Local News

Friday, Nov 05 2010 11:35 AM

For fans, it's 'Lakersfield'

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Los Angeles Lakers fan Leo Delgado sits in his garage where he keeps much of his Lakers memorabilia.

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  2. 2 of 3

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Leo Delgado has acquired a plethora of Lakers memorabilia but admits his family is also Bronco and Charger football fans.

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  3. 3 of 3

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Los Angeles Lakers fan Leo Delgado sits in his garage where he keeps much of his Lakers memorabilia.

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BY JEFF GOODMAN, Californian staff writer jgoodman@bakersfield.com

The iconic golden hardware was hoisted by Kobe Bryant and held by Derek Fisher. It was carried by Lamar Odom and cradled by Pau Gasol.

It was paraded through the streets of downtown Los Angeles during the Lakers' victory parade, ogled by thousands of elated fans, cherished by a team that had just won its second straight NBA championship.

Then it was ... brought to Bakersfield?

Yes, the Larry O'Brien Trophy was recently in town as Ron Artest and other team representatives celebrated the Lakers' new Development League partnership with the Bakersfield Jam.

Its shiny presence reflected a deepening tradition of Lakers basketball in the southern Central Valley, where the team has seemingly become embedded in the local sports culture.

As the team embarks on its quest for another "three-peat" -- the regular season began Oct. 26 -- followers who live about 100 miles north of Staples Center appear as passionate as ever.

"For the longest time we've called this Lakersfield," said Mayor Harvey Hall, who presented team officials with a symbolic key to the city at the Sep. 16 event. "They have a great deal of fan support here."

Of course, it's been that way for a while.

The Lakers' recent relationship with Bakersfield dates back to 1999, when they defeated the Miami Heat during preseason play in front of 9,411 raucous fans at what is now called Rabobank Arena. Tickets for the game sold out in less than two hours.

After a one-year hiatus, the Lakers returned the following five preseasons and played here most recently Oct. 18, 2007, in a win over the Seattle SuperSonics. The Lakers don't seem to mind the trip over the Grapevine, either -- they've won five of seven preseason games in Bakersfield.

And even though the team hasn't played for a Kern County crowd in three years, local residents have continued showing their purple-and-gold pride.

Their allegiance might have something to do with the city's relative geographical proximity to Los Angeles and the highly touted superstar on the Lakers' roster. But it probably has more to do with the team earning five league titles in the last 11 years.

"Demand in the NBA is primarily driven by winning," said David Berri, a former professor of economics at Cal State Bakersfield who has studied professional sports. "So the fact the Lakers win impacts the interest of the fans."

But the expressions of their adoration come in as many forms as the Lakers have highlights.

There are currently six season-ticket holders from Bakersfield, team spokesman Nick Mazzella said. He added that many of the area fans who attend individual games likely purchase their seats from secondary sources, such as Craigslist and StubHub.

"We consider Bakersfield an extension of our fan base," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPN.com in July. "Many fans from Bakersfield drive down to our games, so it's a natural fit for us."

Other locals have demonstrated their loyalty by driving to Los Angeles for the championship parades, watching games with fellow fans at local bars and restaurants and donning team jerseys.

One current Bakersfield resident, however, supported the team in an entirely different way -- she took the floor for each home game as a member of the Laker Girls cheerleading squad.

Sandi DeMita, a South High graduate and now a broker for Keller Williams Realty, said she attended tryouts merely for the networking opportunities but ended up surviving each round of cuts and making the team.

"It was exhilarating," said DeMita, 37, of her experience during the 1995-96 season. "I wasn't really a fan of basketball (before that) -- I was there for dance. But you become one. I'm definitely a Laker fan now. From that moment on, I became a Laker fan."

Following her stint in Los Angeles, DeMita coached the local American Cheer Flyers squad to the first-ever world championship meet in 2004.

Although her fiance is from Boston and a steadfast Celtics supporter, DeMita believes he should be an exception here.

"If you live in Bakersfield, you should be a Laker fan," she said.

Alison Tolladay, who graduated from North High in 2004, was also employed by the team as an intern in its community relations department last season.

She organized community events and responded to fan mail and memorabilia requests, some of which came from schools and other groups in Bakersfield.

"I got to go to all the games," said Tolladay, who usually completed her in-game duties in time to enjoy the second half as a spectator. "It was amazing."

Perhaps the coolest perk? Like the players did, Tolladay will soon receive a ring commemorating the Lakers' 2009-10 championship.

But, she says, one doesn't need to work for owner Jerry Buss to have a strong relationship with the team. As Tolladay put it, "Bakersfield is close enough."

That sentiment also seems to hold for Phillip Barnett, a journalism and sociology student at CSUB who was "born into a family of Lakers fans."

Barnett, who in February began writing for an ESPN-affiliated Lakers blog, personally interviewed Odom when the team last played in town.

He remembers being at Firehouse, a sports bar in southwest Bakersfield, when Gasol's late tip-in gave the Lakers a wild postseason victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in April.

The crowded establishment, he recalls, erupted in celebration.

"Some guy pulled a chair over his head and was running around the restaurant," Barnett said. "There were people jumping up and down. The reaction was a cool thing to see."

Firehouse owner Russ Johnson said his staff had to turn people away at the door during the playoffs because the 11,200-square-foot eatery was filled to capacity.

"The turnout we get for the Lakers is better than any other single team, without a doubt," he said. "(The atmosphere) is very similar to what you'd have in the arena."

Law enforcement agents have also noticed a strong Lakers presence in Bakersfield in recent years, albeit in a somewhat different context.

Scores of incidents since 2003 have involved crime suspects described as wearing team apparel, Bakersfield police Sgt. Mary DeGeare said.

In one case, a domestic violence victim told police he was watching a Lakers game when his girlfriend assaulted him. In another, DeGeare said, a Craigslist user wired money for four Lakers tickets but never received them.

Other locals, however, see the team's impact as positive, even uniting.

"When it comes time for playoffs and the Finals, everybody gets together," said Leo Delgado, a construction worker and longtime fan.

Lakers memorabilia hang proudly in his garage, which serves as an entertainment center for his friends and family.

Delgado, 36, who has collectibles signed by Bryant and Magic Johnson, carved the Lakers logo into a pumpkin for Halloween this year. And he has shared his love of the team with his five sons.

"I know how well the Lakers are received in our community," Hall said. "The fans have connected with the Jerry Wests and the Magic Johnsons, and it's carried forward with generations."

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