While folks in Indiana, North Carolina, New York or even, ahem, Boston may beg to differ, Los Angeles has a number of reasons to call itself the basketball capital of the world. The city’s rich basketball history includes the Lakers’ 11 NBA World Championship titles, UCLA’s 11 NCAA basketball titles, a high school system that’s developed dozens of basketball greats, and a wide-ranging pick-up basketball culture featured in such films as White Men Can’t Jump. The prestigious John R. Wooden Award is presented annually to the men's and women's college basketball Players of the Year in a ceremony that takes place at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in downtown. Even the term “slam dunk” was coined in LA by the late, great Lakers announcer Chick Hearn. All of which makes Los Angeles a veritable hoops heaven for roundball junkies looking to explore the city.
When it comes to pro basketball, STAPLES Center in Downtown is the center of the Los Angeles hoops universe. The Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in all of sports, with 16 championships, 24 Hall of Famers (17 players, 4 head coaches, 1 assistant coach, and 2 contributors), and a 33-game winning streak (1971-72 season) that is still the longest of any team in American professional sports. Under the ownership of the late Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers won ten championships, a run that included the fabled Showtime era that was inspired by Buss’ vision that basketball games must be entertaining.
Not to be outdone are the Clippers, who have emerged as a legitimate rival to the Lakers for Los Angeles basketball supremacy. Veterans Lamar Odom and Grant Hill add depth to a talented roster that’s led by Chris Paul and the high-flying Blake Griffin, who were both starters for the Western Conference team in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game.
STAPLES Center is also the home court of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, winners of back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002. One of the league’s eight original teams, the Sparks claim a number of WNBA firsts, from the first basket scored in league history (by guard Penny Toler) to the first dunk in a game by Lisa Leslie. In 2011, Leslie was introduced as the newest member of the Sparks' ownership group, becoming the first former player to invest in a league team. The Sparks lineup includes MVP and Rookie of the Year Candace Parker, two-time WNBA champion DeLisha Milton-Jones and four-time All-Star Alana Beard.
In August 2013, the Nike Basketball 3ON3 Tournament celebrated its fifth anniversary on the streets of L.A. LIVE in Downtown. Nike 3ON3 featured three fun-filled days of basketball, entertainment, food, giveaways and more. All skill levels are invited to compete in the tournament, from “ballers” in the Adult Elite Division to Youth, Wheelchair and Special Olympics divisions. The inaugural Nike Basketball 3ON3 Tournament took place in August 2009 and featured over 500 teams and more than 13,000 players and spectators. Since then, the Nike Basketball 3ON3 Tournament has grown to become one of the largest 3ON3 street basketball tournaments and fan fests in Los Angeles. Annual participation in Nike Basketball 3ON3 exceeds 1,200 teams, 4,500 players and 25,000 spectators, with participants and spectators coming from all over the country.
A pilgrimage to the UCLA campus in Westwood is a must for anyone in search of NCAA basketball history. Under legendary coach John Wooden, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team won 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. Jim Harrick coached the team to an 11th title in 1995, and former coach Ben Howland led the team to three consecutive Final Four appearances, from 2006-2008. Pauley Pavilion was the team’s home court for nine of Wooden’s championships. After a year-long, multi-million dollar renovation, the “House That Wooden Built” reopened on November 9, 2012 with a game that featured the Bruins against Indiana State University, where Wooden coached for two years before making history at UCLA. It was a fitting tribute indeed for the “Wizard of Westwood.”
While the USC Trojans men’s basketball team has a storied basketball history in its own right, with an alumni list that includes NBA Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, NBA standout Gus Williams and legendary coach Tex Winter, it’s the women’s team that’s made more of a national mark in recent decades. Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Cheryl Miller are among the former stars of Trojan teams, which have taken home two NCAA Championship crowns. The Trojans play in the $147 million Galen Center, which opened in 2006. If you're exploring the campus and the adjacent Exposition Park, check out the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the spaceship-like Sports Arena next door. The Coliseum hosted the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics, and the stadium’s iconic peristyle and Olympic cauldron can easily be viewed from the building’s eastern end. The Sports Arena was the Lakers home for seven seasons after the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960.
LA has plenty of indoor and outdoor courts where you can see and join in on some hardcore hoops. UCLA’s John Wooden Center and Men’s Gym, West LA’s Sports Club/LA (if you can get someone to sponsor your way in), Silver Lake’s Bellevue Recreation Center, Westwood Recreation Center, Brentwood’s Barrington Park and Pan Pacific Park near Hollywood all offer competitive games on the hardwood and blacktop. For hoops junkies in LA, though, the real treat is being able to play or watch some ball with an ocean view. Out of the dozens of the region’s beachside courts, none have more of an “only-in-LA” vibe than the courts at Venice Beach, which were featured prominently in White Men Can’t Jump. Games go on all week, weather permitting, and are most active on weekends.
Though the franchise began its Los Angeles life in the Sports Arena and currently calls STAPLES Center home, the Lakers became The Lakers during their 23-year residency at the Forum in Inglewood. Originally known as The Fabulous Forum, the building was home to the team’s first title run in 1972, as well as the five rings won by the “Showtime”-era Lakers that Magic Johnson led during the 1980s. The Forum also hosted the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, best known for Marvin Gaye’s legendary pregame rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Today, the building hosts Faith Central Bible Church, as well as other events, so you may get a chance to pray at the altar of a one-time basketball temple – literally. Check the Faith Central Bible Church’s website for updated schedules.
If you’re looking for Division I basketball in a raucous, high school gym-like atmosphere, Loyola Marymount University’s Gersten Pavilion fits the bill. Situated in the middle of the university’s Westchester campus southeast of Marina del Rey, Gersten Pavilion seats less than 4,200 people but has broken the 4,500 mark with standing-room-only crowds. The Lions roared onto the national basketball scene in the late 1980s under coach Paul Westhead. His teams led Division I in scoring three years in a row, and LMU’s 1990 average of 122.4 points per game is still an NCAA record. Westhead’s teams also hold the records for most points scored by a team in a single game (186) and highest combined score in a game (331). In 1990, Bo Kimble and the Lions ran all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament after the tragic death of teammate Hank Gathers, who led the nation in scoring and rebounding that year. As a tribute to his best friend, Kimble shot his first free throw of each tournament game left-handed, making all three attempts. Both Gathers and Kimble had their numbers retired by LMU.
Not many places allow you to combine the serenity of a sun-kissed coastline drive with the raucousness of a crowded college basketball arena, but Pepperdine University’s Firestone Fieldhouse lets you do just that. Situated on Pepperdine’s idyllic oceanside campus in Malibu, the Fieldhouse seats about 3,100 people but has housed as many as 4,500 for the Waves’ West Coast Conference games. Many greats have donned the Orange and Blue, including Naismith Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson; 15-year NBA veteran and defensive wizard Doug Christie; Olympians Marcos Leite and Yakhouba Diawara; and other WCC legends like Dana Jones, Dwayne Polee, Boot Bond and Orlando Phillips. Thirteen Waves that played their home games in Firestone Fieldhouse (and 17 total) have gone on to compete in the NBA, most recently Mychel Thompson with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012. In fact, a Pepperdine alum was on an NBA roster for 34 consecutive seasons between 1977 and 2010. Eleven Pepperdine teams that called Firestone Fieldhouse home have advanced to the NCAA Tournament, four of them under head coach Jim Harrick and another three with Tom Asbury in charge. Between 1991 and 1993, the Waves set a WCC record by winning 38 straight games against conference opponents. A year before the Waves moved into Firestone Fieldhouse, William “Bird” Averitt electrified crowds by scoring an NCAA-best 33.9 points per game during the 1972-73 season.