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Standing in the shadows of Staples Center

Lee Zeidman runs one busy arena, but the guy in charge of 19,000 seats never sits in any of them.
Staples Center's president never rolled down his sleeves as he worked from bowling lanes to the fast lane

The steps that lead to the soul of Los Angeles' glittering sports palace were first taken in bowling shoes.

Long before Lee Zeidman ran Staples Center, he worked at Simi Bowl, where he learned happiness didn't involve colorful balls or clattering pins, but shoe spray.

"Nothing more important than spraying the insides of those rental bowling shoes," he said. "If you don't do it, they stink."

When Zeidman wasn't sanitizing footwear, he was passing out quarters at the bowling center's pool hall, where eventually he discovered the one good stick, the easiest marks and another life lesson.

"Nobody thinks a guy wearing a change pouch around his waist can actually bend over and play pool," he said.

Forty years later, the hustler and handyman still lurks and lingers on the fringes, in the shadows, spending his games standing in the same Staples Center corner, as if waiting for somebody to walk up and ask him for a pair of size 11s or to break a dollar.

Only now, he has a title, newly bestowed, sweatily acquired, richly deserved, yet still hard for his elbow-greased crowd to believe: Lee Zeidman, Staples Center president.

"Somebody told me the other day that Lee was now president of the place," said Moises Contreras, 66, a longtime Staples maintenance worker. "I was like, 'Wow, whoa, my friend is a big shot now."

He is the biggest of the big shots, running one of the world's busiest arenas, charged with everything from the Skyscraper Dogs to the courtside celebrities, from the red coats to the blue line, from hardwood to ice in the same day, from Kings to Lakers to Clippers to Sparks.

He is also the most unlikely and endearing of the big shots, a Cal State Northridge graduate who never rolled down his sleeves as he worked his way up from the bowling lanes to the fast lanes. He ran a college gym in Santa Barbara where he swept the floors, he ran the Forum, where he cleaned the toilets, then he became Staples Center's first employee on Feb. 12, 1998.

Back then, the building was just a hole. Zeidman, a jovial, bear-like presence who favors Hawaiian shirts over fancy suits, has since filled that hole with uncommon warmth and extraordinary devotion.

"He is the kind of guy that you want to get a beer with," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations. "Then the next day, you call him, ask him something, and he gets it done."

In the early days of Staples Center, even though Zeidman was its vice president of operations, he was the kind of guy who the media often confused for a maintenance foreman. He hangs out with the folks wearing the wrenches. Even today, he spends every game not in an executive suite, but standing in the same arena tunnel so he can be accessible and mobile. The guy in charge of 19,000 seats never sits in any of them.

"In my 17 years with him, I've never seen him in a seat," said Dan Beckerman, president and chief executive of AEG, which announced Zeidman's promotion last month, up from senior vice president and general manager. "He likes it in the corner. He likes working the back aisles."

Zeidman, 59, is often the first executive in the building, showing up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise in the arena weight room. "It's supposed to be for the athletes, but he has the key," an employee said with a laugh. After his workout, he hangs out with the building's overnight crew, asking them for ideas, checking on everything from the giant forklifts used for the arena floor changeovers to the bristles on the brooms, which once had him bristling and ordering new brooms.

"You cannot expect to get up all the peanut shells if you don't have a strong broom," said Zeidman. "That's as important as anything around here."

Zeidman is also often the last executive to leave the building, perhaps because sometimes, in the middle of busy stretches, he doesn't actually leave the building.

"I used to sleep in the Lakers' lounge because they had the best couches," he said. "But now that the Kings have refurbished, they have the best couches."

It is this kind of personal touch and work ethic that has helped him keep this giant building running for more than 3,500 events and 49 million fans since its opening in the fall of 1999. He has overseen numerous Grammy Awards, the Democratic National Convention, all-star games in both major sports, seven NBA finals, two Stanley Cup finals and three WNBA championship series.

And only once have the lights gone out.

"One of my guys flipped the wrong switch, what are you going to do?" Zeidman said, referring to a long-ago Kings playoff game. "Things happen."

Oh, has he seen things happen. So many things that sometimes he walks out onto the darkened Staples Center floor after his morning workouts, stares into the ceiling, and sighs at his good fortune.

"I have the greatest job ever, I work with the best men and women ever. I cannot believe my luck," he said.

He seemingly hasn't changed much from the middle-class kid from Simi Valley who spent nine years at Cal State Northridge earning two degrees and playing lots of intramurals. He desperately wanted to run a major sports arena, but had a folder full of rejection letters as he worked his way through lesser jobs at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara.

"Grades weren't great, I didn't know anybody, no connection or influence, all I did was work and hope somebody would notice," he said. "Nobody did."

When he finally received a break and was hired by the Forum to run its operations in 1998, his crisis management ability was immediately tested. The first game of his tenure was on the strangest of surfaces. Yeah, it was the Kings.

"I'm like, 'Ice? Where does it come from? How do we get rid of it?"' he said. "I realized I knew nothing about it."

He spent the next month living at the Forum, learning every part of the business, even injuring his back while making ice, doing it all except driving a forklift or a Zamboni. "I'll never do either because I don't want to break anything," he said.

It was this sort of hidden and thankless work that gained him the respect of the employees and helped build them into a team.

"What everyone loves about Lee, that no matter what his title or responsibilities, he's the same guy," said Beckerman. "He endears himself to his staff by being down there in the trenches with them."

Sometimes those trenches can be an unsettling place, like the time his crew messed up a Forum changeover and laid down the hardwood floor in a typographically incorrect fashion.

"Great Wernest Forum," it read.

Said Zeidman: "We had to wait for Orlando to get off the floor after their shootaround to fix it. Longest wait of my life."

Then there was the time the Forum installed new 24-second clocks atop the baskets before anyone realize they could not be seen by Chick Hearn, the Lakers' legendary radio announcer who called the games while sitting in the stands. Zeidman quickly ordered a special 24-second clock installed above the scoreboard just for the announcer.

Zeidman became known for calmly examining every problem until he found a solution, like the time water began dripping on the basketball floor during a Lakers game played while a rainstorm raged outside Staples Center. Zeidman climbed to the catwalks to discover a couple of workers' rain-soaked coats dripping from a railing. The coats were removed and the dripping stopped.

"People still don't believe that was the real reason, but I swear. How could I make that up?" Zeidman said.

Then there was the time that players were inexplicably slipping throughout the first half of a Clippers game. During a timeout, Zeidman got on his knees and examined the slippery spots and discovered it was baby oil that had smeared on the floor from the Clippers players' bodies during pregame stretching.

"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Zeidman said.

It was the first and last time Zeidman gave a halftime scolding to one of this tenants; he entered the Clippers locker room and reminded team officials to please stop using the oil before warmups.

Even today, at the pinnacle of his profession, there are still many "you've got to be kidding me" scenes in Lee Zeidman's life. He has had the same office for 17 years, unchanged with the title, still cluttered, still overlooking a parking lot. Even though there are a dozen restaurants in the adjoining LA Live area that he also oversees, Zeidman's office still contains a faded white microwave in case he decides to bring his lunch. Despite being surrounded by sophisticated communications equipment, he also keeps a bullhorn handy in case, you know, he ever needs to shout at somebody.

Within the last year, the idea that Zeidman lives at Staples Center is more than just hyperbole. This place has been his haven and its workers his family in the wake of the Feb. 6 death of his longtime partner, Pam Engler.

Lee and Pam were together 25 years, including her last 15 months of battling lung cancer, when Zeidman also became her caregiver. Until the final weeks, he handled everything from doctors to groceries. He slept every night with her, even in the end, hanging on to a small sliver of mattress and holding her hand until she took her last breath.

"She never cried, she never said 'Why me?' She always thought she would beat it," said Zeidman, shaking his head sadly at the notion that something could not be fixed.

Pam Engler's memorial service was held two blocks from Venice Beach at Baja Cantina. More than 700 people showed up in two shifts, many of them among Staples Center's 300 full-time employees, supporting their boss as he has long supported them.

"I was amazed and humbled," said Zeidman, who gratefully returned to the warm safety of Staples Center, where he still toils as if it were his first day.

In Zeidman's office is a table covered with 10 giant glass jars of candy that include Raisinets, Milky Ways, Snickers, Red Vines and Gummy Bears. On their way to sell a ticket, scrub a floor or work a machine that will transform the court from hardwood to ice in less than two hours, all sorts of workers stop by Zeidman's office daily to dip their fingers into those glass jars before shaking hands with one of their own.

"Yes, of course I've been to Lee's office," said Contreras, the maintenance man who had just spent his afternoon cleaning up the locker rooms before a Sparks game. "Have you seen all that candy?"

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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