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Jazz lived, played, lost on edge of Rodney King riots in L.A.

Published May 5, 2012 5:34 pm

NBA • 1992 playoffs circled around chaos in out-of-control city.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The off-day news conference was scheduled for a meeting room just off the pool area at the Utah Jazz's hotel in sunny Marina del Rey, Calif.

The television cameras were set up, ready to roll.

Reporters prepared for their day, which would begin when coach Jerry Sloan and star players John Stockton and Karl Malone arrived to discuss their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

It was April 29, 1992.

Suddenly, a stirring in the back of the room evolved into a rush to tear down TV equipment and stampede the door.

"What's going on?" I asked an L.A.-based cameraman as he walked past.

"The Rodney King verdict is in," he said.

As ridiculous as it now seems, I didn't recognize King's name or worry about the verdict again for hours, after the streets of Los Angeles had already exploded in a fireball of death and destruction.

I interviewed Sloan, Stockton and Malone, wrote my stories without turning on the TV and — work finished — attended a baseball game with colleagues at Dodger Stadium.

The drive back to the hotel was a long one, however, because traffic was routed north out of the stadium parking lot — away from the neighborhoods where rioting had broken out.

For the next six days, Los Angeles was a war zone.

After four police officers were acquitted of beating King — an attack that was caught on tape — 54 people died and $1 billion worth of property was destroyed in the violence.

The Jazz lived, practiced and played on the fringe of the insanity.

"It was my first time being around the helicopters and all the cops and swat groups," said Tyrone Corbin, a former player and current Jazz head coach. "It was crazy — different than anything I'd ever been through."

According to ex-coach Jerry Sloan, the situation was "mind-boggling" and "scary."

"You could smell the smoke in your hotel room," he said. "… Everybody said we weren't in any danger because of where we were. But how do you know?"

Wesley Ruff had reason to worry. Assigned by Channel 4 to cover the playoffs, Ruff spent the first days of the riot chasing scattered satellite trucks for his live reports back to Salt Lake.

On April 29, Ruff's journey took him through the intersection of Florence and Normandie only 40 minutes before truck driver Reginald Denny was severely beaten in an attack filmed by a TV news helicopter crew.

On April 30, with Game 4 of the Jazz-Clippers series postponed, Ruff was directed to another satellite truck located at a barricaded police station in the middle of the violence.

Driving a rented Geo Metro, Ruff got off the freeway and stopped at a red light, where one car pulled alongside and another pulled in front of him. He was surrounded.

"The people looked at me like, 'What the 'f' are you doing here?' " Ruff said. "… I thought I was going to be dragged out and beaten and there was no helicopter here. I thought, 'I'm going to die and nobody is going to know. My wife, nobody.' "

Ruff isn't sure how he escaped, although he remembers using his Utah High School Activities Association press pass for ID at the police station and giving his report after two shots were fired at the brightly lit satellite truck.

For the Jazz, time passed more leisurely.

"The hotel was like a jail," said former media relations director Kim Turner. "You couldn't go anywhere or do anything."

Regularly scheduled television programing had been disrupted, too.

"One night about 2 o'clock, I was watching TV and the phone rang," said ex-vice president of communications David Allred. "It was Stockton. He was two floors above me.

"He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Watching the riots. What are you doing?' He said, 'Watching the riots.' We talked for 30 minutes."

Center Mark Eaton remembers getting so bored at the hotel that he rented a car and, along with Stockton and Corbin, drove to a family condo in Orange County "just so we could hang out somewhere different."

The Jazz practiced once at Inglewood High School, which was located on the edge of the worst rioting. As the Jazz players disembarked from the bus, Sloan recalled, "Two cars went by and the people inside gave us the finger."

Eaton remembers that "a couple of dozen cop cars, sirens blaring," secured the intersections around the school.

Allred and Turner recall Sloan inviting reporters into practice as a safety precaution, as well as a security guard chaining the gym doors shut from the inside.

Allred wondered how anyone would escape "if this place catches on fire."

Game 4 against the Clippers was finally rescheduled for May 3 — four days late. It was played at the Anaheim Convention Center instead of the L.A. Sports Arena, which had been turned into a National Guard staging area protected by machine guns.

The Jazz received a police escort during the bus ride to Anaheim. From an elevated portion of the freeway, Eaton looked down and saw more National Guardsmen staked out on a hotel roof.

"For me, that was the most striking image," Eaton said. "… I thought, 'Los Angeles is in a world of hurt right now.' "

Sloan knew his players weren't ready for a top effort — "Your mind wasn't as much on basketball as it would ordinarily be," he explained — and the Clippers won Game 4.

"It took us a week," said former assistant Phil Johnson, "to lose two games."

The Jazz rebounded, however. They returned to Utah, played back-to-back games and took the series in Game 5.

They escaped.

From the Clippers.

From Los Angeles.

"There was a cop car in front of our hotel one afternoon," Allred said. "It was covered in soot, except where the windshield wipers were. I'll always remember that cop car. That's when it hit me: We were in a situation that was out of control." —

Jazz-Clippers, 1992

The 1992 first-round playoff series between the Jazz and Clippers:

Date Site Results

April 24 Delta Center Jazz, 115-97

April 26 Delta Center Jazz, 103-92

April 28 Sports Arena Clippers, 98-89

May 3 Anaheim Clippers, 115-107

May 4 Delta Center Jazz, 98-89