in front of him in line when he learned the ticket well had run dry. So there he stood, in his Kobe Bryant jersey, clutching his clapping-hands soundmaker, forced to trudge home.

"I only live a couple blocks from here," he said. "I went to Game 1 last year. If there's a Game 6 this year, I'll just make sure I'm here at 6 a.m."

Some fans had better luck Wednesday. They were allowed to buy a maximum of two tickets each, and at least one person, Mario Brabo, waited in line twice and walked away with four $45 seats.

"I'm so lucky," Brabo said. "My friends are not going to believe this."

It seems the most and least popular person at Staples is the one working the ticket window.

"People either love me or hate me," said a man behind the glass who only identified himself as David.

Latte for your thoughts: Where do NBA owners go when they're looking for advice? Apparently, some of them turn to Philadelphia's Pat Croce, who has taken his team from the Atlantic Division cellar to the NBA Finals in three years.

Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban turned to Croce for some words of wisdom this season, and Howard Schulz, the Starbucks founder and new owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, recently checked in for advice.

"He called me up and wanted to spend some time with me," Croce said. "Here's a guy who convinced you to pay $5 for a 50-cent cup of coffee. I was like, 'What can you learn from me?' "

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