Both the Lakers and the Clippers were in the playoffs that year, and their games punctuated the city's massive upheaval.
By tipoff at The Great Western Forum on April 29, 1992, Los Angeles had already erupted into a great and uncontainable furor. The news had arrived a little after 3 p.m.: Four LAPD officers had been acquitted of beating Rodney King, despite videotape evidence that caught the malicious attack in action. As the city began its descent into lawlessness, the Lakers faced the Portland Trailblazers in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series. On May 4th, five days later, in Utah, the Clippers were in the midst of their first playoff run since moving to LA in 1984. Neither team would get their Hollywood ending. In the long history of both franchises the games are mere footnotes. Their significance, though, lies in the relationship to the larger story. April 29th and May 4th hold a special place in the city's local imagination. The dates mark the beginning and end of the 1992 riot, bookending the six-day uproar.
The day began as most spring days do in Los Angeles: cloudless and without worry. The Lakers arrived back in town down 0-2 in the best-of-five series, hoping to finally get on course. They'd been outscored by 35 points, outrebounded by 37, and physically overpowered over the course of the previous two games. Even though they were back home, Game 3 was likely to turn out the same. "All the good opportunities we get, we have to convert on. And then we've got to do the job on the boards. Until we do that, we're not going to have a chance," then-head coach Mike Dunleavy told the Los Angeles Times. It would be a day of unexpected fates—in more ways than one.
Over in Inglewood and minutes from the Forum, Clippers star power forward Danny Manning was having lunch with friends at a local soul-food restaurant, discussing the usual things guys in their mid-twenties talk about: women and pseudo-relationships. He'd led the Clippers to a playoff win the night before and his spirits were high going into Game 4. Then, as if out of nowhere, news of the verdict hit. Right away Manning was unsure of just how safe he and his friends would be in the area. "We need to wrap this up and start heading home," he said. When Manning reached his home he turned on the television. News images revealed a grim truth. "It was chaotic," Manning tells me over the phone from his office in Tulsa. "Seeing the images we saw on the news, it was mind-blowing. It definitely put you in a feeling of uneasiness, regardless of where you were at in the city."
Back in Inglewood, the Lakers game was underway. With Byron Scott at the helm, the team started out strong. They outrebounded the Trailblazers 27-14 in the first half, utilizing the speed of a three-guard offense to undercut the controlling physicality of players like Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Buck Williams. But midway through the third quarter the Trailblazers, who'd been dominant all season, began looking like their old selves again. From that point on, as Times beat writer Mike Heisler put it, "they traded haymakers." After Terry Porter hit a baseline three-pointer (his fourth of the night) with 29 seconds left to tie the game at 102, the game went to overtime. Despite more than 10 lead changes and a career playoff high 41 points for Drexler, Divac converted a three-point play to put the Lakers ahead by one and secured a Game 4 match-up. The post season had just been saved, but celebration would be short-lived.
Outside the Forum a different story was taking shape. The streets surged with declarations of injustice from the King verdict. No more, the people protested. Rioting swelled and would worsen with each passing hour. Earlier in the day, Reginald Denny, a white truck operator, and Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan construction worker, were attacked by a mob of protestors at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, just minutes from the Forum. The Lakers were forced to move Game 4 to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas as a result of the massive rioting (they would lose the game by more than 25 points, and the Trailblazers would advance to the next round). The night's victory was bittersweet for the Lakers—a team now home to a city on the brink.
The Geography of Rage
A FOX 11 News camera pans out from the street—a wide stretch of Western Avenue—and reveals a maelstrom of quick-tempered bodies running in and out of Sav-On, the local convenience and drug store. "Looting has picked up as police pull out of position," announces the silver-haired news correspondent. "It's really a game of chess. Where the police are there is no looting and as soon as they pull off the looting begins. There are simply not enough of them." To further paint the unimaginable disarray—and to better frame "the debate that's going on in the community"—the newsman turns to interview a black man who looks to be in his late twenties. He is of substantial height and wears a navy-blue and orange Auburn Tigers t-shirt. "Once all this stuff stops, we need to get more stuff back into the neighborhood. It's gonna be hard to get businesses that are worthwhile and that are gonna be beneficial to the community back here." There are strains of hurt and hope in his speech. A breaking and desperate sadness even. It is April 30th and Los Angeles is burning.
Fifty-three. Ten thousand. One billion.
That is how we measure the chaos and destruction, how we quantify the outrage. It is an ugly calculus. Fifty-three dead, more than 10,000 arrested, and nearly one billion dollars in property damage. These numbers are how we measure the looting, the assault, the arson. They are how we will forever mark the anger and unimaginable despair.
"The first time I actually drove to the Sports Arena I felt like I was in a movie, with the smoldering buildings, the glass in the street, the damage done to properties—it was just unbelievable," Manning says now. "The passion that people had, the energy—it was all just unbelievable. Just the raw energy from people's actions—it was explosive and dynamic. A lot of people got to the point where it was just like, What else?"
With help from over 4,000 law enforcement officers, the city mostly returned to order by Monday. The Clippers, too, had returned order their series. For some Angelenos, the Clippers' sudden change in course provided a much-needed escape from all the surrounding disorder. Larry Brown, who came on as coach midway through the season after being fired by the Spurs, led the Clippers to their first playoff berth since moving to LA from San Diego. The Clippers had capitalized on a significant moment in NBA history. At the start of the season Magic Johnson, who'd recently tested positive for HIV, announced his retirement from the league. For the first time since drafting Johnson in 1979, the Lakers would be without their court general. With Brown's help the Clippers filled the void. No longer were they just "the other team." It had been a hard-fought but prosperous year on all fronts: They achieved their first winning season in over a decade and finished with more regular season wins than the Lakers, who were (and still are) largely considered hometown favorites.
The No. 7 seated Clippers were considered underdogs against the No. 2 Jazz. The series played out as predicted in Games 1 and 2 with the Jazz cementing decisive wins (they'd won by more than 10 in both match-ups). Games 3 and 4 went to the Clippers, with Manning putting up 33 points in Game 4 in spite of Karl Malone's 44-point onslaught. Game 5 was set for May 4th at the Delta Center. By half-time the Clippers were in control and led the Jazz by 12. But the Jazz rallied, bringing the lead to within four by the end of the third, and by the middle of the fourth, they took a commanding lead. It was a crushing loss to a crowning season, but the team would return to LA, hopes high, and to a city that had found its way home.
"We had an opportunity and weren't able to seal the deal," Manning remembers. "That was disappointing. I knew what was going on back home, but was focused on the fact that the season had come to an end."
The curfew was officially lifted on Monday. City-wide looting and arson had subdued, and life returned in slow, desperate breaths. Schools reopened and businesses called on employees to return to work. Looking back now, some 20 years later, it's hard to make complete sense of it all. I understand the anger, and the enough-is-enough mentality. But on occasion the six-year-old in me still wonders, "But why?" By which I mean: Why were the officers acquitted when it was plain as day what happened? Why had we expected the justice system to work when it had failed us time and again before? Why in our neighborhood? Why us? ... Why? Much like the Lakers and Clippers, our season, too, had ended after six relentless days. I can't say for certain we came out on top. But we had survived the worst of it. And though we didn't know what would come next, we knew this: We could begin again.