Laker Memories With My Dearest Companion
Mitch Chortkoff, who covers the Lakers to this day, began writing about the team for the LA Herald-Examiner in 1968. He often sits alongside Lakers.com during games in the middle press row, providing occassional but always astute points about the game. Before he began covering the Lakers, Chorkoff served as the Lakers PR Director.
My best friend of the last 40 years died last week.
Barbara Lasser fought a gallant battle against breast cancer 15 years ago and prolonged her life. But when struck by lung cancer nearly two years ago she began slipping away.
I wondered if it would be appropriate to write about her in this space because, after all, it must relate to Laker happenings. And then I factored in the reality that she's been with me every step of the way since I was assigned to the Laker beat at the LA Herald-Examiner in 1968.
In those days a good seat in the second row even with the free throw line at the Forum cost $6.25.
I'm not making this up. I bought two season tickets and sat with Barbara instead of sitting in the press box for nearly every game. Today at Staples Center the same seat would cost several hundred.
After the Lakers won the 1971-'72 NBA championship we were invited to a dinner party at the home of Coach Bill Sharman. I figured Barbara would be given some task since she was a close friend of Bill's wife, Dorothy.
I was right. Barbara was asked to dish out the salad from the large bowl for everyone. After awhile Barbara gave me a horrified look. She had miscalculated and made the portions too big. There wasn't enough to go around.
Attempting to come to her rescue, I returned some salad from my bowl to the large one. A few others saw me and thought it was a new dining custom, so they did the same. Eventually there was enough salad for everyone and we never told anyone we were simply trying to cover for a mistake.
We move on a few years and Jack Kent Cooke, the bombastic Laker owner, has begun calling me Milt. He sees my stories in the paper every day but somehow gets the impression my name is Milt. The funny thing is I have a cousin named Milt.
Barbara is greatly troubled and keeps asking me to correct the man. But I'm intimidated by him.
"I was very fortunate to get this assignment before turning 30 and I want to cover the Lakers for many years," I tell her. "I don't want any trouble with the owner."
But she insists.
"We all accomplish things in our lives and deserve the proper credit," she says. "Milt is your cousin in the dry cleaning business. You're Mitch, the sportswriter. You have to make him aware of that."
She finally convinces me and I reluctantly go to his office and break the news. He takes it surprisingly well and apologizes.
For the next six months he introduces me to everyone. "This is Mitch," he says proudly in his booming voice. "He covers the Lakers for the newspaper."
He does this so often I'm sorry I ever told him.
Then one night Barbara and I are walking down a narrow staircase in the Forum. There isn't room for anyone to pass, but who's walking up the stairs? Mr. Cooke.
He can't get by us so he stops and chats. Very cordial. We talk about the Lakers and all three of us offer opinions about the team. The best conversation I've ever had with him.
Then we step aside so he can continue walking up. He reaches the top, turns and calls out, "Great to see you again, Milt."
He pauses a moment and adds: "Great to see you again too, Beverly."
Yes, those were the days. We annually went to training camp in Palm Desert and shared experiences with Pat Riley when he was the coach and his wife, Chris. We admired Pat's dramatic growth from a substitute player to a rookie coach to a championship coach.
When Chick Hearn died Pat flew here from Miami for the funeral and we spent the afternoon reviewing old times.
When the Lakers drafted Vlade Divac I was disappointed because I thought my work would become harder having to cover a foreign player. I thought he wouldn't speak English very well, but Barbara comforted me.
"It might not be bad," she said. "We're all afraid of the unknown."
As matters developed, Vlade learned English quickly and became one of the best friends and interview subjects I've had. We spent countless hours on flights and bus rides discussing everything from politics to basketball.
When Barbara's work with an educational research firm was transferred to Salem, Oregon for two years we attended Laker-Trail Blazer games in Portland and dined at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Willamette River. And then she returned to L.A. and we were back in our second row seats at the Forum.
Barbara is at Hillside Mortuary now and the Lakers are trying to win another championship. If they do, I'm sure she'll be able to smile. Another championship would please her a lot, but if there's a dinner party someone else will have to fill the salad bowls.