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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The late Jack Kent Cooke’s sports palace has changed hands.

No, not FedEx Field. I didn’t say sports dump.


Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has closed on his deal to buy the fabulous Forum from Madison Square Garden for $400 million, with the intent of using it for concerts and other events while building an arena for his Clippers basketball team, who now share the Staples Center with the Lakers.

“The Forum will continue to operate as a music venue, while plans for the construction of the Clippers’ privately-financed, fan-focused NBA arena, team headquarters and transformative community project move forward,” a Clippers spokesperson said in a statement.

The Forum being in the news again with the sale is a reminder of the stunning difference between Cooke’s two sports complex legacies — the Forum and the Prince George’s County, Maryland, football stadium he opened in 1997 that briefly had his name on it and has been cursed by Washington Redskins fans since.

It’s hard to believe the two structures were built by the same man. The reminder that it was Cooke who built the Forum, the home of six Laker NBA championships, the birth of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and many other events, only serves to underline what a failure FedEx Field has been.

Cooke’s quest to own an NHL franchise gave birth to the Forum. The story goes that in 1966 the league announced it was creating six new expansion team, with one in Los Angeles. Rams owner Dan Reeves operated a Western Hockey League team in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and was favored by city officials to land the new franchise. Cooke was told if he won the bid he would not be allowed to use the arena, so he built the Forum for $16 million in Inglewood and changed sports in Los Angeles forever.

The building nearly became Cooke’s grave. One night in 1973 before a hockey game he suffered a massive heart attack. The story goes, according to the great former Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey, that Cooke’s mother, who attended many of the games at the Forum, was at her son’s beside when he woke up in the hospital.

“‘Mother,’ Cooke said, formally, as always, ‘believe it or not, for 30 seconds I was dead.’ His mother smiled at him and said, ‘Tell me, Jack. Which way were you going? Heaven or hell?’”

Cooke, a Canadian, is most identified in sports with Washington, the Redskins and their three Super Bowls. But he had dreams of being the Southern California king of sports. He had lost out on a bid for an American League baseball franchise in 1961, with the Angels awarded to western movie actor Gene Autry. That same year, Cooke bought a 25% interest in the Redskins.

Four years later, Cooke purchased the Lakers from Bob Short — the Washington Senators owner — for $5 million.

Then he built them a new home — the Forum.

According to the Downey column, Cooke was asked by architects, “How should it look?”

“Like something 2,000 years ago and 6,000 miles east,” he replied.

In other words, the Roman Coliseum.

Cooke would only enjoy one NBA title at the Forum — the 1972 Lakers championship — before he was forced to sell the franchise and building in 1979 to Dr. Jerry Buss to help pay off the $49 million divorce settlement that had been ordered by Judge Joseph Wapner — yes, that Judge Wapner, of “The People’s Court” fame.

The next sports structure Cooke would build would not be as heralded — his new home for the Redskins in suburban Maryland.

They were built, though, under different circumstances. Cooke had been trying to build a new stadium for the Redskins for 10 years and was turned away in both the District and Northern Virginia. At the age 84, he was running out of time and eventually he used his own money to build at Landover at a site briefly named “Raljon” after his sons Ralph and John. Cooke would never see the opening of his new football stadium, as he died seven months before it opened.

The stadium in Landover was not destined to become Cooke’s Washington Forum.

Hear Thom Loverro Tuesdays and Thursdays on The Kevin Sheehan Podcast.


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