That’s the title you earn when you hit more than 100 NBA games a year and are on a firstname basis with David (Stern) and Steve (Nash). . Photograph by Gavin Bond.
Along with the cast of characters you would expect to see on the court prior to an NBA game stands another, who, at first glance, looks more than a little out of place. Dressed in tight salmon-colored pants, knee-high leather boots, a leather jacket, and a wide-brimmed hat -- expensive clothes he picked up on one of his frequent fashion-week visits to Paris, Milan, and Moscow and then later plucked out of the massive closet he has in his John Lautner–designed mansion in the hills above Los Angeles -- Jim Goldstein quietly and carefully scrutinizes the Warriors as they toss in a few last-minute layups and dunks. To the untrained eye, Goldstein, whose long gray hair flows down to his shoulders from underneath his hat, might look like an older fashion designer.
But the truth is Goldstein is a fixture in the NBA, known not just in L.A., where he has long been a season-ticket holder for both the Clippers and their Staples Center cotenants, the Los Angeles Lakers, but also around the league, counting players like Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, coaches, owners, announcers, and even commissioner David Stern as friends. Indeed, there are many around the league who consider Goldstein the NBA’s ultimate superfan. This becomes apparent as time ticks down to the start of the game. Corey Maggette, a forward for the Warriors, is all smiles as he towers over the slight Goldstein and tells the fan how pleased he is with his move from the Clippers to the Bay Area. (And who wouldn’t be, considering the horrendous start the Clippers are off to?) Don Nelson, the Warriors’ head coach, gives a tight smile when Goldstein quips that he doesn’t recognize anybody on the roster. Nelson jokes that he doesn’t either. Even after the game begins, the greetings don’t end; when the ball bounces out near Goldstein’s seat behind one of the goals, Clippers forward Marcus Camby points and waves.
This is a familiarity that Goldstein has certainly earned -- or at least paid good money for. He easily spends six figures to attend between 110 and 120 games per year and often finds himself living out of hotels during the playoffs, trying to catch as many games as possible and even scurrying to get to two cities in a single day. He shows up at press conferences, team practice facilities, and, increasingly, international games, like the European Championships and the Beijing Olympics. Whether it’s due to his fashion sense or his sheer ubiquity, he has become a part of the league. “Everybody knows him,” says Sam Cassell, a veteran point guard with the world-champion Boston Celtics. Cassell used to play for the Clippers and is good-enough friends with Goldstein that he has a photograph of the two of them in his living room. “He’s a basketball junkie,” Cassell continues. “Playoff basketball is the best time of his year. His schedule is more hectic than our schedule: Utah one night, then Phoenix another night, then L.A. for a night.”
Even though he’s omnipresent around the NBA, Goldstein is still something of an enigma. John Black, who is head of public relations for the Lakers, says that visiting fans and members of the press are so intrigued by him that inquiries about Goldstein outpace those regarding the team’s other fans -- including Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio -- by a ratio of 10 to one, largely because people don’t know who he is or what he does.
Clearly wealthy, he is cagey about sharing how he made his money, saying only that he’s had some good fortune with investments. He chuckles when he recalls a Wall Street Journal story that claimed he was a billionaire and had made his fortune developing the Century City area of Los Angeles, which are both false claims, he insists. “I didn’t ask for a retraction,” he says with a laugh. His business card lists his name, his contact information, and three things: fashion, architecture, and basketball. In other words, it lists his interests, not how he makes his money. Despite living in L.A. and attending most of the Lakers and Clippers games, he has no allegiance to either team. “Many people will assume that I’m a Lakers fan,” he says. “I say, no, I’m not a Lakers fan. I’m an NBA fan.”
GOLDSTEIN’S obsession with the NBA began early, at age 10, when his father took him to see the Milwaukee Hawks, who have long since moved to Atlanta. It was the 1950s and crowds were sparse, but he was immediately smitten. “Everyone would be talking about college basketball, and in my mind, the NBA was so superior and so much more exciting,” he says, sitting poolside on the deck of his home, which offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island and has been used in numerous fashion shoots (most recently, for Kate Moss) and movies, including The Big Lebowski and Charlie’s Angels.
At age 15, Goldstein got his first taste of sitting courtside when the radio announcer for the Hawks, a family friend, hired him to be his statistician during games. Sadly for Goldstein, though, the job lasted only a year because the Hawks moved. So hooked was Goldstein on the NBA after his up-close stint with the Hawks, he did what he could to keep up with the team. “It meant sitting next to the radio and tuning in stations from hundreds of miles away to hear games through a lot of static,” he says.
After attending Stanford University, where he studied economics -- and was utterly disconnected from the NBA, since the Bay Area had no team at the time -- Goldstein moved south to L.A. for graduate school and eventually bought his current home when it became clear that his apartment was too small for his dog. For years, Goldstein, a lifelong bachelor who is known to occasionally show up at games accompanied by stunning European models, attended Lakers matches without attracting too much notice.
Then the Clippers moved to town, and Goldstein started attending their games as well. “The players and coaches started noticing that I wasn’t just at Lakers games; I was at Clippers games, and there weren’t many people who were going to both,” he says. Goldstein’s reputation as an avid fan became more widespread when he started his nomadic quest to take in as many playoff games as possible, regardless of the teams involved. “Everyone would take notice that here’s an L.A. fan traveling to other cities for games, and L.A.’s team isn’t even playing,” he says. These days, he tries to go to at least 35 playoff games per year, procuring tickets through friends he’s made around the league -- the San Antonio Spurs, for instance, set up a special seat at midcourt for him in exchange for a “significant” contribution to the team’s charity -- or, in a pinch, by using brokers or exchanging tickets with other teams’ rabid fans.
By the late 1980s, Goldstein had become well known by players, coaches, and owners all around the league. His allegiance to teams was and is based not on geography but on their style of play. A fan of up-tempo, athletic basketball, Goldstein was disappointed that the Suns didn’t win the championship last year, since he believes other teams would have mimicked their fast-pace play had they prevailed. In the past, he’s gone to great lengths to support his favored teams. In the 1990s, Goldstein was such a fan of the Houston Rockets, who were then anchored by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, that he would attend all of their practices and, on occasion, even ride on the team bus to games. “He was our mascot; he was our good-luck charm,” says Cassell, who was a member of Houston’s championship-winning teams in 1994 and 1995. “Jim had to be at practice during the playoffs; he had to be at the games. So Rudy T [coach Rudy Tomjanovich] made sure he was there.”
Part of the reason Goldstein has been so embraced by many in the league is he’s genuinely a student of the game. Hubie Brown, a longtime former NBA coach who helmed the New York Knicks, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Memphis Grizzlies and is now a color commentator for ABC and ESPN, says that he’d match Goldstein against any fan in any city for his knowledge of the game. That’s not a huge surprise, considering Goldstein spends two to three hours per day during the season reading about games and players and up to six hours per day watching the NBA, either in person or on one of his big screens at home. Brown has long valued Goldstein’s company after matches. “He’s a joy to be with after games, when things are extremely tense and coaches are unwinding,” he says. He also admires Goldstein’s ability to establish relationships with players and coaches, something he credits to the fact that he never is pushy, never asks for anything, and is always discreet. “He has the ability to have friendships at both levels [with players and coaches] and yet keep them separate. That is key, and you can have total confidence when you talk with him, and you just can’t typically do that,” Brown says.
BACK AT THE GAME, Goldstein settles into his seat once the players return to their benches and prepare for tip-off. “This reminds me of a game in the 1950s,” he says as he scans the empty seats high above the court.
His dress might be unique, but Goldstein is not like other high-profile fans, such as Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, who insert themselves into games by yelling at players or the refs. Instead, he quietly watches, clapping at strong moves to the basket and three-point shots made by both squads. He still hasn’t settled on a team to root for this year; to him, the Warriors’ style of play has potential. On this day, there’s a lot to watch. The game itself, while starting off close, is taken over by the Warriors, thanks mostly to the play of an unknown, undrafted rookie named Anthony Morrow, who torches the Clippers for 18 points in the first half, on his way to 37 for the game.
Morrow is a rarity in that Goldstein genuinely knows little about him. But as the minutes wind down, and with the game already settled, Goldstein eagerly roots for the rookie to get 40 points. A blocked shot and some miscues prevent it from happening, and when the buzzer sounds, Goldstein rushes over to the Warriors’ bench to shake the hands of departing players and coaches.
Once they’re gone, Goldstein joins the crowd of fans streaming toward the exit. He looks a little disconsolate, as if the sudden evaporation of the energy and excitement of the game has taken something out of him. Luckily, it’s early in the season and there are still literally hundreds more games to watch. And when the season does wind down in June? “I feel very empty and let down, especially if it’s been a good Finals,” he says. “I don’t want it to end.”