Hometown Heroes: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rosey Grier, Vin Scully and 8 More Sports Legends Who Played and Stayed in L.A.
This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
3 NCAA championships; 6 NBA championships; a record 6 MVP awards
Abdul-Jabbar's L.A. sports connection goes back to his New York boyhood, when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn: "I was Dodgers all the way. Yankee fans were very obnoxious. I wore my Dodgers cap. Sometimes I had to be ready to run or fight."
He still has a home-run bat Pedro Guerrero gave him after the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series. Abdul-Jabbar, 67, an author of eight books, also is a basketball scholar — a 1940s ball has him eagerly explaining how recessed seams changed dribbling. But he recognizes that his life hasn't been as clear as his books.
"I've been somewhat of an enigma," he concedes on the HBO documentary about his life, set to air in 2015. "I hope people understand how I ended up being the way that I am."
In addition to the HBO documentary, Abdul-Jabbar is working on his first novel. "I'm gonna write about Sherlock Holmes' oldest brother, Mycroft. There was just a court ruling that said he is a legitimate character that people can write about without plagiarizing Arthur Conan Doyle. So I'm looking forward to it." He adds, "I'm attracted to Mycroft as a character because he's different from Holmes in that he has a different approach to things. Not as physically active as Sherlock but very cerebral and very capable of getting things done. As you may or may not know, at certain times he is in the British government."
1981 World Series winner; won his first 8 MLB starts; pitched a no-hitter in 1990
Valenzuela is 53, but in the minds of Dodger fans, he always will be 20 — his age in 1981, when "Fernandomania" swept L.A. That season, fans fell in love with the charismatic Mexican pitcher with the killer screwball as he won his first eight starts en route to becoming the only player to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same year — not to mention a Silver Slugger Award and World Series title.
"It was crazy," he recalls with a laugh, standing near the booth from which he has provided color commentary for the Dodgers' Spanish-language radio station for the past 11 years. An avid golfer and family man (Junior was a Padres and White Sox farmhand), he says he loves this gig, "because I'm still in the game."
From left: Fernando Valenzuela and Vin Scully
65 seasons of play-by-play; 25 World Series called
The most enduringly popular person ever associated with the Dodgers, Scully, 86, began calling the team's games in 1950, when he was 21 and the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. In 1958, three years after the team won its only World Series back East — he was in the booth — ownership moved the Dodgers to L.A. and asked him to come along. Fifty-six years later, Scully still calls every home game with his trademark smarts and eloquence and is regarded as the greatest and longest-serving play-by-play announcer in sports history. (He has called 23 no-hitters or perfect games, including Clayton Kershaw's no-no in June.)
"I try to call each play as quickly and accurately as I can," says Scully, "and then I shut up because I'm enjoying the roar of the crowd."
Three-time All-Pro; NFL champion in 1956 (N.Y. Giants)
Grier, 82, is the last surviving member of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, one of the most famous defensive lines in NFL history. Although the four (Grier, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen) played together only from 1963 to 1965, they also became known for performing. An accomplished singer, Grier had the others do backup vocals on a talk show, which led to the recording of the single "Fly in the Buttermilk."
A Brentwood local since the early 1970s, he then carved out a thriving career as an actor (late-'70s TV series The White Shadow) and activist for inner-city youth. Grier struck up a friendship with Robert Kennedy and was with him when he was assassinated in L.A. in 1968. They had met when Kennedy invited him to D.C. to work on a summer program for underprivileged kids.
"We got to his house, and he met us at the door and punched me in the stomach," says Grier. "He just instantly liked me, and I liked him. I got to move around the house the whole night with him, Lauren Bacall and Whizzer White. These other people were stars; I was just a football player."
Los Angeles Kings' all-time leading scorer (557 goals)
Don't let the Canadian accent fool you: After spending 24 of the past 28 years in L.A., Robitaille, 48, projects a vibe that is pure SoCal. The Santa Monica resident hikes Will Rogers State Park and Mandeville Canyon, paddleboards and cheers on the Dodgers and Lakers in addition to his beloved Kings.
"I think I've always felt L.A.," says Robitaille. "The Kings picked me, so I thought, 'L.A. is my town.' "
Though the transition wasn't entirely smooth. "I remember the first time I came in to L.A. was when I made the team to play for the L.A. Kings. We flew in that night, and I think it was two o'clock in the morning because we had played a game in Vancouver. When we were landing — being from Montreal where there's a downtown — I'll never forget flying over and seeing all the lights forever. One of the players says, 'We're in L.A.' And I'm like, 'Ah, this is neat.' And I was looking south, so it was lights forever, but I couldn't see any high-rise buildings. I couldn't get the concept of L.A. at that time."
His first year he lived in Palos Verdes. "I don't think I ever went to Beverly Hills until I was here for about four months. I never went anywhere because we were just playing, and I was just trying to get ready for games." In his second year, he moved to Malibu and thought, "This is it."
One of his biggest accomplishments has been leading the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships as team president, but his biggest thrill playing left wing was sharing ice time with his idol, Wayne Gretzky.
"I was very, very nervous. I remember I wanted to make a special play with him, and I kind of messed it up. He just said, 'Next time, give it to me early, and I'll make the play back to you.' For the next month, every time I would touch a puck, I would just give it to him. Coach got mad at me: 'You got to stop giving him the puck all the time. You have to make a play yourself.' That's how intimidated I was."
From left: Reggie Miller, Tai Babilonia, Lisa Leslie, Randy Gardner and Janet Evans were photographed July 8 by David Black at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Basketball: 1996 gold medalist, the second Games with NBA players
Miller attended the 1984 L.A. Games to see his big sister, legendary women's basketball player Cheryl, though his seats weren't good.
"My mom and dad had great seats," he says. "I was next to the pigeons at the top of the L.A. Coliseum [during the Opening Ceremony] and saying to myself: 'It's pretty cool down there. Maybe at some point I'll play in the Olympics.' "
For Miller, already a nine-year NBA vet when he arrived at the Atlanta Games, playing with San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson, was a revelation. "Obviously, him being in San Antonio and me Indiana, we only faced each other twice, but having a chance to see him on an everyday basis, and the skill level at 7-foot-1, his game was tailor-made for the international game. He dominated the rest of those European teams. It was like taking candy from a baby, really. It was so easy for him."
The one other event he attended at the Olympics was table tennis. "I thought I was good until I actually went to the venue and saw the real ping-pong/table tennis players. What we play in our garage — you and I do in ping-pong — has nothing to do with those guys."
Miller, one of the most gregarious NBA players of the last few decades, was too intimidated to ask for tips. "I didn't get to meet any of them because I was in such awe of how far back they were from the table and how hard they were hitting the ball toward one another, and I'm saying to myself, 'Look, I know I'm good for a garage ping-pong player, but this is a whole different level.' "
A longtime Malibu resident, Miller, 48, has a favorite piece of swag from his Olympics in 1996: "The sweatpants with all the stars and stripes on them, the tearaway ones. I still rock those."
To keep in shape now, Miller mountain bikes near his Malibu home, often with surfer Laird Hamilton, who introduced him to the sport.
Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner
Figure skating, pairs: 1979 world champions; 1976, 1980 Winter Games
They had been skating together since 1968 (Babilonia was 8; Gardner was 10) and during the 1980 Winter Games were the favorites to break the Soviets' 16-year hold on the gold medal — until Gardner, now 56, pulled a muscle and, only minutes before the competition, had to withdraw.
"The next morning, our first phone call was from President Carter saying how sorry he was," recalls Babilonia, 54. "Up against our door at the Olympic Village, we had over 500 telegrams. We touched a chord. We were very lucky."
Though the pair of have known each other for more than 45 years, they still have sweet memories of their first meeting. "We were taking lessons from the same coach, skating teacher Mabel Fairbanks, as solo skaters," recalls Babilonia. There was a club show coming up, and they needed a little pair team for a certain number. Randy was Dr. Doolittle and I was, I guess the wife, Mrs. Doolittle. So, I barely knew Randy. I just knew him in passing. I knew he was a little on the wild side at 10 years old, and he was really good. He had gold blades, and I was shy and had never held a boy's hand at 8 years old. So, she basically had to bribe us to hold hands and just skate around the rink together."
Adds Gardner, "I remember the first time I saw her. A little girl at the rink playing with her Barbie dolls, and she had them all laid out on the benches there. In those days, we had little suitcases that we'd carry our skates in and our daily clothing and skates and everything else, and she had all those Barbies laid out, and she was telling me the name of each one as she pulled them out. And she had these beautiful golden locks of hair."
The duo have continued to be ambassadors for the sport after skating professionally as a team until 2008. Gardner coaches and Babilonia is hoping to revive skating as a Special Olympics program, which she has long been involved with.
Basketball: Four-time gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008)
The soft-spoken and elegant Leslie, 42, who won two WNBA titles with the L.A. Sparks, has carved out a post-playing career as a Wilhelmina model and commentator for ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC's 2012 Olympics. Known for her on-court intensity, she jokes she can't play basketball for fun. Instead, the Valley denizen has taken up tennis and enjoys traveling to the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her famous competitiveness now comes out on that court.
"I play with a bunch of women," says Leslie. "They want to chat, and I'm like: 'Let's play. I want to beat you.' "
Leslie has been part of the huge growth in women's sports. "I think that by us having a WNBA and surviving 17 seasons, we have really changed the mindset of men. I think men are more involved and are more welcoming to professional women's sports in general across the board. I think we've really touched the hearts of dads who are now bringing their daughters and who are very much in support of women in sports and girls in sports. We've just found that it statistically shows that girls in sports are more likely to not do drugs, they are more likely to go to college and graduate, they are more likely not to get pregnant early. There are so many positive statistics surrounding young girls in sports that it's been a win-win for everyone."
One thing that pleases her is the respect NBA players have for their female counterparts. "When I was with the USA team, all the men's players would come and watch us. LeBron, Carmelo — they know our stats. Dwyane Wade — they love us. Chris Paul comes to the Sparks games. A lot of the NBA players are true WNBA fans, and I think that's great."
She sees Magic Johnson's recent purchase of the L.A. Sparks (with Hollywood Reporter parent Guggenheim Partners) as a vote of confidence. "Magic stepping up and becoming a part of ownership with the WNBA, and for the L.A. Sparks in particular, really sends a huge message out to society that this is a sport he loves and backs and supports, as well as other men."
Swimming: Four-time gold medalist; silver medalist (1988, 1992, 1996)
"My first Olympics, I had just turned 17," recalls Evans, now a 42-year-old mom and motivational speaker living in Laguna Beach. "It was almost more fun going when I was younger and shocking the world and not having the pressures that came with subsequent Olympics. The celebrity that came shocked me because I was just doing what I loved."
But her favorite Olympic memory was passing the torch to Muhammad Ali before he lit the cauldron in 1996:
"It was the ultimate Olympic experience for me. I'd give up every medal to do it again."
She still admits to getting flustered around other Olympians. "It's funny. I still get starstruck by Olympians, especially the Olympians I watched when I dreamed of going to the Olympics: the Olympians from, like, 1984, or even Nadia Comaneci from 1976. Nadia's a friend of mine, but I still get a little starry-eyed around her because, to me, those are my celebrities: Greg Louganis and Carl Lewis, who are really great people. They're peers of mine, but it's so strange because they're amazing Olympians."
Though her two kids, Sydney and Jake, have taken up other sports in addition to swimming — she proudly pulls out her phone to show a video of her daughter racing down a ski slope — swimming is still her sport. "It's still my exercise of choice because it's all I know how to do. I swam my whole life, and all I can do is swim," she jokes.