Initially, I didn’t believe it.
Then, I didn’t understand it.
And to this day, 17 years later, I still don’t.
There was Al Davis in his favorite position, with his foot on the neck of an adversary. (In Al’s world, of course, everybody, sooner or later, becomes an adversary.) And he walked away.
Thirteen years after defying the league and moving his Oakland Raiders to L.A., after turning back legions of league lawyers determined to push him back up north and winning the right to stay in L.A., he had NFL owners meekly courting him.
It was May of 1995 and the issue was Al’s very public dissatisfaction with the Los Angeles Coliseum and his favorable response to the appeals of Oakland officials to come back home. (All is forgiven, eventually, it seems.)
On the final day of a league meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, NFL owners had approved by a vote of 27-1 with two abstentions, a resolution supporting a plan to build a $200 million, privately-financed stadium in Inglewood on property owned by Hollywood Park.
A three-man committee had been appointed to work with Davis and R. D. Hubbard, CEO of the racetrack to draft a lease and complete an agreement that would allow a second team, one from the NFC, to also use the stadium.
Under the proposed timetable, the Raiders could be in their new home in two years, with a second team coming to L.A. in 1998.
In addition, the stadium would be guaranteed at least one Super Bowl, probably in 2001, with a second one, tentatively in 2004, contingent on a second team coming to Los Angeles.
Leaving the meeting, Al got into a limo. I joined him briefly for a quick interview.
“Well,” I said, “you got what you wanted. It’s a done deal, right?”
That familiar look of defiance came over his face. Nobody tells Al Davis when a deal is done.
“We’ll see,” he said. End of interview.
Oh, I thought as the limo pulled away, that’s just Al being Al.
There were certainly some loose ends to tie up, some very expensive loose ends. While Davis had agreed to put up $20 million toward the completion of the project, it was still $30 million short.
Other details of the proposed deal included:
An obligation by the Raiders to play in the area for the next two seasons while the stadium was under construction.
The Raiders receiving Super Bowl tickets equal to the number of club seats sold up to 10,000.
A shutdown by Hollywood Park of its gambling operation during the two Super Bowls, a requirement Hubbard had agreed to.
And still to be negotiated with the three-man committee was a proposal for the second team to reimburse Davis for half the money he would put into the stadium.
This second tenant was a huge point of contention for Davis, who didn’t want to share the spotlight.
“The NFL’s option is to put the second team in there,” he said, “And, for doing that, you get a second Super Bowl. It’s Hollywood Park or the Raiders’ option to say, ‘No, we don’t want a second team.’”
As it turned, Davis didn’t even want to be the first team. A month later, he left town and later sued the league, claiming it had sabotaged the team’s effort to remain in L.A. Davis lost the case and subsequent appeals that went all the way to the California Supreme Court.
I think sometimes about how different the local landscape would be if Davis had taken the Hollywood Park deal. The NFL would have been in L.A. for these past 17 years. Inglewood would have remained a central location in the local sports scene.
The racetrack might be thriving.
Jerry Buss may well have kept his Lakers at the Forum, with a football stadium next door, and might have even co-promoted events at the two venues in a partnership with Hollywood Park.
AEG might not have built Staples Center without the Lakers. As a result, there might be no L.A. Live and all that goes with it. Instead, the downtown area has thrived and may be about to get even bigger and more prominent if the construction of the proposed Farmers Field goes through.
And Al Davis is back where he started, with a second-tier team playing in a second-tier stadium in a second-tier market.
I didn’t I get it then.
I don’t get it now.
Steve Springer is a longtime Los Angeles area sports writer and a special contributor to ESPNLA.com