"Thanks, Kobe."

That was the message Hollywood Billiards posted on its marquee two weeks ago after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs for only the fourth time since the team came to Los Angeles in 1960.

The All-Star guard has taken the blame from fans and the media for driving center Shaquille O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson out of town, but the decline in business resulting from the team's poor showing is what really upset sports bar's owner Jeff Bey.

"It's been devastating to (our) numbers," he said. "You could hide bodies in this place."

The days of attracting 500 customers for a Lakers NBA Finals game and up to 200 for a regular season game are already a distant memory.

For a game last week against the Phoenix Suns, who have replaced the Lakers atop the Western Conference, Bey drew a crowd of 20 to 30 fewer than the 40 television sets and big screens lining its walls.

Bey isn't the only business owner crying in his beer.

With the Clippers also struggling and the National Hockey League's lockout wiping out the Kings' season, sports bars, sportswear retailers and restaurants across Los Angeles have had a slow winter.

Steel Pit Sports Grill in Tujunga will lose as much as $70,000 from the postseason alone without the Lakers playing, according to owner Erik Demchesen, who entertained crowds of more than 100 people per Laker playoff game last spring.

During this past regular season, Demchesen watched in dismay as the numbers fell from 20 to 40 per game at the start of the season to as few as five now.

"We lost our big Laker crowd almost at the beginning of the season. And then it got worse. They don't even tell us to put the game on anymore," he said.

The lack of demand for Lakers jerseys stings local retailers who stock more local team clothes than that of their rivals.

Sports Classic of Inglewood had weekly sales of at least 40 authentic jerseys, mostly Lakers, costing as much as $200 each last season. This season, sales dropped so drastically that the store stopped ordering the items around Christmas. In fact, store salesman Linell Smith said he sells far more of Shaq's Miami Heat jerseys than Kobe Bryant's Laker jerseys.

"(Sales) are rock bottom right now," he said. "Nobody even comes around looking for Lakers stuff anymore. It's been like that ever since they traded Shaq."


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