Last week, on their way to a Staples Center parking lot following the Lakers' 77-106 blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in game two of the Western Conference Finals, two fans discussed the debacle.

"Man, I can't believe how bad they were," said one. "They missed open shots!"

"Yeah," said the other. "They're going to have to play better than that to beat them up in Portland."

"Looks bad," said the first. "But they can do it if they play together."

They can do it. Those words mark a newly positive attitude about the team that has propelled enthusiasm to levels not seen in years. Now in the third round of the playoffs, the Lakers are the hottest ticket in town. Television ratings are up, and local sports-radio shows discuss little else. Further, the amount of money people are willing to shell out to see a game at Staples Center is considerable.

"People want to see the Lakers," said Brad Schy, president of the ticket agency Musical Chairs in Brentwood. "Tickets are going for anywhere from $75 for the upper (level) seats to $1,200 for the first or second row center court. And seats on the floor are going for four or five thousand (dollars)."

That's a huge premium on the original price of the tickets. The regular-season face value of a center court seat now going for $1,200 is about $150, although it's slightly more for the playoffs.

Given the buzz surrounding both the brand-new, state-of-the-art Staples Center and the Lakers, paying five or even 10 times the face value of a good ticket is not considered unreasonable.

"When you combine the fact that that this is Staples' first year with the championship run of the Lakers, more people are throwing caution to the wind to be part of it," said L.A. sports consultant David Carter. "You've got people willing to pay any cost to see it live."

The Lakers ended the regular season with the best record in the NBA 67 wins and 15 losses and were quickly anointed the post-season favorites to win it all. Their battle with the Trail Blazers to be the Western Conference representative to the championship round was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as the "de facto finals," because the winner is expected to beat the Eastern Conference representative (either the New York Knicks or the Indiana Pacers).

In a city that hasn't seen a major professional sports championship since both the Lakers and the Dodgers won them in 1988, and that recently lost a bid for an expansion National Football League franchise, a lot of hungry fans are investing their hopes in this year's squad.

Higher ratings than last year

"There's nothing magical about it," said Todd Merkow, vice president and general manager for the cable television channels Fox Sports Net and Fox Sports Net 2, which have televised many of the team's home playoff games. "It's the way Shaq (Lakers' center Shaquille O'Neal) is having an MVP year, and Kobe (Bryant) has emerged as a major star, and the way the team has put together a championship year. Throw in (coach) Phil Jackson, and a lot of people are excited."

Fox has averaged a Nielsen rating of 9.6 for this year's Lakers playoff games, up dramatically from the 7.8 rating the Lakers garnered during their playoff run in 1999 and their 7.4 rating in 1998 (each rating point equals roughly 51,000 people).

"The sports fan is tuning in," Merkow said.

So are some season-ticket holders. The high prices being garnered for tickets are prompting many of them to watch the games on TV and sell their seats to ticket brokers, who are doing a brisk business in selling not only lower-level seats but also premier seats (which go for between $12,800 and $14,800 a year) and even luxury suites (which lease for about $200,000 to $300,000 a year).

"We just sold 18 suite tickets at $350 each $6,300," Schy said. "Some people are willing to let the suites go for a night."

Defraying ticket costs

Carter asserts that a number of season-ticket holders use the opportunity of the playoffs to help them pay the high cost of their tickets even if they miss the playoffs, they get to see games for the rest of the season. Suite holders, though, probably don't need the money they simply have found themselves with available boxes.

"No question about (season-ticket-holder profit-taking)," Schy said. "But if you can afford a suite, you don't need the money from one night."

The management of Staples Center frowns on the subleasing of suites, or any kind of scalping, but acknowledges that there's not much they can do about it. While officials have increased the number of off-duty police cracking down on scalpers outside the arena, they aren't knocking on the doors of the 160 suites and asking for I.D.s

"There is language in the suite contracts prohibiting reselling them," said Michael Roth, the arena's spokesman. "And we do have ways of finding out who's selling tickets. There's no way to stop anyone from coming through the doors, though."

There are reasons for management to be concerned. A Staples suite holder is contractually liable for whatever happens in the luxury box during an event. This became something of a problem in January when a Corona beer bottle either fell or was thrown from one of the suites available to rent on a per-event basis (during a loss to none other than the Trail Blazers). The bottle struck a couple below, who promptly sued.

Roth declined comment other than to say the litigation is still pending, but he was more than happy to offer his take on the fan interest that's been generated by the Lakers.

"It's been amazing," he said. "And both the Staples Center and the Lakers clearly profit by the team continuing through the playoffs. As does the whole city."

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