Last week, I went to my first 49ers game. As I walked the streets of Inglewood, I couldn't help but notice the discrepancies in the vibrant town. While I resided on the poorer side of town, surrounded by memories of a smaller environment, just feet away resided opulence and grandeur, with massive stadiums dedicated to showcasing this country's most storied athletic moments. As I traversed those streets, I wondered what it must have looked like as it grew from a sleepy little town in the middle of Los Angeles County to a burgeoning metropolis at the heart of so many moments in American history.
A Humble Beginning
Inglewood was founded on February 8, 1908 with a total population of 1,200 residents. It remained a sleepy little town and housed just 4,000 when a 4.9 magnitude earthquake struck the town. While there were no deaths, the damage from that memorable date of June 21, 1920 was catastrophic. As the gawkers flocked to the various crumbled buildings, many decided to stay and help rebuild.
As the years went on, Inglewood grew and seven years after the earthquake that brought it to its knees, the town had become a small city, growing to 27,000. It even welcomed a golf course and a racetrack to its blossoming economy. Not only was the Inglewood Golf Course a popular attraction that helped launch Gene Littler's career, but its Portero County Club hosted many events for the locals such as business functions and weddings, bringing the community together in a multitude of ways.
Inglewood continued to grow through the 1950s when in 1954 the the US Air Force set up shop in the old St. John's Catholic School on the corner of Manchester and Locust, establishing the Western Development Division. In time, that division would develop the country's first Intercontinental Ballistic missile, the Atlas. While this achievement may have brought Inglewood a bit of national recognition, it was short-lived. However, strange rumblings were happening in Minnesota that would directly impact the trajectory of Inglewood.
The NBA struggled to attract a following in its earliest days with even its best teams struggling in small markets. This includes the Minneapolis Lakers. Despite winning four titles, they struggled at the box office and by the beginning of the 1960s owner Bob Short announced that he was moving his team to Los Angeles.
The team spent its first five seasons as California residents in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Complex, a short walk across the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Before the 1965-1966 began, Short sold the team to Jack Kent Cooke who had an eye on bringing hockey to the Golden State.
Soon, Cooke set his sights on Inglewood, particularly its 18-hole golf course. As he looked upon the soon-to-be construction site, he saw the future. He saw championship banners raised to the rafters again and again as his Lakers rolled through the playoffs and he could see the day when the Stanley Cup made its way to the yet-to-be-named arena.
It took the Lakers much longer to win the title than Cooke imagined. Although they went to the Finals numerous times since first moving to California in 1960, they had yet to win it all in their new surroundings, even after moving into the Forum in 1967. They just couldn't get over the hump.
Finally, in 1972, they won it all, beating the Knicks in five as the league's logo himself, Jerry West, finally won the title after seven previous losses on the sport's biggest stage. But while that long-awaited championship victory was satisfying, it was short-lived as the team was run by players who were past their prime.
So Inglewood waited for their next moment of glory. By 1979, Jack Kent Cooke had sold the team to real estate magnate Jerry Buss and the Lakers had drafted Earvin "Magic" Johnson first overall.
Once again, Los Angeles C0unty was home to the NBA champions as the Lakers won it all that year and again two years later. By the time the decade came to a close, the Lakers had won five world titles.
Not only did they rule the NBA like a conquering emperor, but they ruled the night with aplomb in the Forum Club. Jerry Buss was not your typical owner. He enjoyed life to its fullest and was a notorious playboy. He wanted a piece of the action so he had a club built into the Forum.
As the Lakers danced their way through the 1980s, they partied even harder in the Forum Club as celebrities from all walks of life were drawn to the spectacle on a nightly basis. There, anything could happen, whether it was alcohol, drugs or sex. The players lived like kings in their own castle while the rest of Inglewood watched with envy.
The Last Days of the Inglewood Lakers
The Forum was surrounded by poverty and building racial tension that would explode in the spring of 1992. By then, the four police officers who had been videotaped beating an unarmed black man were acquitted of all charges and Los Angeles County exploded in one of the fiercest riots in history.
As Los Angeles County burned, the Fabulous Forum became hazardous due to the NBA playoffs. At the time, the Lakers were supposed to host the Trailblazers in the fourth game of the first round. Down 2-1, the Lakers had their backs against the wall.
But due to growing concern over the riots, the Lakers were forced to move to Las Vegas to play in what would ultimately be the last game of their season. The close of the disappointing season was a far cry from the Lakers' glory days just a few years earlier and ushered in an era of mediocrity. As the losses mounted in the middle of the decade, the celebrities began to dwindle and the lights flickered in the Forum Club.
Jerry Buss knew that the Forum was quickly becoming antiquated and couldn't keep up with the current era of media. He needed a new arena in the heart of Los Angeles, not tiny Inglewood, a lovely place that the almighty Lakers had outgrown.
By 1999, the Lakers were clearly on the cusp of greatness. Three years earlier, they had traded for Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and watched as the two blossomed into one of the fiercest duos in the history of the association. One year earlier, the Buss family broke ground on 111 Street Figueroa Street, amidst the skyscrapers and the storied Los Angeles traffic that promised to give the Lakers the exposure that they craved.
When the Lakers left Inglewood after the 1998-1999 season, it no longer felt like the "City of Champions". Now, a city that had grown from a sleepy little town of 63,000 in 1960 to more than 109,000 in 1990 ceased to grow any more.
Still, the forum stayed, sometimes drawing a crowd for a concert or a WNBA game, but it had lost the grandeur that had made it a global symbol for basketball royalty and Hollywood stardom.
One could argue that the Hollywood Park Racetrack just across the street kept the city relevant during this era of uncertainty. In December 1999, the Hollywood Park community witnessed Laffit Pincay, Jr. surpassing Bill Shoemaker's all-time mark for wins by a jockey. In July 2005 Cesario became the first Japanese-born and bred racehorse to win an American stakes race in nearly half a century on Hollywood Park's majestic grounds.
But while these moments helped bring the Inglewood community together, it wasn't enough to bring the kinds of celebrities that had traversed its streets just a couple of decades earlier. But strange rumblings were happening in St. Louis that would forever change the city's trajectory.
SoFi Stadium and Beyond
Stan Kroenke was frustrated. After years of haggling with the city of St. Louis to either upgrade his stadium or build a new one for his Rams, the billionaire decided to move his team back to California in 2016, 22 years after it had left Southern California. While Los Angeles County was filled with options, he chose to move into the quieter surroundings of Inglewood, having noticed that the old Hollywood Park Racetrack had closed in December 2013 after years of low ticket sales.
While the Rams moved into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the time being, construction crews worked around the clock on Inglewood's latest attraction: SoFi Stadium. Of course, nothing comes easy as heavy rains in the first year of construction forced its opening to be delayed by a year. Strangely, it opened during one of the most uncertain times in this nation's history.
The COVID-19 pandemic claimed millions of lives and forced the world to stay indoors, rendering stadiums fanless. Ironically, the NFL opened two new stadiums that year, one in Las Vegas for the Raiders and one in Inglewood for the Rams and Chargers. while Inglewood stayed silent in 2020, the Rams got used to their new surroundings and were brimming with confidence the following year as social distancing slowly became a thing of the past.
2021 brought new fortune to the City of Champions. In September, ground broke on the Clipper's new home, the Intuit Dome, further establishing a new regime of opulence and grandeur in Inglewood. A stone's throw from SoFi Stadium and a mile down the road from the Forum, the Intuit dome has further brought new life into a city that badly needed a breath of fresh air.
While it wasn't easy, the Rams made their way to the Super Bowl that year where the big game was being hosted by none other than SoFi Stadium. When Aaron Donald thwarted Joe Burrow's last-gasp pass late in the fourth quarter, Inglewood again felt like the City of Champions with celebrities from all walks of life celebrating the Rams' good fortune in one of the league's newest stadiums. In that moment, it became evident that Inglewood had recaptured its former glory and a new era was underway.