Lakers also have players in the stands
Bassist Geo Valle has played more sold-out shows at the Forum and Staples Center than any other artist. He’s performed before celebrities and politicians, and some of L.A.'s richest. Of course, most of them probably didn’t even notice.
Yup, that’s live music blaring from the rafters of Staples Center. The official Los Angeles Lakers pep band -- an offshoot of the USC marching band -- has been around longer than Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. Longer even than Staples. Yet many fans don’t even know it exists.
“I’m a legend in my own mind,” joked Valle, who has performed with the band for 23 1/2 seasons.
The Lakers band, composed of nine trumpets, six or seven trombones, a bass and a drum set, has been playing at home games since 1979, when USC alum and Lakers owner Jerry Buss decided he wanted live music in the stands. When the team moved from the Forum to Staples in 1999, the band moved too. Today, the performers sit above the crowd in Section 308.
Until a few years ago, they relied on old-fashioned lung power to make themselves heard. Now, microphones pipe their sounds through loudspeakers, a necessary byproduct of moving from the 400,000-square-foot Forum to the 1-million-square-foot Staples Center, said John Black, the team’s vice president of public relations.
It’s so effective, their playing often gets mistaken for canned music. “I just assumed it was the sound system,” said Lakers fan Bridget Hatziris, whose company owns season seats in Section 117, across the arena from the band. “I come pretty often, but I didn’t know.”
Mortgage broker Hector Zuniga, 33, of Brentwood knows the band all too well. Every home game, he sits in the first row of Section 307, so close to the band members that he sometimes has to squeeze by them in the aisle when he goes on a food run.
“I’m a trumpet player, so I appreciate it,” Zuniga said. “But it gets annoying after awhile.”
He’s so familiar with the band’s playlist that he hums along and knows exactly when it’s reached its end. It includes brassy renditions of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and System of a Down’s “Toxicity.” His biggest beef with the musicians, he said, is that “they’re all Trojans and I don’t like that.”
With that kind of proximity, the ear-splitting drums and brass section are enough to send a person running for an aspirin. In Zuniga’s case, he called the ticket office and asked for a seat change.
He had a ruse: “I told them I have two small children and it might hurt their ears,” he said. But after being told there were no additional third-level, first-row seats, he decided he and his “children” could live with it.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “They’re part of the Lakers. The Lakers are old-school in their tradition . . . and they don’t let them go. They don’t have to do cheesy stuff like the Clippers.”
At a time when entertainment at NBA games is highly choreographed, with hip-hop music, scantily clad dancers and massive electronic scoreboards, a traditional pep band is a throwback. Although most college basketball teams have a pep band, only a handful play at NBA games.
“We’ve sort of been a trendsetter in the NBA as opposed to a trend follower,” the Lakers’ Black said. “We do what we think our fans will enjoy and what we think is a good entertainment product. . . . Most importantly, our owner loves them.”
This year, hoping to recapture some of that old-school tradition, the Indiana Pacers started a pep band.
“We were looking to freshen up the atmosphere a little bit,” said David Benner, the Pacers’ public information director, adding that recorded music played over the PA system had grown “a little stale.”
“There’s something about live music that adds an element of life to the whole thing,” Benner said. “A lot of people have come in and said they like it. It’s fresh; it’s different.”
Brandon Operchuck, in his seventh season as the Lakers band’s drummer, thinks it makes a difference with the fans.
“When you have 18,000 people in an arena, you have to play as hard as you possibly can,” Operchuck said, who pounds so hard he works up a sweat. “If I don’t send a strong pulse -- give a strong heartbeat -- the fingers, toes and limbs out there aren’t going to feel it. If I was a fan, I’d be standing up and yelling, ‘Defense!’ I get the opportunity to do it three times as loud and to influence the people around me.”
And as jobs go, they don’t get much better -- even if the pay is a meager $10 a game. That includes an extra ticket, a huge perk, especially for band members who grew up rooting for the Lakers.
“I used to play hoops pretending to be Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar],” said USC doctoral student Walter Simonsen, 27, in his fifth season with the band. “I’m so happy to be here. I feel like a kid who’s going to Disneyland.”