From Lakers insider to food truck driver
Former equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas lost his job two years ago after 26 years with the Lakers. Jim Buss might have considered him too close to Phil Jackson.
By Bill Plaschke
February 28, 2013, 5:16 p.m.
The hand that once wrote about daily NBA schedules on a greaseboard in the Lakers' locker room now composes daily specials on a surfboard propped against a sunset-colored truck.
Kona Sunset Shrimp Tacos, two for $7.
The distinctive voice that once boomed through the halls of Staples Center now is heard from underneath a tiny window; instead of ordering Lakers players into their uniforms, it is now taking office workers' orders for lunch.
Welcome to Sam Choy's Pineapple Express, may I help you?
Rudy Garciduenas was one of the most sturdy and respected links on the Lakers' food chain. Today he works in a food truck.
For 26 years, through Showtime and Shaq's Time and Kobe's Team, Garciduenas served as the Lakers' equipment manager, one of the few reliable constants in a sea of locker-room change. Two seasons after losing his job in a purge of staff members who were close to departed coach Phil Jackson, he has traded a life of passing out uniforms to one of passing out Brah Barbeque Pork Sandwiches for $8 each.
His story is an old one, and a new one. It is the time-worn Hollywood tale of the fleeting existence of those who serve the stars. Yet it uniquely involves an organization that was long run like a family, a Lakers culture that has slowly chilled since the benevolent late Jerry Buss placed its basketball operations in the hands of son Jim.
Garciduenas, who was laid off in June 2011 with nearly 20 other longtime employees, including training staff members and an assistant general manager, learned of his departure when he received a letter about temporary insurance. He received no severance pay. There was no farewell party. He spent the next year living off unemployment and retirement funds.
He came close to selling some of his valuable Lakers memorabilia to make ends meet but finally worked his way into this truck. On a recent afternoon on a narrow Hollywood street surrounded by post-production studios, Garciduenas could be found serving lunch to a long line of office workers with his same trademark Lakers smile and good humor, one bit of his Lakers past missing.
He has seven NBA championship rings — one more than Michael Jordan, two more than Kobe Bryant — yet he never wears one to work.
"I'd rather not end up with teriyaki sauce all over them," he said.
Garciduenas is a partner in Sam Choy's Pineapple Express, a truck that traverses Southern California six days a week selling the creations of celebrated Hawaiian chef Sam Choy. Garciduenas, 50, drives the truck, takes the orders, and generally manages a business that is literally miles from his former life in the center of the Lakers' glamorous storms.
His past job was adorned with Laker Girls. His current job is adorned with the giant scribbled words, "More hula for your moolah."
"What I did before, it prepared me for anything," he said.
What Garciduenas did before made him almost as much a part of Lakers lore as Jack Nicholson or free tacos. With his constant appearances around the court to deal with problems such as deflated basketballs and torn socks — he actually sat on the bench during road games — this short, round guy with a goatee became as recognizable as some of the players, with a job that was often as difficult.
"I guess I was part camp counselor, part parent," he said.
Garciduenas was the guy in charge of procuring and maintaining a selection of Shaquille O'Neal's size-23 shoes. To illustrate the uniqueness of such footwear, he would occasionally wear one of Shaq's shoes on his head. In appreciation of his work, O'Neal helped him buy a truck whose license plates eventually read, "THNX SHAQ."
Garciduenas was the guy who purchased and transported the special high chair that creaky Phil Jackson would require on the bench. He was the guy running for the white towel to cover up Robert Horry when a broken drawstring dropped his pants to his knees in Sacramento. He was the guy hurriedly stitching the corners of a name onto a jersey of a hastily acquired player and praying they would not fall off until a seamstress arrived the next day to make them permanent.
"We all love Rudy, all of us; you can't find a single person who doesn't love the guy," Lakers spokesman John Black said.
Yet two summers ago, on the eve of the NBA owners' lockout and shortly after the retirement of Jackson, Garciduenas received a letter giving the details of COBRA temporary health insurance. The next day, General Manager Mitch Kupchak summoned him to his office to confirm that he was being released as a cost-saving measure.
Several months later when the lockout was on the verge of ending, Garciduenas was offered a chance to interview for his old job. When he asked for a guarantee that he would be rehired, he was refused, so he did not interview. This time he was fired by FedEx.
"The atmosphere there was changing," Garciduenas said. "I felt like there wasn't a lot of people I could trust."
The Lakers' Black said the organization does not comment on personnel matters, but several of the fired employees — including fired assistant coach Brian Shaw — have since said that it appeared new basketball boss Jim Buss wanted to release anyone who was closely associated with Jackson. Buss has openly questioned the methods of Jackson, who has won a record 11 NBA championships and who also happens to be engaged to Buss' sister Jeanie.
"I felt that maybe people associated with Phil were not welcome there anymore," Garciduenas agreed.
Even before he was fired, Garciduenas had been considering opening a food truck with former Lakers chef Jeff Mora, using a menu devised by Choy, whom he had met during training camps in Hawaii. It finally came together last summer, and Garciduenas has been driving and dishing ever since, once relying on his Lakers skills to calmly navigate the truck 40 miles with no brakes and get it back on the road the next day.
"Rudy has an amazing temperament. He's used to dealing with multiple situations, things going south," Mora said. "He's the perfect guy to hit a moving target on a daily basis."
He has actually served some members of the Lakers, as Kupchak brought a front-office crew over to his truck when it was once parked next to a building adjacent to the Lakers' training facility. Garciduenas said he wasn't embarrassed, but proud of his new job, and happy to relive old memories.
"It was a sad experience, it was a part of my life that was hard to let go, but now, with this truck, I feel like I've been given a breath of fresh air," he said. "The Lakers were very good to me for a very long time, and I never want to forget that."
Garciduenas even showed up at last week's memorial service for Jerry Buss. He blamed him for none of this. He knows that the recent change in the Lakers' culture has nothing to do with the man who once created it.
"Dr. Buss was at the top, I was at the bottom, yet every day we saw each other, we exchanged salutations," Garciduenas said. "I wanted to show my immense respect for a man who respected everyone."
Garciduenas sighed and shook his head. The Hollywood sidewalk was empty. The lunch rush was over. It was time to start the truck.
He has a great attitude about it, but it makes me really sad as a Lakers fan to see what Jim Buss is doing to the organization we love so much. What they did to Rudy G and to Coach Shaw, then to Phil Jackson, is pathetic and not the actions of a world-class organization.