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Lakers explored leaving Staples Center for return to Forum, emails reveal

The day before the Clippers announced plans to explore building an arena in Inglewood, business mogul Irving Azoff floated an idea to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and top advisor Linda Rambis about a move that could undercut the Clippers and prompt a seismic shift in the Los Angeles sports landscape.

“Heres my dream,” Azoff emailed Buss and Rambis on June 14, 2017. “Rebuild the forum from scratch. Lakers plus music. boom.”

The Lakers now say that vision won’t be realized, and they are believed to be discussing an extension to their Staples Center lease that runs through the 2024-25 season.

“MSG approached the Lakers about the possibility of returning to the Forum following the end of our Lease at Staples Center in 2025, but nothing came from the discussions,” the team said Wednesday in a statement.

But the emails obtained by The Times reveal the depth of the business competition between L.A.’s two NBA teams, and that Buss didn’t hesitate to discuss a move that would have left Staples Center — and downtown Los Angeles — without its marquee tenant.

Buss responded a half-hour later to the email from Azoff, who has close business ties with the Forum and its owner, Madison Square Garden Co., the New York-based sports and entertainment giant.

“I think about the vision you and [wife] Shelli had when you re-imagined the Forum and how you made it happen,” Buss wrote. “I believe you can do anything.”

Rambis chimed in: “That’s an incredible dream count me in!”

The Forum was home to the Lakers starting in 1967, after the franchise played seven years at the Sports Arena following the 1960 move from Minneapolis. The team won six NBA championships at the Forum before moving to Staples Center in 1999.

The emails are among tens of thousands of documents produced during discovery in MSG’s lawsuit against Inglewood in L.A. County Superior Court over the potential Clippers arena. MSG claims Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. tricked the company into terminating its lease to use city-owned land for parking in order to clear the way for the arena. The mayor denies the allegation.

In a statement, MSG said it “approached the Lakers about the possibility of repurposing the Forum in the future to accommodate basketball once again, but ultimately nothing came of it.”

Participants in the email thread between Azoff, Buss and Rambis refer to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer as “Ballz” or “Balls,” express shock about his plan to build an arena, and appear to mock the chances for success.

“We were blind sided and not involved in the process,” Azoff emailed Buss and Rambis on June 14, 2017. “It’s a long way to fruition but we should talk about how it impacts the lakers, forum, etc.!”

After discussing former Lakers player, coach and executive Jerry West joining the Clippers front office, Buss savaged the potential arena.

“They are all crazy,” she wrote. “This is a joke. Why would Adam let this happen?”

“Adam” is presumably NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

“He has no vote unfortunately,” Azoff responded. “It will be a long legal fight.”

Buss used a nickname for Azoff when she wrote back.

“We need to see you Nugget!!” she wrote. “Didn’t Ballz see what we did to my brother?? He will have nothing but Clippers basketball. Whoopee.”

The “brother” reference hints at the dispute between Buss and her brothers Jim and Johnny over control of the Lakers that spilled into public view earlier that year. Buss fired Jim as vice president of basketball operations, called him “completely unfit” in a court filing and the brothers eventually agreed under legal pressure that their sister would serve as the team’s controlling owner for the rest of her life.

Azoff later emailed Buss a prediction about the potential Clippers arena: “Ghost town!”

The conversation turned to the Forum. The Lakers have shared the Anschutz Entertainment Group-owned Staples Center with the Clippers and Kings since 1999. Further complicating the relationship is the ownership structure: the Buss family owns 66% of the Lakers while AEG controls 27%. The company also has the first right of refusal to purchase the Lakers if they are sold. (Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong is another minority investor, owning less than 5% of the team.)

An AEG spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

MSG purchased the Forum in 2012 and invested more than $100 million in transforming the venue into a destination for concerts, award shows and entertainment other than big-time professional sports.

Azoff asked Buss in an email when the Lakers’ lease was up, speculated on where they might go, and noted that AEG chairman Phil Anschutz could be “an impediment.” Azoff theorized if the Lakers ended up in Inglewood, the move “would force ballz and phil back together and staples.”

When Buss replied that the lease at Staples would expire in 2025, Azoff wrote: “Just around the corner!”

He expanded on the idea of the Lakers returning to the Forum in a subsequent email, writing that “Jd” — MSG executive chairman and CEO James Dolan — “loves the idea too.”

“We will either keep it exactly as it is or build a beautiful new building for lakers and music,” Azoff continued in the email to Buss. “We have years to decide but we are going to design it now anyway just in case.

“Our experts say there is zero chance balls can build on the other site and century [boulevard] can’t handle the extra traffic. We are nearly positive it’s a non starter.”

In a deposition taken last year in the MSG lawsuit, Azoff testified that Dolan supported “the idea of selling the Lakers half the Forum.”

The Clippers want to build an arena on about 22 acres of vacant land across West Century Boulevard from the 298-acre development centered on the new stadium for the Rams and Chargers. The arena project, the subject of a three-year exclusive negotiating agreement between the Clippers and Inglewood, is under environmental review.

Ballmer has said one of the reasons for the possible move is that he wants the Clippers to control their home dates — they get third pick at Staples Center — in an arena designed for basketball.

It isn’t clear from the emails, or Azoff’s deposition, how serious the discussions with the Lakers were or whether they continue.

But during the deposition on July 31, 2018, Azoff testified he had asked Lon Rosen, chief marketing officer for the Dodgers, to help woo the Lakers. Rosen didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“This is the start of what I’ll call the marketing effort to convince the Lakers to come to Inglewood,” Azoff testified. “He’s a key adviser.”

Asked about Rosen’s role, Azoff said he was “mostly making his feelings felt that it would be a good move for the Lakers to go.”

Times staff writers Bill Shaikin and Dan Woike contributed to this report.

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nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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