At last, some of the players at Staples Center are on a winning streak.
We’re not talking about members of the Lakers, Clippers, Sparks and Kings — the downtown arena’s four professional sports teams.
We’re talking about Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt-Amrany and Gary Tillery of Highwood, Ill., and Erik Blome of Martinez, Calif. — the artists who are responsible for the five statues of L.A. sports greats that stand outside Staples Center.
Blome’s Wayne Gretzky, captured standing on the hockey ice and waving to his fans at the moment he bid farewell to the sport he had dominated like no other, was the first to go up, arriving in October 2002. Next, in 2004, came Earvin “Magic” Johnson, wrought by Omri Amrany and associate Tillery, who cast him in gargantuan bronze, bursting from what look like eruptions of molten lava as he leads a Lakers fast break.
Blome’s Oscar De La Hoya, gloves raised in victory as he leans against the boxing ropes, appeared in 2008 — and until last month was the only statue on which the public stood a decent chance of finding the artist’s name, which is signed on the front of its metal base. Last year saw the arrival of the Amranys’ Chick Hearn, seated with headset on at his broadcasting desk and gesturing with a look of impish satisfaction — as if Red Auerbach, mastermind of the arch-enemy Boston Celtics, had taken out one of his trademark victory cigars, only to have an astonishing last-minute Lakers surge deny him a reason to smoke it.
“Fans are constantly pulling up on Chick Hearn Court, jumping out of their cars, posing for photos with the statues, then driving away before being nabbed by the parking police,” Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote last November in an ode to the sculptures. “The night the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics for the NBA title in June, fans were literally grabbing the hands of the statues and dancing with them.”
But until recently, identifying the sculptors’ monikers on most of the statues had been harder than swishing a 30-foot jump shot.
Last month, the Amranys’ statue of Jerry West was unveiled, and its pedestal finally gave credit where credit was due. “Artists Omri and Julie Amrany” is carved into the black granite, in easily visible white characters just a bit smaller than the ones used just above to list the career highlights of the Lakers’ “Mr. Clutch.”
“We stood up and everybody cheered,” Omri Amrany said recently, recalling the dedication ceremony. Until then, he and his co-creator wife had been philosophical about the lack of recognition for their Staples work.
“I think it’s better if the name is on the granite, but sometimes you’ve got to put your ego aside,” Julie Rotblatt-Amrany had said in a separate interview.
Between them, the four artists have created scores of public statues, among them a Rosa Parks, two Martin Luther King Jrs. and a whole team of Chicago Black Hawks by Blome, and Pat Tillman, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Vince Lombardi by various combinations of the Amrany-Tillery team.
In an interview last December, Blome recalled that it had been several years since he had noticed there wasn’t a plaque on his Gretzky statue — “one of my most successful things ever” — and alerted Staples Center’s management. “It’s a nice thing and certainly would be appreciated, but it’s not like it’s hurting my feelings,” he said of the missing credit.
On March 4, arena management belatedly got around to installing plaques on the Gretzky pedestal and in the pavement in front of the Amranys’ Chick Hearn sculpture.
Before that, you had to sidle up to Gretzky from the side to see Blome’s signature in the thin, polished metal base that masquerades as ice. The writing was impossible to see at night, when crowds arrive, because the statue stands in dim light under an overhanging patio. Staples Center can’t take credit for Blome’s visibility on the De La Hoya statue: it was commissioned by the boxer himself, and landed in front of the arena after plans for planting it elsewhere had fallen through.
With Hearn, you had to crouch behind the announcer and search the bottom of his coattails to see the Amranys’ signature in bronze.
But now that the plaques have been installed, your average Lady Gaga fan arriving at Staples Center needn’t feel confused about who the guy with the hockey stick and the older fellow with the headphones might be. It wasn’t just the artists whose names had been missing — so had Gretzky’s and Hearn’s, along with any list of their accomplishments.
Why were the credits so long in coming? Michael Roth, communications vice president for Anschutz Entertainment Group, Staples Center’s owner-operator, fielded the question like a player who makes no excuses after he’s blown a game with a careless foul.
“It was our error — my error. Frankly, I dropped the ball on it and never got it done. Literally every month someone had said, ‘Where’s our plaque?’ — someone named Leiweke,” meaning Timothy J. Leiweke, AEG’s president and chief executive.
To finish filling in the artistic box score, Staples Center would have to come through with one more plaque, for Magic Johnson. Then fans like Ian Kerch, who strolled over on a break from work at the Los Angeles Convention Center the other day so a friend could snap a picture of him taking a charging foul from the supersized superstar, will know which artists to credit with an assist. Kerch would have had to stand with his toes next to Johnson’s pyramid-shaped pedestal and lean over a bit to examine the attached base for the signatures of co-creators Omri Amrany and Tillery. Like just about everyone, he did not.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem,” Tillery said. “It’s nice to get recognition on things like this. But the main thing is that the person who’s walking by stops and takes it in, and is impressed.”