Richard Montgomery immediately recognized the tall blond in the tennis dress in the deli section of his local Ralphs, so he walked up and introduced himself to tennis star Maria Sharapova.
Montgomery, who had heard she lived in Manhattan Beach, told Sharapova he was a City Council member and wondered if she would donate something to a school district fundraiser. A few months later, the chance to watch Sharapova in a photo shoot was auctioned off for about $4,000.
What Silicon Valley is for programmers and Nashville is for musicians, Manhattan Beach has become for professional athletes. Besides Sharapova, there are Lakers and Clippers, Dodgers and Kings. There are pro volleyball players, soccer players and football players.
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jeff Garcia has a house there, and he never played on an L.A. team. The same with New York Rangers star Rob Drury.
Tiger Woods once lived in Manhattan Beach and so did Shaquille O’Neal. Football coach Norm Chow bought a home there while he coached at USC, kept it when he moved to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and is back living in the city now that’s he’s at UCLA.
“On everybody’s street they have a Kings player,” said a blase-sounding Penny Bordokas, a hedge fund manager and a Manhattan Beach resident. She said so many athletes live in town that when another one moves in, “it’s a non-event. We don’t even hear about it.”
Resident Jan Gable, who won the photo shoot with Sharapova, saw Kings center Derek Armstrong recently at a talent show at the school their children attend.
Lakers reserve guard Coby Karl said that although he doesn’t live in the South Bay city, “I want to.” He would join teammates Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton and Lamar Odom, trainer Gary Vitti and coaches Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw and Jim Cleamons, who is in the process of buying his fourth home in Manhattan Beach.
All these athletes -- have we mentioned soccer star Landon Donovan yet? -- can be found in a city of about 35,000 people pressed into less than four square miles.
Ed Kaminsky, president of SportsStar Relocation, a Manhattan Beach firm that specializes in finding homes for athletes nationally, said that the only areas across the country that might have as many pro players are the far larger Scottsdale, Ariz., and South Florida.
The draw? The same things that lure people who don’t know a baseball bat from a hockey stick: clean beaches, a quiet and safe community, an ocean breeze that keeps the smog at bay, good public schools and a lifestyle where long pants are considered formal dress -- if they can afford it.
“When people go on vacations they go to the beach, so it’s a great deal to live in a vacation place,” said Dodger pitcher Derek Lowe.
Former Kings defenseman Rob Blake, who just signed with the San Jose Sharks, said that in the off-season, five or six hockey players will get together to surf in the morning before heading to Venice to work out. Blake, whom a Kings spokesman referred to as “Mr. Manhattan Beach,” often plays in weekend volleyball tournaments, the equivalent of pickup basketball.
In August, he and a group of players enter the annual six-man tournament near the pier. His team may be filled with pro athletes, but he acknowledges that their expertise is skating, not spiking.
“It’s a way to get a workout in on the weekend without going to the gym,” he said.
A sprinkling of athletes has lived in Manhattan Beach for many years. Retired Dodger first baseman Eric Karros said he started hanging out in the city while attending UCLA in the mid-1980s. When he was called up to the Dodgers in 1991, he moved in with a friend already living there and never left, eventually bringing fellow Dodger Mike Piazza with him.
Manhattan Beach in those days was more of a bar town, and Piazza, a drummer, would sometimes sit in with different bands. “It was a great place to be a single guy, 22 or 23, playing for the Dodgers,” Karros said.
As the years passed, Manhattan Beach was transformed from something of a funky beach town where much of the population depended on the defense and aerospace industries into a city with multimillion-dollar homes.
When the Toyota Sports Center in neighboring El Segundo opened in 2000, providing practice facilities for the Lakers and Kings -- along with a short trek to Los Angeles International Airport for road trips -- it just added to Manhattan Beach’s convenience.
“It’s nice to drive 10 minutes and go to practice and not have to get stressed out,” Kings goalie Jason LaBarbera said. “There’s nothing worse as a player than showing up late for practice.”
Jeff Moeller, the Kings’ senior director of communications, estimated that 75% of the 23-member team lives in Manhattan Beach. “You can get to Hollywood, to Beverly Hills for shopping but get back and still have a casual lifestyle at the beach,” Blake said.
LaBarbera was hooked shortly after he joined the team. Reaching the top of a hill on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, he spotted the ocean. “Oh, my god,” he thought. “This is perfect.”
There is another attraction, said Leonard Armato, Shaquille O’Neal’s former agent and now commissioner and chief executive of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour: “Beautiful people wearing small amounts of clothing.”
Armato, married to volleyball pro Holly McPeak, said O’Neal rented a house in Manhattan Beach even after he bought one in a gated section of Beverly Hills. The 7-foot-1, 350-pound O’Neal would ride his custom-built bike along the Strand (the paved beach-side path that runs from Hermosa Beach to Manhattan Beach), waving back at people who recognized him, which presumably meant everybody.
One day, while O’Neal and Armato were sitting on the balcony at Armato’s house, pro volleyball player Sinjin Smith came by. Smith and O’Neal headed to the beach and took on all comers in volleyball.
“Most athletes are outdoors people,” said Dodger infielder Nomar Garciaparra, who lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife, soccer player Mia Hamm. “You look outside and it’s a beautiful day, and you feel guilty if you stay inside. You wake up in the morning, the sun is out and you see the beach.”
Unlike many other communities that attract the wealthy, Manhattan Beach has few gated enclaves, and most homes come with little acreage, as tear-downs have been replaced by two-story homes built almost lot line to lot line.
Dodgers pitcher Brad Penny moved out of town because he needed more land and didn’t like the feeling of neighbors on top of him, Garciaparra said.
Nancy Doyle, principal of Robinson Elementary School, said one of the attractions is that athletes are treated like everyone else when they show up at PTA meetings and other school events. “They’re just regular young families looking for a place to raise their children,” she said.
With pro athletes so commonplace, many players can blend in. “It’s pretty private. There are a lot of wealthy people, so you get left alone,” Donovan said.
And, inevitably, even athletes run into athletes.
Donovan bumped into Laker Chris Mihm while both were buying pumpkins. LaBarbera was at a sushi restaurant when he spotted Garciaparra and Hamm walk past with their twins. He saw Walton at Target.