Part Two of Palisadian Sam Lagana’s ‘Sports Stories’ Interview with Denny Lennon
Few people in the Palisades are as recognizable as Sam Lagana. Whenever there is a big event in town you can be sure he will be there with his ever-present smile and his gift for gab. The 1980 Palisades High School graduate has been the stadium voice of the Los Angeles Rams since the NFL team returned to the Southland four years ago. He is also Associate Vice Chancellor at Pepperdine University in Malibu and Chairperson of the annual John R. Wooden Award. Lagana served as Executive Director at the LA Athletic Club and served one term as National Director of Sports at the Josephson Institute of Ethics. He was the Associate Director of Athletics at Cal State Dominguez Hills from 1993-96 and Assistant Director of Athletics at Cal State Northridge from 1989-93. Lagana has served on the boards of the Palisades-Malibu YMCA, Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion Squadron 283. He and his wife Eileen have two daughters and live in the Marquez area. Lagana was recently interviewed for a “Sports Stories with Denny Lennon” podcast at Casablanca Restaurant in Venice. Here is Part Two of that interview. For more information, visit: www.sportsstoriesdl.com/.
DL: What were some of your catch phrases on the AVP Tour?
SL: The ball can be traveling up to 90 miles per hour… Boom! Overdramatizing it, but it was really as we started to travel when I picked that up, but when I was in college I started to use different terms—french fries on the scoreboard… snowmen on the scoreboard… there’s nobody in the gym so who do I have to entertain? Me. Whatever we could do. Those were fun days.
DL: They actually found you from doing Loyola Marymount games, right?
SL: This was back in ‘84 or ‘85 when the AVP is just starting out and the Miller High Life was there at what I call the Gobi Desert which is north of the Santa Monica Pier in that unused space and then it grew. [LMU Coach] Kevin Cleary is the one who said ‘Hey, you can do this!’ They were looking for someone who could do marketing and public relations which is kind of what I was doing in college, but it wasn’t a full-time gig because it was a start up. We had the AVP logo with the ball shooting up into the ‘P’ and that was the inertia of it all. I was blessed to get that opportunity.
DL: What did you have to do to promote the league?
SL: In the infancy of the AVP it breaks away from Events Concepts and contracted with a company called Group Dynamics and again it’s seasonal, so we would build the posters and advertising and plan it all out. I had to negotiate with the cities, with the newspapers and with the bars. Miller would call and say ‘We need you to do a bar party for this’ or Cuervo would say ‘We need you to do this’ and you’d go to all these different places because people don’t realize that back in those days our budgeting let’s say from the Miller Brewing Company was coming from their young adult marketing budget. So they were focused on 21-year-olds or whatever the legal drinking age was in the communities we were going to. Remember, as we started to finally break out in like ‘86 or ‘87 and move across the country more and we started to envision how we were going to get to 30 tournaments a year and all those types of things, everyone had different rules. Some states wouldn’t even let you buy beverages on Sundays. In some places you couldn’t have signage on the beach. Every city was different.
DL: How were you able to get everyone to buy in to your central message?
SL: What it comes down to is that I really believe in inclusion and getting people involved. So to that degree I was trying to figure out how to do that. So the whole “taste’s great, less filling” back and forth, that was one way. During the introductions that was another way. We’d go to places like Chicago and they didn’t know volleyball. You had to teach them volleyball through the day so they could figure out what it is they needed to celebrate or what was a good set, what was not a good set or what was this and that. So when it came time to have fun how were we going to do that? I was tired of reading PAs every four minutes. And then we did the wave to get people going. We were on cassette tapes back then and I’d always play the “Hawaii 5-0 Theme” to get the wave going and then the fun part would be ‘Let’s reverse the wave at the count of three and it would go back the other way. We’d do that and fun in timeouts and I kept finding ways to do that.
DL: You knew that one of the officials, Marvin Hall, could dance. How did you used to egg him on?
SL: There was a song coming out ‘I Like Big Bucks,’ right? So Marvin had been a football player, he was quite an athlete. Big guy. Well, he had a medical situation that caused him to gain some girth but he was still an extraordinary official who commanded respect from the guys on the court. So, he was the ‘up’ official and we were in Milwaukee and we didn’t have a big crowd that day so I’m thinking ‘I’m gonna have fun with this, I’m gonna mess with Marvin.’ So I said to our DJ ‘Put on ‘I Like Big Bucks’ because he’ll start to dance.’ And he does. And I say ‘Ladies and gentlemen it’s the mystical, magical, eighth wonder of the world… Marvelous Marvin Hall!’ And it became like a staple of pro beach volleyball. He could jiggle like nobody else. It was the most fun you could have. I mean, what professional sport would take one of its lead officials and do that? But we got away with it! Those were the days… and it went from bring your own beach chair and get to Laguna Beach as early as you can or even spend the night to having big stadiums and ushers.
DL: Was it good training for you having to be on that stage and speaking correctly for that many hours at a time?
SL: I probably didn’t think about it much then, we had those three-day tournaments and you’re in Chicago in the humidity, there’s a lot going on, big crowds… the biggest crowds to me were Clearwater, Belmar, Chicago, Boulder, Santa Cruz and then Manhattan Beach and Hermosa. Those were three-day events, you’re grinding and yeah, you’re tired and all of a sudden you’ve got to turn it on for national television and then you’re also thinking ‘If this game goes long, what time are we going to get done and the flight out of O’Hare is at 8. Am I gonna make that flight? How am I going to get there? And you’re the last guy to leave because you have to do the interviews and awards. You say ‘So long everybody and whoosh… off you go!”
DL: One of your friends at Palisades High was Jeanie Buss. What do you remember of her?
SL: Jeanie was a good friend from when we were kids. She was a basketball player in high school, she was on the golf team, and she was keeping score at the scorer’s table when I’m announcing and at the time her dad [Dr. Jerry Buss] hadn’t acquired the Lakers yet. She’s just a girl who’s interested in sports and you’re interested in sports and she’s friends with the same people you’re friends with. I remember we were all going to a party one night at her house in Rustic Canyon and the paper came out the day before reporting that her dad had bought the Lakers but to us her dad was just her dad. We didn’t think of him as a real estate guy, we thought of him as an aerospace engineer guy, like everyone else’s parents. No big deal. And we were like “How did he buy them?’ It was wild. Well, I
was blessed to stay in touch with her and her dad put her in charge of tennis at The Forum. We stayed in touch, I’d see her and talk to her and she asked if I’d announce the LA Strings matches. I said ‘Okay, I can do that.’ I was in college living off of Manchester in Playa del Rey so I was close to Inglewood. She would say ‘Can you help us promote this?’ So the next thing I know I’m driving the fan van to places. Then Mike O’Hara came into the picture. He and her dad were friends, so this concept of Team Cup volleyball came up and so Jeanie asked me to help her on that. She’d have me announce the tennis challenge matches that she’d create with Linda Rambis. Jeanie is probably one of the most loyal people you will ever meet! Many of the people in senior leadership today with the Lakers were in active roles with her in tennis or soccer through all these years. They all stayed together in that. I was sort of the guy who came in, did my little things and went out. I just wanted to be helpful. She’d have me do concerts and all sorts of little gigs that were kind of fun.
DL: How did you get the job at Cal State Northridge?
SL: If you remember, at that time it was the California Intercollegiate Volleyball Association and then it became the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, then the Mountain Pacific. When it was CIVA they were trying to grow volleyball and I made an agreement with Loyola Marymount to be sort of the event producer there at Gersten Pavilion. Northridge was going to play, John Price was coaching them at the time and they were like ‘Well, maybe we want to do this too.’ So they asked if I’d come out to do it at Northridge. They were talking about going Division I and at the time I was still working at the AVP full-time up in Fox Hills in these nice offices across from the cemetary where my dad is buried. It was pretty cool. I talked to Eileen about it possibly being a great opportunity, then we started staging it and it really went well. I was asked to join the Northridge staff on a full-time basis and that’s how it happened.
DL: After CSUN you wound up at Cal State Dominguez?
SL: Yes, I was Associate Athletic Director there. I partnered up with a couple people in the offices and took on the AD duties for awhile when the person in the job retired after about six months. This was around the time Eileen was having our daughter Cambria and we were evaluating if this is what I want to do, is this where I want to be? This was right around the time when they changed the law so that a man could take some time off and I took some time that summer to spend with Cambria.
DL: How did you come to be in charge of the Wooden Award?
SL: It goes back to I’m a kid, my dad passes away, I’m going to Paul Revere and I can walk from Revere to the back gate of Riviera. My mom’s a tennis player, so after my dad passed away she decided that playing in the park league was more complex, she wanted to have more of a social life. I don’t think she wanted to get into dating. She had two young kids, 13 and 10, and I think she just wanted to be able to play tennis and have it scheduled so she joined Riviera. For me it worked out well because they were kind enough to give me a key to the back gate, which was way better than walking up Sunset and all the way around. So I’d be hanging out, play tennis, waiting for my mom and I became friends with Steve Hathaway and his family owned and had developed the Riviera and it was actually part of the LA Athletic Club, so I’m this kid who doesn’t have enough to do so I got dragged downtown to go help shuffle things and that’s how it started. Coach Wooden used to have his basketball camps at Palisades High and we used to take the 76 Bus—Chip Engelland, Steve Kerr, myself—from Sunset all the way down to UCLA, it would drop us off on Gayley right by Pauley Pavilion and a lot of the guys were ball boys, stuff like that. So we’d go into Pauley to watch basketball in the 1970s. It all started from there. When I got more involved I started envisioning how we could make it a larger platform. The Wooden Award was really parochial and we had the opportunity to spread it across the country a little bit more and tell the story of Coach Wooden as a player. He was National Player of the Year and an extraordinary guy but everyone just talked about him as coach of all of these championship teams. We started to realize that nobody brought back former players. Well, they were staying at The Ritz when it had just opened in Marina del Rey so we figured out that when teams came to LA we could invite them to The Yacht Club for lunch and we put a little more emphasis on the All-American Team and that way we’d have a nice cadre of people, we worked with Fox and we reached out to former Bruin Roy Hamilton and put together the whole partnership that then became that. On a side bar, I called Chip [Engelland] and told him we needed to have a summer camp under these ideals, so we created the Chip Engelland Wooden Award Summer Basketball Camp.
DL: What do you remember about Coach Wooden?
SL: So I’m sitting at his modest condo one day on White Oak [in Encino] and all of a sudden I heard this noise outside the sliding glass doors. Well, he lived just above the alley and the UPS truck would drive up and the guy would just throw the packages up and I was like ‘What’s this? What are you getting? People would mail him basketballs and stuff to sign and he’d sign every one of them in that perfect penmanship ‘Thank you for your interest.’ So I asked ‘How are you going to send these back?’ He’d say ‘Well, I have to box ‘em up’ and he’d do all this himself. So every once in awhile we’d take these boxes to the post office and ship them for him, but everyday he’d take them down the elevator to his car and load it up.
DL: How did you progress up the ranks at Pepperdine?
SL: I was working at the LA Athletic Club having a great time and became aware they might be interested in having me at Pepperdine. I always say I don’t have a job, I have a lifestyle. We just have to figure it all out because everything blends together, but it was wonderful to be extended that opportunity and sit with all these guys and figure it out together. At first when I was hired I thought it was to the Athletics Department and when I got there I found out I actually wasn’t reporting to the Athletic Department, even though I work there, I’m in Advancement and I thought it was a great place. First because of our value system, our Christian orientation, we can raise our kids in a wholesome environment, and secondarily because of the close proximity.
DL: When did you get the email that the LA Rams were looking for an annnouncer?
SL: It was kind of surreal because I got that email and it’s like ‘If you’re interested in this can you record these lines?’ I literally just took my iPhone, tried it in my office and it didn’t sound right. So then I went into the bathroom because I’m a really good singer in the bathroom at home… and it didn’t sound right in there. Then there was that corridor that was kind of closed and felt like a sound booth and I’m like ‘I’ll try here.’ But literally on my iPhone I recorded those lines and then I add one: ‘It’s time for every man, woman and child to get out of your seat, get on your feet and rise with the Rams!’ That whole thought of let’s get this place up, let’s get everyone rocking, it’s time to shine. And to this day, that’s how I open a Los Angeles Rams game, at the beginning of the game and when they come back from the locker room at halftime. There was no book, so it was like ‘Here we go’ and we’re off and rolling. It was cool because they gave me some latitude and when the players first came out I could feel the excitement, the people were clamoring for it, they wanted a team and they’re the reason you get excited.
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