Standing in the shadows of Staples Center

Lee Zeidman runs one of the world's busiest arenas, but the guy in charge of 19,000 seats never sits in any of them.

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Lee Zeidman

Lee Zeidman, president of Staples Center, Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, stands in front of the scoreboard on the floor of the arena. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times / August 6, 2014)

The steps that lead to the soul of Los Angeles' glittering sports palace were first taken in bowling shoes.

Long before Lee Zeidman ran Staples Center, he worked at Simi Bowl, where he learned happiness didn't involve colorful balls or clattering pins, but shoe spray.

"Nothing more important than spraying the insides of those rental bowling shoes," he said. "If you don't do it, they stink."

When Zeidman wasn't sanitizing footwear, he was passing out quarters at the bowling center's pool hall, where eventually he discovered the one good stick, the easiest marks and another life lesson.

"Nobody thinks a guy wearing a change pouch around his waist can actually bend over and play pool," he said.

Forty years later, the hustler and handyman still lurks and lingers on the fringes, in the shadows, spending his games standing in the same Staples Center corner, as if waiting for somebody to walk up and ask him for a pair of size 11s or to break a dollar.

Only now, he has a title, newly bestowed, sweatily acquired, richly deserved, yet still hard for his elbow-greased crowd to believe: Lee Zeidman, Staples Center president.

"Somebody told me the other day that Lee was now president of the place," said Moises Contreras, 66, a longtime Staples maintenance worker. "I was like, 'Wow, whoa, my friend is a big shot now."

He is the biggest of the big shots, running one of the world's busiest arenas, charged with everything from the Skyscraper Dogs to the courtside celebrities, from the red coats to the blue line, from hardwood to ice in the same day, from Kings to Lakers to Clippers to Sparks.

He is also the most unlikely and endearing of the big shots, a Cal State Northridge graduate who never rolled down his sleeves as he worked his way up from the bowling lanes to the fast lanes. He ran a college gym in Santa Barbara where he swept the floors, he ran the Forum, where he cleaned the toilets, then he became Staples Center's first employee on Feb. 12, 1998.

Back then, the building was just a hole. Zeidman, a jovial, bear-like presence who favors Hawaiian shirts over fancy suits, has since filled that hole with uncommon warmth and extraordinary devotion.

"He is the kind of guy that you want to get a beer with," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations. "Then the next day, you call him, ask him something, and he gets it done."

In the early days of Staples Center, even though Zeidman was its vice president of operations, he was the kind of guy who the media often confused for a maintenance foreman. He hangs out with the folks wearing the wrenches. Even today, he spends every game not in an executive suite, but standing in the same arena tunnel so he can be accessible and mobile. The guy in charge of 19,000 seats never sits in any of them.

"In my 17 years with him, I've never seen him in a seat," said Dan Beckerman, president and chief executive of AEG, which announced Zeidman's promotion last month, up from senior vice president and general manager. "He likes it in the corner. He likes working the back aisles."

Zeidman, 59, is often the first executive in the building, showing up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise in the arena weight room. "It's supposed to be for the athletes, but he has the key," an employee said with a laugh. After his workout, he hangs out with the building's overnight crew, asking them for ideas, checking on everything from the giant forklifts used for the arena floor changeovers to the bristles on the brooms, which once had him bristling and ordering new brooms.

"You cannot expect to get up all the peanut shells if you don't have a strong broom," said Zeidman. "That's as important as anything around here."

Zeidman is also often the last executive to leave the building, perhaps because sometimes, in the middle of busy stretches, he doesn't actually leave the building.

"I used to sleep in the Lakers' lounge because they had the best couches," he said. "But now that the Kings have refurbished, they have the best couches."

It is this kind of personal touch and work ethic that has helped him keep this giant building running for more than 3,500 events and 49 million fans since its opening in the fall of 1999. He has overseen numerous Grammy Awards, the Democratic National Convention, all-star games in both major sports, seven NBA finals, two Stanley Cup finals and three WNBA championship series.

And only once have the lights gone out.

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