You probably don’t know Gary Martin Zelman by name, but you’ve seen him if you watched the Lakers play a nationally televised home game at Staples Center over the last 20 years.
Martin and his friend, Richard J. Simmons, have seats behind the national broadcast table at center court and can be seen every time the camera shows the announcing team during a break in the action. They are perhaps the team’s most recognizable, though still mostly anonymous, fans.
Zelman normally wears designer sunglasses, a large Lakers necklace and a shirt unbuttoned low enough to show off every diamond around the logo. Simmons has a jet-black goatee and bears a striking resemblance to General Zod, the villain from Superman II.
“I never thought I would be recognized or be anything more than just a mere fan,” said Zelman, a retired businessman and eyewear designer who lives in Thousand Oaks. “It’s crazy but I get recognized all the time. They don’t know my name but they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Lakers! Lakers!’”
Most fans know him as the “Lakers Sign Guy.” After Kobe Bryant scored 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006, Zelman thought it would have been great to hold a sign during the historical night. Two weeks later, he debuted with a “KO” sign in his right hand and a “BE” sign in his left. He would later make signs for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and other players.
Over the last 10 years, he has made signs for nearly every player on the team. His favorite is still Metta World Peace: He raised a picture of the Earth with his right hand and a picture of the peace sign with his left.
“People started calling me the ‘Lakers Sign Guy’ about five years ago and it just stuck,” said Zelman, who takes a big bag with five or six signs to each game. “Whenever we get a new player, I look online for what their nickname is and think of a fun sign. It was easy for guys like Anthony Davis and LeBron James. I wanted to bring D12 back for Dwight Howard, but he changed numbers.”
Anyone on social media would quickly recognize Zelman for what has become one of the most popular Lakers GIFs. Search for a Lakers GIF and among clips of Bryant and James, you’ll find Zelman in his black shirt and glasses, raising his Lakers necklace to the camera as he says Lakers twice; his tongue protruding out of his mouth as if he was Gene Simmons on stage during a KISS concert.
“I remember as soon as I did it thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope that wasn’t as bad I think,’” Zelman said. “My tongue was hanging out of my mouth and it was ridiculous.”
That viral clip of Zelman was taken during Game 5 of the 2010 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Phoenix Suns. The Lakers were up 83-76 with 8 minutes 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter when TNT came back from commercial and went to broadcasters Marv Albert and Doug Collins. Zelman, as usual, could see himself on screen and decided he would let the country know his feelings on the game.
“I heard it was a popular GIF but I didn’t get on Twitter until March,” Zelman said. “I like it because it keeps me young. I’m a lot fatter and I’m a lot older now than I was then.”
Zelman, 57, has only missed a handful of Lakers games over the last 20 years despite a 45-mile commute and health issues, including colon cancer and two heart attacks. He goes to games with his 25-year old son Shane and pays $42,000 per season (not including the playoffs, which could cost up to $30,000) for what he calls “the best seats in the house.”
Zelman connected the Lakers with luxury jewelry maker Jason Arasheben, founder of Jason of Beverly Hills, who designed the Lakers championship rings in 2009 and 2010. Zelman has a personalized copy of the rings similar to the ones made for the owners, players and coaches.
Although Zelman and Simmons are good friends now, they didn’t know each other before the opening of Staples Center. They share a common love for the Lakers but couldn’t be more different. Simmons is an employment litigation attorney.
Simmons grew up in Boston but moved to Los Angeles after graduating from California in 1976. He fell in love with the Lakers during the “Showtime” era and became a season-ticket holder at the Forum in 1984. Zelman moved to L.A. from New York when he was 29, shortly after the 1991 NBA Finals, and fell in love with the Lakers when they were led by Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. He didn’t become a season-ticket holder until the team moved to Staples Center.
“When I first met Gary, I said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Simmons said. “He is this flamboyant, aggressive guy with an open shirt and a lot of jewelry and was a little bit much. But he was clearly a fan and that’s what I liked about him. He just made me laugh because he was so over the top and into the game.”
The odd couple traveled to Orlando, Fla., and Boston during the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals and have become inseparable during the NBA season ever since. Simmons invited Zelman to go to Tuesday’s season opener, which was a Clippers home game.
“We’re opposites. He’s an intellectual academia and I’m a wise guy from Long Island,” Zelman said, “but for whatever reason the two of us just clicked and we have a love for each other that’s real.”
As much as Zelman loves the Lakers and going to games, the team has started to crack down on his signs. They have told him to reduce their size and are refusing to store them for him after previously keeping them for him to use during games. He said getting the signs through security is a regular struggle of which he has grown tired.
“They’re putting me in a situation where I’m looking at selling my seats for certain games now. I’m not going to be at the Christmas Day game, for example,” Zelman said. “I’m not going to lie, what they’re doing to me hurts and I don’t know how much longer I want to do this. I never imagined that thought would cross my mind, but it has.”