Huge crowd honors NBA champions
LOS ANGELES – The streets of downtown were transformed into a sea of purple and gold on Wednesday as tens of thousands of joyous Los Angeles Lakers fans joined their team in a raucous but mostly peaceful celebration of its 15th NBA championship.
Taking a time-out from work or unemployment, 95,000 people filled the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to give a hero’s welcome to players and coaches, who were showered with purple and gold confetti as the Randy Newman song “I Love L.A.” blared from loudspeakers.
Tens of thousands more fans lined a 2 1/2-mile parade route, standing 20 or more deep beneath bright sunshine to cheer as double-decker buses carried the team to the stadium.
“Thank you for all the support, baby. We love you. Let’s go, Lakers,” veteran guard Derek Fisher, one of the heroes of the NBA Finals, shouted to fans along the route.
Reserve Sasha Vujacic happily snapped photos and star forward Lamar Odom tweeted, “Wow! This is crazy!”
At the stadium, the Laker Girls danced on a hardwood floor that was moved to the Coliseum from Staples Center, the team’s home court.
“We are humbled by your devotion and appreciation to us,” said coach Phil Jackson, who thanked his girlfriend, Jeannie Buss, the daughter of team owner Jerry Buss, for talking him into returning as coach after he left the team for a year after the 2004 season.
Parades and rallies celebrating Lakers championships have been a tradition in Los Angeles since the teams led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began winning titles with regularity in the 1980s.
But none were as big, loud or celebratory as this one, which came after down years endured since the team’s last championship in 2002.
“This is more special because we went through so many dark years,” said Bryant, who played on Jackson-coached, title-winning teams in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
With Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and other stars past and present looking on, Bryant led the crowd at the stadium in a chant that he said the players shouted before, during and after every game this year as they fought for the title.
“I want everybody to say ‘ring’ on three,” Bryant said. “One, two, three … ” The crowd responded.
Then he and his high-fiving, body-bumping teammates embraced in a brief circle dance.
“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” said Letitcia Gutierrez, who watched the parade while squeezed against a chain-link fence separating fans from the buses carrying the players.
“We got passion and motivation. We’re rowdy,” she said.
Some in the crowd got a little too rowdy, including a group that was shut out of the celebration when the Coliseum filled to capacity. Dozens of people tried to enter by climbing over a ticket booth and tried to tear down a temporary fence, police said. They threw rocks, bottles and other objects at officers, who fired beanbags into the crowd.
In all, 15 people were arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer, narcotics possession, disturbing the peace and other violations, police said. One officer’s hand was cut when something was thrown at him. Another officer suffered minor injuries while attempting to make an arrest.
Several cases of heat exhaustion and a child who fell down a concrete staircase inside the stadium were the only other injuries reported.
Police Chief William J. Bratton said at least 1,700 officers, some in plainclothes, kept watch on the crowd.
Fan Michael Sims arrived before dawn with his brother, sister, niece and nephews to ensure they would get seats inside the Coliseum.
“Who would miss this? This is magical,” said the 45-year-old Sims, who has been cheering the Lakers since the days of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar.
In the days before the event, much was made of its estimated $2 million cost, with critics complaining that a city a half-billion dollars in debt and facing layoffs could not afford the celebration.
But private donors joined the team and the owners of Staples Center to underwrite most of the cost. It was the first of at the four Laker victory parades this decade to be privately funded.
Associated Press Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this story.