By Don Wanlass
The signing of LeBron James by the Los Angeles Lakers, which became official July 9, not only restores the Lakers to relevance within the National Basketball Association, it allows the Lakers to take a step forward toward regaining their position as the No. 1 sports team in Los Angeles.
Sometime during the 1990s — or maybe it was after that first title won by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2000 — the Lakers surpassed the Dodgers as the favorite team of Los Angeles sports fans. The Dodgers regained that designation by winning five straight National League Western Division titles from 2013 to 2017 while the Lakers were going without a trip to the playoffs since the 2012-13 was swept 4-0 in the opening round by the San Antonio Spurs.
With the star power that James brings, along with his talent and ability to make other players better, the Lakers should improve from last season’s 35 wins. How much they will improve is uncertain. I expect at least a 10-game jump, meaning 45 wins for the Lakers.
But in the NBA’s Western Conference, 45 wins doesn’t even guarantee you a playoff berth and the Lakers need to return to the playoffs if they are to catch the Dodgers as L.A.’s favorite team.
The Dodgers arrived in L.A. from Brooklyn in 1958; the Lakers making the move from Minneapolis for the 1960-61 season.
After finishing in seventh place their first year here, the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 and won the series again in 1963 and 1965 to rip favored team status from the Los Angeles Rams, which had it since winning the 1951 NFL championship.
The Lakers, led by the star power of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in their early years in Los Angeles, were attractive to the Hollywood crowd that valued star power, but they still never matched the Dodgers until Showtime with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar propelled them to five titles between 1980 and 1988. During those nine seasons, the Lakers lost in the finals three times.
After winning their third World Series in six years in 1965, the Dodgers went on a slight drought, losing in four World Series in 1966, 1974, 1977 and 1978 before bouncing back to win in 1981 and 1988.
With Showtime, the Rams all of a sudden found themselves the third favorite team and owner Carroll Rosenbloom decided to move the team to Anaheim. When the Raiders replaced them in the Coliseum a few years later, the Rams fell to fourth. And that was before the move to St. Louis.
I dare say the Rams are still the fourth favorite team in Los Angeles because, while the Rams were in St. Louis, the USC Trojans football team became the third favorite team in L.A. The Pete Carroll years (2001-2009) saw the Trojans win 97 games in nine years and go 7-2 in bowl games while winning two national championships, one which was vacated due to the Reggie Bush scandal.
Anyone who thinks the Rams have supplanted USC as the fourth favorite team in L.A. with their fine season last year only needs to look at attendance figures. Both teams play in the same stadium; USC averages more fans a game.
So where do the rest of L.A.’s teams rank. Currently, I would rank the Clippers fifth, the Kings sixth, the Chargers seventh, UCLA football eighth, the L.A. Galaxy ninth and UCLA basketball 10th. The Los Angeles Football Club is too new to rank and the Los Angeles Sparks, while highly successful on the court, have yet to make much of an impact on Los Angeles.
When you play weekday afternoon games at 12:30 p.m. in the middle of summer like the Sparks did July 12, you aren’t making much of an impact.
Of course, these rankings are subject to change at any given time. If the Kings win another Stanley Cup as the Clippers descend back into irrelevance, those teams could easily switch places.
If the Galaxy and LAFC forge a major rivalry, that could make one of those teams more relevant and more attractive to the Los Angeles sports fan.
As the World Cup has shown, soccer is becoming more popular in L.A. The Galaxy are one of the powers of Major League Soccer and could eventually make a case to be higher than ninth in this ranking, which is entirely unscientific.
Also, the Rams and Chargers will battle for Southland supremacy as long as both teams call L.A. home. The Rams have the edge currently, coming off a division-winning season. The Chargers not only need to get better on the field, they need to lure more fans to the StubHub Center in Carson.
The stadium is tiny by NFL standards, but most visiting teams last year seemed to bring more fans than the Chargers. That could change by 2020, when the Chargers join the Rams in Inglewood.
Right now, the other teams in Los Angeles are looking up at the Dodgers and the Lakers. In star-struck Los Angeles, the Lakers have the biggest star in LeBron James. Only by leading the Lakers back to the playoffs and — eventually a championship — will he restore the Lakers to the pinnacle of Los Angeles sports franchises?