Lee Zeidman was on vacation in Charleston, S.C., last weekend when his cell phone began to suddenly ping like a winning slot machine in Las Vegas.
The Lakers had just agreed on a trade for Anthony Davis.
After missing the playoffs the previous six seasons, the Lakers were once again favorites to win the NBA championship, following their blockbuster move. Now, everyone wanted to be the first to contact Zeidman, who as the president of Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live, holds the keys to the epicenter of the basketball world next season.
“The last time that happened was when LeBron James signed with the Lakers,” Zeidman said. “They have their two superstars now.”
Not only did the Lakers trade for Davis, they could add another superstar player in free agency. And down the Staples Center hall, the Clippers are considered the front-runners to sign reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and could add another max player as well.
In Las Vegas, the Lakers are 3-1 favorites to win the NBA championship; the Clippers, right behind at 6-1.
“I believe this is the year that Staples Center, based on what the Lakers and Clippers may potentially do this summer, will become the center of the basketball universe,” Zeidman said. “You could have anywhere from three to five superstars playing in the same building. Both teams will be on national TV regularly. The best two teams in the league could be under one roof.”
He’s seen 18 of the past 20 Grammy Awards shows, plus the Democratic National Convention, but Zeidman hasn’t seen everything he hoped he would since the doors opened in 1999.
“I’ve been doing this for 31 years, 10 years at The Forum and going on 21 years at Staples Center, and there’s just two things I would love to see before I’m done,” Zeidman said. “I want to see a ‘Hallway Series’ between the Lakers and Clippers in the playoffs, and I would love to host the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals in the same season. But a ‘Hallway Series’ in the Western Conference Finals would be a dream.”
The closest Staples Center came to a postseason “Hallway Series” came in 2006 when the Clippers defeated the Denver Nuggets in five games in the first round and the Lakers held a 3-1 series lead against the Phoenix Suns before losing three straight. Not only did Zeidman miss out on his dream playoff matchup, he almost had to referee a battle between Madonna and the Clippers.
“The Clippers were one win away from making the Western Conference Finals and we had a Madonna date that would have coincided with what would have been a Clippers home game in the conference finals,” Zeidman said. “The Suns beat the Clippers in Game 7, so we didn’t have to worry about it, but that would have been a battle. Madonna and her promoter said they had the date, and the Clippers said they had the date. We rolled the dice there, but I will never roll the dice again. That was the most stressful thing ever.”
The busiest postseason for Zeidman came in 2012, when the Lakers and Clippers advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs while the Kings were on their way to winning their first Stanley Cup. The success of all three teams that season created the “carmageddon” of sports at Staples Center over 72 hours in mid-May, as the arena hosted six playoffs games in four days. It was a dream for most area sports fans but also caused nightmares for Zeidman.
“I told the leagues, ‘You can’t schedule the Kings game before an NBA playoff game,’ ” Zeidman said. “You could have five overtimes and then what? I was on the phone with the NBA saying, ‘You’re not really going to do this are you?’ They said they had to do it for broadcast purposes.
“If the Kings went long, we were going to have to push the Clippers game back a day, which would have pushed the Lakers game back a day as well. It was wild. The Kings lost in regulation, so it didn’t affect anything, but that was the first time I ever had two leagues tell me that they were going to roll the dice like that.”
That would be the last time the Lakers won a playoff game or played past April. The last few years have been unusually quiet at Staples Center in May and June. The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 and haven’t won a playoff game in seven years. The Kings have rotated between not making the playoffs and being eliminated in the first round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. And the Clippers haven’t made it out of the first round since 2015.
“These last five years have been hard,” Zeidman said. “We haven’t hosted a single significant playoff game. As an arena operator, the playoffs are what you live for. Last year, when the Kings got eliminated in four games by Vegas, it was April 17 and we didn’t have another event for 50 days. It’s very tough for our part-time employees who work here and it’s hard for everyone who makes a living working around these games.”
As Zeidman looks toward next season, he can’t help but think back 13 years when he was one Lakers’ win away from the elusive “Hallway Series.”
“We were planning to do a lot in and around the building in 2006 if the Lakers won and advanced to play the Clippers,” Zeidman said. “L.A. Live wasn’t open yet, but we were talking about food and beverage specials around the games, a Lakers fan fest one day, a Clippers fan fest the next, special merchandise around the first-ever ‘Hallway Series.’
“Hopefully, we get to revisit those plans next season.”