Alex Spanos treats Bob Hope

But then the Raiders hammer the Chargers

Bob Hope needs a lift, and Alex G. Spanos is there. Not in person -- Spanos is long gone, boiling mad and flying home aboard his private Gulfstream jet -- but there in spirit and conveyance.

Hope needs a limo, and Spanos has one waiting at the curb. Hope needs a fast plane to Palm Springs, and Spanos has one fueled at Lindbergh Field. It is a white, ten-passenger Lockheed with a golden thunderbolt on the tail, a backup jet in the Spanos fleet.

Hope wants a slice of apple crumb cake. No problem. Spanos delivers.

That's what friends are for, Spanos will tell you. And Hope is a friend, a pal for more than three decades, a golfing buddy, a vaudeville dance partner, a fellow traveler on the road to Republican victories, self-made, rich and proud.

It's Sunday night and Hope and his wife, Dolores, have spent the evening watching the Raiders thump the San Diego Chargers 38-13 at the football stadium in San Diego, seated in the sumptuous suite overseen by Spanos.

Hope, the legendary comedian, is 94. He can't see very well and is hard of hearing. The snow-white hair that hangs from beneath his baseball cap could use a trim.

But he still enjoys going to football games, wading through crowds, smiling and nodding, gingerly propelled along in bright white running shoes, tan slacks, blue sweater, and white golf jacket, clinging to the arm of his valet, Jay, following the blocks set by Dolores, who's pushing 90 herself and charges forward without fear or favor.

The relationship between Spanos and Hope shows how Spanos operates, how his friends are part of his extended family, accepted without question, regardless of need. It also shows why Spanos enjoys owning a sports team.

The multimillionaire apartment builder and philanthropist from Stockton owns the Chargers and is interested in buying the Sacramento Kings. He publicly expressed his nba ambitions several weeks ago. He has come to understand that his words were received by Kings owner Jim Thomas like the first shot in a hostile takeover.

So Spanos has decided to lie low for a while, not commenting on the Kings until things cool down. He is concentrating on the Chargers, on making his family and friends feel at home in his San Diego football suite, on playing the role of host.

The suite is the perfect place for such things. Fronted by glass windows overlooking midfield, it runs about 60 feet long and features a full kitchen, seven tables inside, two tables out on the deck, theater seats from which to watch the game, a marble-topped beer tap and liquor bar, and marble bathrooms that include polished stainless steel sinks that glisten when wet.

Spanos and his wife, Faye, greet everyone at the paneled entry hall. He smiles and shakes hands, sweeps an arm across the room toward the kitchen, where iced shrimp and sushi and Greek lamb chops and roast beef and salmon and pineapple and watermelon and miniature cheeseburgers await.

"Glad to see you, son," Spanos tells a visitor. "Now the only thing I ask is that you bring us luck tonight. Help yourself to anything. Relax. Make yourself at home."

Other tables are occupied by Spanos's sons Dino and Mike and Mike's wife, Helen, and their four boys and other Spanos grandchildren and friends. Bill Fox, one of the original owners of the Chargers, shows up about the same time the Hopes arrive -- Dolores with gigantic sunglasses covering her eyes and a vivid blue scarf draped over her gray hair, Bob wearing a Chargers cap and clutching Jay's arm.

Luxury suites at sports stadiums are temples for business activity -- schmoozing clients, wooing recruits, making money. It would be a lie to suggest those things never take place inside the Spanos suite. For the game against the Raiders, a dozen seats are reserved for bankers.

But it would also be a lie to suggest that the first order of business inside the Spanos suite is business. With Spanos's grandkids spilling popcorn, with Spanos's lawyers and accountants munching sushi and drinking beer, with the Hopes sitting quietly along the window, the rules of the house are clear -- if you must conduct business, do it quietly, do it discreetly, do it fast.

The one exception is Alex Spanos. Once the game starts, he becomes consumed by the business of football, the technical details, the coaching decisions.

Retreating to a glass-enclosed mini-suite, his inner sanctum within the big suite, Spanos leans forward and studies the action down on the field. His face tightens as the Raiders hammer his Chargers.

No one goes into the little suite except Spanos, Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, and Dino and Mike. As one Spanos employee says, "When Mr. Spanos is in there watching the game, he likes to stay focused."

It's a bad sign when the focus is broken early in the third quarter, when the Chargers are so uncompetitive that Spanos wants to gather his family and leave his friends, fleeing home to Stockton.

"Boy, I can't remember him ever leaving a game this early before," one Spanos employee says.

"I remember one," another Spanos executive says. "It was a game in New York. It was embarrassing, and he got out of there right after halftime. Just like tonight."

"He really takes a lot of pride in his football team," an employee says. "He knows he's going to hear about it from his friends. I don't want to be the first one into his office tomorrow morning."

With the Spanos family gone, the suite empties fast. Dolores and Bob Hope gather their coats and head for the airport. The bankers bolt. Behind the marble-topped kitchen counter, the chef puts plastic wrap over the lamb chops.

Spanos might still be angry the next morning. But somebody will enjoy great leftovers.

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