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Stars Are Lakers Courtside Regulars

By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - It's not enough for Michael Clarke Duncan to be sitting two rows from the court watching the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

"It makes me want to get out there," the Oscar-nominated actor says. "I hope Phil (Jackson) calls me up for one sub. I know the triangle (offense) from Chicago."

Duncan will get on court this night, but only to schmooze before the Lakers and Indiana Pacers tip off. Once the game begins, he retreats to his seat, a very good - but not great - one at Staples Center.

The great ones are the 130 floor seats that go for $1,150 each per game. Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon, Magic Johnson, TV producer David Kelley (minus wife Michelle Pfeiffer) and Denzel Washington (with wife Pauletta) are courtside regulars even when the Lakers aren't in the finals.

But having the Lakers in the finals for the first time since 1991 has brought out a galaxy of stars eager to be seen at the hottest event this side of the Oscars.

"I'm a really big fan," Duncan says.

Visitors to Los Angeles may never see celebrities in public, but they're guaranteed multiple sightings at Laker games. The key is looking beyond the courtside seats and into the crowd, where some of the biggest names in show business are scattered.

Chris Rock blends in three rows back, while Dustin Hoffman and wife, Lisa, are at midcourt a couple rows up. Steven Spielberg goes low key in a baseball cap, while actress Rebecca de Mornay, her blond hair flowing, sits in the first row of the stands. At the opposite end of that row, actress Salma Hayek (without boyfriend Edward Norton this game) sits with her gal pals.

Regular folks stuck in the nose-bleed seats at the top reaches of the bowl-shaped arena aren't deprived of celebrity sightings, thanks to the giant TV screen hanging over the court.

Getting caught on the big screen triggers a variety of responses from the stars. Washington always breaks into a grin, drawing cheers from the fans. Jim Carrey twists his face into a hilarious contortion. Hoffman has been known to brandish his own camera and click away, while Hayek looked down and an embarrassed half-smile crossed Norton's face at a recent game.

During Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, when the Lakers trailed Portland by 15 points in the fourth quarter, the sellout crowd went silent. With nothing to cheer about on court, the fans saved their applause for the celebrity faces that popped up on the big screen during a timeout.

What fans won't see at Laker games is the ultra-exclusive gathering place of the stars. No, it's not one of the luxury suites situated above the floor.

Once the halftime buzzer sounds, the who's who of Hollywood congregate in the celebrity-stuffed Chairman's Room under the arena's south stands. They're not there for the free bowls of peanuts and popcorn, either.

And just like in real life, there's a pecking order. Only 85 gold-colored passes required for entry are distributed each game. The room even has its own bouncers stationed outside.

"When we created it, we had no idea that it would become so crazed and we'd end up turning people away," Tim Harris, Lakers vice president of sales and marketing, told The Los Angeles Times.

"The only way you could make it better would be to make it smaller. Because then the desire to get in would be incredible. Because this is where Jack goes. This is where everyone goes."