The Los Angeles Lakers are in the playoffs for the first time since 1988, and basketball is big in town as it hasn't been since the "showtime" days of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Notorious Lakers fan Jack Nicholson held up four fingers for the cameras last week after the Lakers' miraculous come-from-behind finish against the Portland Trailblazers, predicting a four-game sweep of the Indiana Pacers. That was averted with the Pacers' win Sunday night, but the crowning of Shaquille, Kobe, and the rest of our crew seems inevitable.

So why is this Lakers fan so blue? It doesn't help that I can't get a ticket. The talk is that, though the series is officially sold out, you can get a ticket for somewhere between $200 and $3,000 if you know the right agent--or maybe Nicholson.

But I can almost live with that. What really depresses me--not so much for myself as for the city and the game--is how the Lakers do business during the regular season. Of nine categories of ticket, the top two--"Suites" and "Premier"--are not even priced on the Lakers website. Your money's not welcome, pal. You gotta know somebody.

This represents a remarkable change in our society. The sports stadium used to be one of the great public spaces of American democracy. Sure, it always cost more to have a seat at half-court than one up in the rafters, but not that much more. And nobody stopped you from moving down from the cheap seat you had paid for to a better seat no one was using. They do now, even when the arena is half-empty. Sports have become one of the greatest forces against equality in our culture.

Do the math. Let's say you just want to take the family, and don't mind sitting up there, just one tier down from the roof, down at the end of the court. If you buy from Ticketmaster, the price is $52.50 per seat--if you pay cash. Charge four tickets, and you pay $54.50 per seat.

We're now up to $210 for this little family outing, and counting. On the fringe of downtown L.A., Staples Center's neighborhood is like (and not infrequently is) a movie set for urban desolation. You don't want to get lost in that neighborhood. You seriously do not want to get lost. Which means paid parking, and another $15.

That's $225--and counting. Let's suppose that Mom and Dad each have a beer, Junior and Sis each have a Coke, and everybody has a hot dog. A conservative estimate puts this repast at $7.50 each, bringing our total to $255.

That's high enough a tariff for someone like me. But today, 20% of Los Angeles County residents live below the official poverty line for a family of four: $16,450 a year. Many live well below that line. Airport security workers, for example, the good people who scanned your luggage on your last trip, were making just $12,000 as of late last year. The median rent, meanwhile, is $654 a month, or nearly $8,000 a year. How many people at that level of income, facing that kind of expense, are going to blow $255--more than a week's wages--on a ball game?

Elitism used to reside not in sports but in the institutions of higher culture. That's now reversed. I happen to work for the J. Paul Getty Trust, which has been painfully concerned that the visual arts, thought to be inherently elitist, not be made more so by a high admission charge to our museum. There is, as a result, no admission charge at all to the Getty Museum. If you arrive by city bus or taxi, you just walk in--no reservation necessary, no charge. If you arrive in your own car, you pay a parking charge, for the day, of $5.00. Up on the hill, besides enjoying the lordly views and wonderful art for as long as you like, you can have a full, hot meal in the café for the $7.50 you would spend on a hot dog and a beer at Staples Center. For a family of four, then, the total cost of a visit would be about $35.

Opera tickets, to be sure, are almost as expensive as Lakers tickets, but plutocratic "Premier" and "Suite" distinctions don't exist at the Music Center, and symphony tickets cost less than half what it takes to see the Lakers.

There is, finally, one institution that is more democratic even that the museum or the concert hall: the church. The members of some churches are required to tithe, but the commoner practice is a simple collection without even a "suggested contribution." Stewardship campaigns do have targets, but nobody is turned away from the door of a church or synagogue; and it is unheard of, nowadays, for seating in a house of worship to be stratified on the basis of income.

Admittedly, religious services, even the most spectacular, don't compare--and shouldn't--to a playoff game in double overtime. But the liturgy can be quite a show, combining art, music, literature, and public pageant. Yet many church families begrudge the church a contribution made over, let's say, three months' time that matches what they might blow on a sports event, or even a day trip to an amusement park.

Many, of course, make large contributions. What they are keeping kindled, I honestly believe, is not just the candle of their own congregation but the lamp of American democracy itself. That lamp does not burn by the oil of political institutions alone. Democratic polity requires a democratic culture, and the culture of American democracy, to judge from the sad spectacle of American sports, is dying around us.

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