Before Tuesday’s Sparks game against the Atlanta Dream, an idea struck as I sat in the chair at the announcer’s table connected to Chick Hearn’s statue in front of Staples Center.
The bronze sculpture of the legendary Lakers play-by-play announcer is one of 10 statues displayed in Star Plaza, and as fans filed into the arena wearing Sparks jerseys and shirts I couldn’t help but notice a glaring omission.
The Lakers, Kings and Sparks, who all formerly called the Forum home, each have won multiple championships since moving to Staples Center and have retired jerseys in their new home. But only the Lakers and Kings have honored players and announcers with statues in front of the arena.
(Yes, the Clippers also call Staples Center home but they have yet to win a championship or retire a jersey. They will have an opportunity to properly honor their legendary figures at their future home in Inglewood when their lease at Staples Center is up in 2024.)
So why not the Sparks? It’s a shame the team doesn’t have a more permanent presence at Staples Center, which a statue would provide.
As is, their entire situation implies that they are a forgotten tenant. Their home locker room is used as the visiting team’s locker room for NHL games and the news conference room for NBA games. They have been forced to play games elsewhere if an NBA or NHL game is scheduled on the same night.
But the truth is, the team has big money behind it. The Sparks are owned by Magic Johnson, Mark Walter, Todd Boehly, Bobby Patton and Stan Kasten, who also make up the ownership group of the Dodgers, recently valued by Forbes at $3.3 billion. The Sparks group also includes Eric Holoman, who is the managing partner of Magic Johnson Enterprises and president and CEO of EquiTrust Life Insurance Company.
The deep pockets of Sparks ownership is relevant because statues aren’t cheap. The figures outside Staples Center have cost between $150,000 and $250,000, meaning it might take the equivalent of two one-year maximum WNBA salaries to erect such a sculpture.
It’s not my money, of course, but it seemed to me like honoring Lisa Leslie would be worth it.
When I broached the topic Tuesday to AEG and Sparks officials, they were receptive, but nothing was imminent. The Sparks are in the midst of pursuing their fourth WNBA championship and their lease with AEG for Staples Center is up after this season.
Last Sunday, Leslie coached the Triplets to a BIG3 championship at Staples Center after leading the team to the best record in the league and taking home coach-of-the-year honors in her first season. It was the most recent significant accomplishment in a career that deserves to be recognized in Star Plaza.
Leslie has always been the most logical choice to become the first female immortalized with a statue in front of Staples Center. She would not only be the first Sparks player with a statue, but also the first WNBA player to get a statue in front of her team’s home arena.
Leslie isn’t just one of the greatest WNBA players of all time, she is one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of Southern California. The Gardena native shined at Inglewood Morningside High, where she scored 101 points in one half of a game.
At USC, she became the first player to receive first-team all-conference honors all fours years. She was assigned to the Sparks in the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997 and retired in 2009 holding the league records for points and rebounds. She was a three-time WNBA MVP, two-time WNBA champion and Finals MVP, an eight-time All-Star and three-time All-Star game MVP, as well as a four-time Olympic gold medalist.
She was also the first player to a dunk in a WNBA game.
AEG officials said the process for getting a statue in Star Plaza isn’t complicated: A team like the Lakers or Kings would say they would like to place a statue honoring someone, the team and venue agree on a location and usually split the cost. (The Oscar De La Hoya statue was privately financed.)
In this case, things happened fast.
Holoman, the Sparks’ managing partner, responded to the idea by saying, “We believe Lisa deserves a statue and plan to make that part of the lease renewal discussion with AEG which should take place in the next week or two.”
AEG, which had already committed to partnering with the Sparks if they were looking to pursue a statue for Leslie, were more than happy when I relayed the news.
“We look forward to sitting down with Sparks ownership to negotiate a new lease for the 2020 WNBA season and beyond,” said Lee Zeidman, president of Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and LA Live. “In addition, we plan to discuss the timing and placement of a permanent statue at Staples Center honoring one of the great all-time WNBA players, Lisa Leslie.”
The timing of the statue’s unveiling is uncertain, but this much is known: With AEG and Sparks officials scheduled to meet later this week, Star Plaza will be getting a new statue in the near future and, for the first time, the Sparks will take a permanent place outside of Staples Center along with the Lakers and Kings.