How James Goldstein Became LA’s Centerpiece for NBA Fandom, Style and Real Estate

LOS ANGELES -- If you’ve tuned into the NBA playoffs or seen a postseason game in person, odds are you’ve caught him sitting courtside. For someone who rarely reaches eye level of the players he’s watching, he stands out in a crowd.

Leather boots and slim-fitting pants. A short jacket that sparkles with sequins and rhinestones. A matching scarf knotted in front of his neck, beneath his long, white hair. And atop it all, a wide-brim hat of his own design.

The man behind that unmistakable ensemble, and behind those icy blue eyes, is James Goldstein. He’s a real estate investor, a fashion icon, an art connoisseur and a friend to athletes, models and celebrities of all stripes—from Clyde Drexler, Jamal Crawford and the late Wilt Chamberlain; to Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen, to Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

But in the springtime, when basketball’s best are busy battling for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, James is, first and foremost, the NBA’s signature superfan—and, perhaps, its most frequent flier, with a different game in a different city each day during the playoffs.

“When there's so many games, it's often difficult to decide which game to go to,” he tells CloseUp360 from inside his famous Goldstein Residence, in the hills above Los Angeles.

From Salt Lake City to Portland, Houston to San Antonio, Los Angeles to Denver. Always with a newspaper in hand. Almost always flying commercial—typically on Southwest Airlines, without the frills of first-class seating.

Unless, of course, someone special invites him to fly private.

“There've been a couple of instances where I flew with [former NBA commissioner] David Stern on his charter flights because he and I had become friends,” James says. “He was going to the game the following day in the same city, so he offered to fly me.”

It’s a charmed life for any hoopshead, even more so for a Midwestern septuagenarian like James. He’s managed to find comfort in perfectionism and maintain a sense of mystery amid prying eyes on the road, and the bright lights of the big city in which he’s become a fixture.

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James Goldstein has a collection of hats he's designed and sparkly jackets, customized for him by the top brands in Europe. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Though James has long been a fixture in LA, his footholds in sports, business and fashion trace back to his roots in Milwaukee.

He grew up as the only child of Nanette (née Gamse) and C. Ellis Goldstein, who owned and ran departments stores in Wisconsin’s biggest city. His father, so steeped in the clothing business, took it upon himself to dress his young son.

“But when I became a teenager,” James says, “I started thinking for myself and really rebelling against my father's conservative look when it came to clothes.”

As a teenager, James sought out styles that deviated not only from his dad’s preferences, but also from what was popular among his peers in school. By then, he had already been indoctrinated into basketball, and then some. He started playing when he was five, after his parents put up a hoop in their driveway.

At 10, he started attending Milwaukee Hawks games. At 15, he was volunteering as a statistician for the Hawks’ television broadcasts.

“Once I did that, I was totally hooked on the NBA,” he says, “and I've remained so my entire life.”

As much as James loved basketball, it wasn’t his best sport. He hooped in high school—first at Shorewood, then at Nicolet—but found more success in tennis, which he played competitively at Stanford University.

While in the Bay Area, James began his academic career studying mathematics and physics, but “decided I didn't want to be a scientist or an engineer,” he says, so he shifted towards economics and finance. After graduating from Stanford in 1962, he moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at UCLA—and, while he was at it, pick up season tickets to the Los Angeles Lakers, who’d left Minneapolis in 1960.

Despite his father’s wishes for a return to Milwaukee, James decided to stay in LA once his studies were done and work for a real estate investment firm. Eventually, he started investing on his own on the side, and as he says, “these investments have turned out all right.”

“I've been able to really do what I wanted to do without worrying too much about working hard,” he continues. “I've been able to enjoy life, and so things have worked out pretty well.”

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James moved into his iconic home in the Hollywood Hills in 1979. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Those successes allowed him to visit European fashion hubs like Paris and Milan, where he explored the latest styles in search of fresh threads that suited his distinctive taste. That financial wherewithal also helped him not only hang onto his courtside seats for the Lakers, but also add Clippers season tickets once then-owner Donald Sterling relocated the team from San Diego in 1984.

Eventually, James took his love of the game on the road during the postseason. He started with the NBA cities closest to LA, like Oakland and Phoenix, before stretching further into Utah and Texas. Once the Houston Rockets became title contenders and two-time champions in the mid-1990s—behind Clyde and Hakeem Olajuwon—James had practically embedded with the “Clutch City” crew.

“They made me really part of the team,” he says. “And so I started just attending Rockets' playoff games, home and away, going to all their practices.”

The dissolution of that Rockets team in the late 1990s left James in the postseason lurch. But rather than let his fandom wilt, he turned up his NBA playoff intake to 11.

“During the playoffs, I try to see a game every single day,” he explains. “So even though at the beginning of each round, the home team has two home games, it would certainly be easier for me to just stay in that city. But the next day, I leave for another city and then often the following day, I return to the first city.

“So I'm always traveling and not taking the easy way out.”

James Goldstein driving

James Goldstein drives himself to NBA games at Staples Center in the same pearl Rolls-Royce he's owned since 1961. During the playoffs, he travels from city to city to catch a game every day. (Amir Ebrahimi)

The location is what drew James to the house in the hills that he’s remodeled into an LA landmark over the last 40 years. That same factor has been just as critical to the viewing experience he’s fashioned for himself as an NBA fan.

“Because of my courtside seats at all the games, I've always had access to the players,” he says, “and it's grown over the years in terms of my identity as far as the players are concerned.”

That proximity has allowed him to connect with his favorite athletes on a sartorial level. With his front-row seats (literally) to the growth of fashion consciousness among NBA players, James has become a style icon to the athletes he most admires.

“They're trying to establish their own identity with their clothes, just the way they have established their own identity on the court,” he says. “And I think their interest in clothes has made me more of a popular figure for the players than it ever was before.”

It’s certainly given him an audience with the league’s most style-conscious players, including current Rockets fashionista P.J. Tucker.

“Last year, I was wearing a very expensive, unique jacket to an NBA playoff game that he was playing in, and he came up to me before the game and said, ‘Jim, I have the same jacket as you,’” he recalls. “And I couldn't believe that that was possible because it was such a unique jacket. But I believed him.

“And from that point on, I paid a lot of attention to the way he was dressing. And I have to say, he's number one for me right now [among the NBA’s most fashionable players].”

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James inside the famous living room in his house, which was featured in The Big Lebowski. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Beyond the superficial benefits, sitting so close to the action has helped James strike up friendships with some players and dap up countless others. Those relationships ensure that he’s never far from a friendly face, even as he travels solo from city to city during the playoffs “because nobody could possibly keep up with me,” he says.

“[My travel schedule] becomes a routine and it really doesn't drain me that much,” he adds. “I get used to doing my reading on the plane.”

With the Clippers out of the playoffs and the Lakers never qualifying, James will spend the rest of the spring scanning newspapers cover to cover on flights from one courtside seat to the next. But as prime as those accommodations are, his setup at home is spectacular, too.

And not just the drop-down projection screen in his plush living room. The house itself is the ultimate bachelor pad—from the koi pond outside his kitchen to the full-size “infinity” tennis court (where Roger Federer and other stars have played) that sits atop his private nightclub, which he’s named (of course) Club James.

As James tells it, the story of the Goldstein Residence begins with Natasha—not one of the many models with whom he’s kept company over the years, but rather an Afghan hound a friend had gifted him in the late 1970s. Natasha was none too pleased to be stuck inside of his high-rise apartment.

“She wanted room to run around,” he says, “so I started looking for a house.”

Not just any house would do, though. As a fan of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, James wanted something with a modern look. He also insisted on a place with a pool and a view of the city.

After nearly two years of searching, he found a house that, while not in great condition, had everything he wanted, including a pool with a view.

“As soon as I saw the house, I knew that it was special for me because of the sharp angles of the design, the high ceiling in the living room, the fantastic view of the city, the surrounding hillside,” he says.

Trouble is, someone else already had the house—designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple John Lautner—under contract. Fortunately for James, that buyer tried to renegotiate the price.

“I stepped in and bought it,” he says, “and it was unquestionably one of the most important things I've ever done.”

In an alternate universe, James might’ve poured all his resources into owning an NBA team. In this one, he’s committed his time, energy and money to expanding and remodeling his property into a local landmark—one that will belong to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after he passes.

For the first decade and a half of his ownership, James partnered with the original architect to upgrade the house—from replacing the plastic and formica with sturdier materials to improving the view from the famous living room (as seen in The Big Lebowski) with upgraded glass. After John passed in 1994, James got more involved in the design process and bought an adjacent property, on which his tennis court and nightclub currently sit. Add in the decorations—much of which is either art in his image or framed articles about him—and there’s no mistaking whose house it is.

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James in his signature outfit: a wide-brimmed hat, decorative leather jacket and tight leather pants. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Forty years later, the quest for perfection continues.

On this spring day, the Goldstein Residence is crawling with construction workers. Some are digging trenches, others are guiding a cement mixer into the driveway, all to build what amounts to a day club beneath the nightclub—complete with a pool and jacuzzi, along with a full-service kitchen and dining hall for hosting dinner parties.

As much as the house and city that surrounds him have changed, James remains as much a creature of habit as ever. On game days in LA, he’ll watch some of the early NBA action on TV before slipping into one of his signature outfits—most often featuring items from Balmain these days, with room for Saint Laurent, Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier—and driving himself to Staples Center in the same pearl Rolls-Royce convertible he’s owned since 1961.

“I would never think of having a driver,” he insists. “I enjoy driving myself, although the heavy rush hour traffic going to the games is probably the least enjoyable experience of the whole process.”

James will arrive courtside in time to catch pregame warmups and exchange greetings with players before settling in for the game. Once the final buzzer sounds, he’ll go out for dinner and a drink, then head home to watch highlights and game replays.

As for which home team he prefers to support in his adopted city...let’s just say, James’ 22 additional years going to Lakers games haven’t exactly put purple and gold in his veins.

“I consider myself to be an NBA fan first and foremost,” he says, “but when it comes to the games that I attend in LA, I consider myself a Clipper fan and an anti-Laker fan.”

That hasn’t stopped James from striking up friendships with Lakers players, even though some of his resentment therein stems from the franchise’s history of acquiring superstars. The bulk of his anti-Laker-dom, though, goes back to his roots.

“I didn't grow up in LA. I grew up as a Hawks fan,” he says. “So when I came to LA, I saw no reason to suddenly switch my allegiance. So right from the beginning I wasn't a Lakers fan.”

The Hawks left Wisconsin before James did—to St. Louis in 1955, then to Atlanta in 1968. But with the Milwaukee Bucks riding high in the Eastern Conference playoffs behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, James figures to spend some time back home this year.

“I will be rooting for them,” he says. “Normally, I stay in the Western Conference...but I hope to attend quite a few [Bucks games].”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.