For more than a half century, few in this town have loved and lived the Lakers like Joe Smith.
The former record mogul has four season seats on the baseline next to the Lakers bench. He has held those seats since the team arrived in Los Angeles. He has become as much of a fixture under the basket as the ballboys and Laker girls. No single ticket holder has endured longer, and certainly no single fan has invested more.
For 54 years, Joe Smith has loved the Lakers graciously, gratefully and unconditionally.
But then, two weeks ago, nearing the conclusion of the most rudderless, ridiculous Lakers season in history, Smith received a letter from the Lakers asking that he renew his season tickets two months earlier than in previous seasons. That's long before anyone will have any idea about the makeup of the future roster and coaching staff. That also enables the Lakers to collect an extra two months of interest on Smith's $400,000-plus investment. All for a team that probably will finish with the franchise's worst record since it came to Los Angeles.
Their most enduring fan says he doesn't even know who the Lakers are anymore.
After all this time, Joe Smith is finally considering dumping his tickets.
"This is so out of line,'' said Smith. ''The organization has become toxic from top to bottom."
Since the death of owner Jerry Buss 14 months ago, the Lakers need to realize they no longer have a free pass into this city's heart. Blind loyalties from their biggest and richest supporters are slowly dissolving with the eye-opening reality that Buss' children are offering no clear vision.
The Lakers need to listen to folks like Smith, and listen good.
"I can stand losing, but not the way they are losing,'' said Smith. "Not with a coach who has an enormous wave of sentiment against him … not with all the confusion in the front office … it's become a pathetic operation.''
The final straw for Smith was the letter, sent to the owners of the 14,500 season tickets, announcing the new final ticket renewal deadline is May 19. That is not only much earlier than in previous years, but it is also one day before the NBA draft lottery, smack in the middle of what could be a coaching search, and nearly two months before the Lakers will have a chance to begin signing free agents.
Translated, the Lakers are essentially commanding their fans to pluck down big bucks for next season without having a clue how next season's product will look. They are ordering fans to have blind faith in basketball boss Jim Buss when Buss has done nothing to earn it, and compelling belief in a franchise that has shown no signs of recovering from the loss of its leader.
Considering a buzz around town that has included emails to this newspaper and rants on a Facebook page, Smith's disillusionment with the letter is shared by many.
"For those of us who have been with them for 54 years, in good times and bad times, this is unconscionable," said Smith. "They're not going to be good for another couple of years at least, there's times they look like a Developmental League team, it's really no fun, yet they are arrogantly demanding that we renew earlier and hold our money even longer?"
When contacted for this story, Lakers officials note that they are not increasing the ticket prices — which only means for every home game, Smith still pays $2,750 per seat and $200 for valet parking.
The Lakers explained that in changing the renewal date, they were finally following the league standard, as most teams have much earlier renewal dates. The Lakers, in fact, still have the latest renewal date in the NBA. The Lakers also explained they are implementing a new system for upgrading tickets, and the earlier renewal date will give them more time.
"The world is changing, and as it does, so do the way companies, and not just sports teams, do business," said John Black, team spokesman. "We need more time to implement new technology for the upgrade and renewal process, and we're agreeing to the league's demands that we fall in line with all other NBA team renewal deadlines."
Smith is still looking for answers.
"At this point, somebody on the Lakers has to be able to step up and look and say, 'OK, I'm in charge of this thing, here's where we're going to do, here's our plan,'" Smith said.
A couple of weeks ago, Jeanie Buss attempted to do this when she conducted gentle interviews with the Lakers' television and radio partners. It didn't go well. She generally sounded as confused as anybody else. In one breath, she said she was in charge of the team. In the next breath, she said Phil Jackson was not working for the Lakers because ''there was no role for him," yet she couldn't quite explain why.
Before renewing their season tickets, fans indeed need to consider that this situation will get worse before it gets better. Kobe Bryant's $48.5-million deal will prevent the Lakers from making big changes on the free-agent market, and they will need some of pingpong-ball luck to garner a top-five draft pick. If they decide to keep Coach Mike D'Antoni to save themselves paying him off $4 million, they would be alienating Bryant and making the season even worse.
Even if Smith renews his tickets and ends up selling them to others, he knows where he will spend most of his time next year.
"I really hate to say this, but right now, you want good and entertaining basketball in this town, you go to the Clippers,'' he said quietly, almost in a whisper.