Dodgers' Suitor Known for Playing Hardball

Times Staff Writer

There's no shortage of opinions on David W. Checketts, the man behind a $650-million bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from News Corp.

The former Madison Square Garden chief wins kudos from some former colleagues for his ability to see the grander glory of sports franchises and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make them shine -- even firing a friend and colleague over dinner.

Others note that his brutal style and "The Art of War"-like moves have left a trail of enemies who don't trust him. Among them is Bob Gutkowski, the former Garden president whom Checketts replaced.

"If he buys the Dodgers, I wish you all luck," said Gutkowski, now a New York sports consultant.

Checketts is scheduled to meet with News Corp. officials next week. Neither side would comment, but some baseball sources already are raising questions about whether he can put together an investment group that has the wherewithal to buy the Dodgers.

Similar questions were asked when Checketts helped lead a group that tried to purchase the Boston Red Sox. The team wound up being sold to a rival party in 2002.

One of the obstacles to Checketts' Boston bid, top-ranking Major League Baseball sources said, was concern about whether funding was secure.

A league source had similar questions about the latest bid: "I don't know who's in the group and neither does [News Corp.] from what I'm told."

There's a lot of buzz around the man who would rule Chavez Ravine.

While serving six years as president and chief executive of MSG Sports Group, Checketts ran world-famous Madison Square Garden, two related television networks and three professional sports teams -- the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers and the New York Liberty of the WNBA. He is widely credited with restoring luster to the arena by beefing up its schedule, improving the performance of the teams and bringing back boxing. He also bought Radio City Music Hall.

That juggling act took its toll, however.

A year before he was fired in May 2001, Checketts talked openly of his divided existence. He acknowledged some considered him "malicious, tough and ruthless ... but when the day is done, as long as I've held to my values and been true to my family and my God, it won't matter what anyone else thinks.

"Look," he added, "I exist in a world that's pretty gruesome."

Checketts took the plunge into that world in 1983, when he was hired for the front office of the Utah Jazz.

Then 28, he was a product of Mormon culture and a love of sports. A 6-foot-5 walk-on player for the Brigham Young University freshman basketball team, his college education was interrupted when he was shipped out to Los Angeles to serve his mandatory two-year mission. The young elder proselytized in Watts before earning his MBA, working as a management consultant and then taking the Jazz job.

That same year, Checketts experienced what friends said was a defining tragedy -- the death of his older brother, Larry. The two had been moving furniture in a pickup truck when Larry slipped off as he was riding in the back. Checketts circled around to find his sibling writhing on the pavement from massive head injuries.

Larry died six days later. After a half year of mourning, Checketts was still consumed by grief and turned to his father for solace.

"I described the whole scene," Checketts once recalled of that conversation with his father. "Holding Larry. Him screaming my name. Telling him I was right there. I wanted sympathy from my father."

Instead, the elder Checketts pulled his weepy son up short: Are you expecting some special award for going through this? Live your life as a tribute, not a tragedy. Whatever happens, keep moving forward.

The stern advice wasn't lost on Checketts. He moves decisively in business, but keeps a protective barrier around family, which includes his wife, Deb, and six children. While in charge of the Garden, he skipped Sunday sporting events to stay home.

"He had a great ability to go home and spend time with his family and not let what was happening at work affect him at home," said a former associate.

After a brief stop at NBA headquarters as a vice president of development, Checketts started his climb at the Garden. He was hired as president of the woeful Knicks, and quickly made changes.

He let go of popular players to lower payroll, then pulled off a coup by hiring former Lakers coach Pat Riley. Meanwhile, he made waves with a style that detractors say was arrogant and, at times, disingenuous.

Gutkowski, the former Garden president, on Wednesday recalled one political ambush that Checketts allegedly arranged while still the president of the Knicks. Gutkowski said Checketts reported to him, but that didn't stop the ambitious subordinate from setting up a meeting with then-parent company Paramount Communications.

Gutkowski said the next thing he knew, he was called into the office of former Paramount Chief Executive Stanley Jaffe to listen as Checketts asked that the Knicks report directly to Paramount, thus circumventing Gutkowski's control. The coup fizzled, Gutkowski said, and he never trusted Checketts again.

In 1994, Checketts succeeded Gutkowski as Garden president, in time to capture the glow from the Rangers' Stanley Cup win earlier that year, and a surge in the Knicks' fortunes as they made the NBA semifinals for the first time in 21 years.

Checketts took a knock, however, when he was caught in a lie about secretly meeting with former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson to replace the Knicks' Jeff Van Gundy.

His reputation for corporate ruthlessness was cemented in April 1999, when he took friend and then-Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld to dinner, relieving him of his duties over dessert.

Checketts' allies said he considered the meeting a courtesy, allowing him to explain the decision before the next day's public announcement.

Checketts' own run ended in May 2001. He was fired after allegedly irking his boss for being too public as the face of the Garden -- and sniping at him through the city's sports columnists.

Times staff writers Ross Newhan and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.



David Checketts

Age: 47

Hometown: Bountiful, Utah

Education: BS in communications and finance, University of Utah, 1979; MBA, Brigham Young University, 1981

Career highlights:

1983-1989: Top executive

with the Utah Jazz.

1990-1991: Vice president of development for the National Basketball Assn.

1991: Becomes president of the New York Knicks.

1994: Named president of MSG Sports Group, which oversees the Knicks, the Rangers and Madison Square Garden.

2001: Resigns from the Garden. Tries to buy the Red Sox.

2002: Reportedly considers buying the Orlando Magic. Buys SportsWest Productions.

Researched by Los Angeles Times

librarian John Jackson

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