The battle of Los Angeles is on between the Clippers and Lakers.
Or is it?
Kawhi Leonard found out the hard way that Los Angeles is decidedly a Lakers town when the superstar was lustily booed after being shown on the big screen at a recent Los Angeles Rams game at the Coliseum.
It was not the kind of welcome one would expect for a guy who grew up in the area and is coming off a brilliant postseason performance. Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title and his second championship overall.
It’s just that Leonard is a Clipper and not a Laker.
There’s a definite pecking order in LA’s jam-packed sports scene, and the Clippers aren’t anywhere near the top. Between Hollywood’s two NBA teams there’s still a huge gap in popularity, even after an offseason retooling in which the Clippers won the Leonard free-agent sweepstakes and traded for Paul George, while the Lakers added Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard to the lineup led by LeBron James.
“It’s a Laker town through and through, deeply rooted,” said Bill Plaschke, the longtime columnist for The Los Angeles Times. “It will take a lot for the Clippers to make any kind of inroads. They’re more popular nationally than locally. Everyone loves them nationally. But still, the buzz locally is Lakers. It didn’t do the Clippers any good that the Lakers signed Anthony Davis to add to LeBron James. It almost forced their hand to sign Kawhi and Paul George.”
“You have to understand, the Lakers have 16 championships and the Clippers have never been to the conference finals,” Plaschke said. “That’s something the Clippers understand. They need to win a championship, they need to get their own arena and some would say they need to rebrand, to become something different, to even make a dent on the Lakers’ footprint, which is huge, deep and enduring.”
Whew, that’s a lot to absorb, and the season hasn’t even tipped off.
But fans won’t have to wait long to see this newfangled “rivalry” unfold. The season starts Tuesday night when the Clippers are the home team against the Lakers at STAPLES Center. That means the Clippers’ logo and colors will be on the court in an arena that is otherwise a shrine to the Lakers’ remarkable history. The Clippers are merely the arena’s third major tenant, behind the Lakers and the NHL’s Kings.
Curt Sandoval, a longtime sports anchor and reporter for KABC, wasn’t at all surprised that Leonard was booed by Rams fans.
“It says that he’s a Clipper, not a Laker,” Sandoval said. “It says that Rams fans are Lakers fans.”
“They’re still, in my opinion, light-years away in terms of popularity,” Sandoval said of the Clippers. “If people ask me, are they as good, yeah, I think they’re every bit as good. A lot of it has to do with who stays healthy. When it comes to popularity, the Clippers are the Chargers and the Lakers are the Rams on steroids. It’s that big of a gap.”
Sandoval remembers when Clippers newcomer Chris Paul was booed while throwing out a ceremonial first pitch before a Dodgers game. “And he hadn’t played a game with them yet. I went, ‘Whoa.’ That’s when I realized that Laker fan is Dodger fan and Clipper fan is, I don’t think even Angel fan. It really is similar to the Chargers and Rams. It’s pretty big.”
Now that one hurts. The Chargers, of course, moved from San Diego to the Los Angeles area three seasons ago and have struggled mightily to attract a loyal fan base. When the Chargers announced their move to LA, Plaschke wrote a column basically saying, “We don’t want you.” The MLS stadium where the Chargers are playing is almost always overrun with fans of the visiting team. When the Rams’ glistening new $5 billion stadium opens next season in Inglewood, the Chargers will be tenants.
Sound familiar? The Clippers also moved from San Diego, before the 1984-85 season, during the height of the Lakers’ Showtime run behind Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
For the bulk of that time, the Clippers were the laughable losers owned by Donald Sterling. They played at the nondescript LA Sports Arena while the Lakers played at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, with celebs like Jack Nicholson sitting courtside. The two teams moved into STAPLES Center when it opened in 1999. Sterling was forced to sell the team in 2014 to Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion.
One thing that has hurt the Clippers is that they failed to capitalize on the longest downturn in Lakers history. The Lakers have missed the playoffs for an unfathomable six straight seasons, a slump that coincided with drama in the front office and ownership suite in what had been one of the best-run franchises in sports before owner Jerry Buss died in 2013.
“That was their window, their Lob City moment, and they didn’t capitalize on it,” Plaschke said. “The Lakers have been gone for six years, but the Clippers did not play much deeper into spring. The Clippers had their window. The Clippers will sell out every game, but the buzz in town is all Lakers, Lakers, Lakers.”
Even though the Clippers have been to the playoffs in seven of the last eight years, they have advanced to the conference semifinals only three times, being eliminated all three times.
Sandoval recalls their brutal collapse in the second round against Houston in 2015. “They were up 3-1 against Houston, then lose Game 5 and they’re back at home in Game 6 and they were up by 19 points in the third quarter and they lose the game. That game, in hindsight, was the end of the Clippers.”
The Clippers were stunned 119-107 in Game 6 and then lost Game 7, missing the chance to make it to the conference finals for the first time.
The Big Three players of that era are gone: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers were eliminated in the first round in their last three playoff appearances.
For now, the Clippers are the popular pick to win their first NBA title behind Leonard and George, who went to high school in Palmdale. George is expected to miss the first 10 games after having shoulder surgery.
With James healthy after having his first season in purple and gold interrupted by a groin injury, the Lakers are expected to bounce back and end their unthinkable playoff drought.
Skeptics point out that even if the Clippers were to win the NBA title, they’d still be 15 behind the Lakers.
Plaschke said the Clippers’ biggest hope rests with Ballmer, who wants to build a new arena in Inglewood.
“He’s such a wealthy and generous owner that he’ll do what it takes to win. He wants to build a new arena. An arena is your brand, if you get a new place. If they were playing in STAPLES Center and had the town to themselves, they’d never leave. But they’re the third tenant and are tired of playing second fiddle.”
Plaschke said he also recalls Griffin and other Clippers being booed while simply trying to take in a game at Chavez Ravine.
“They stopped coming,” he said. “Dodgers fans are Lakers fans and Rams fans are Lakers fans.”
If there’s any doubt, just ask one of the Lakers’ best-known fans, Snoop Dogg.
During an appearance earlier this month on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, the legendary rapper riffed long, hard, and rather hilariously about where the Clippers stand in relation to his beloved Lakers.
Cowherd asked Snoop if it’s possible the Clippers could take over LA.
“Never,” he replied. “Even if they win two championships in a row, they will never run LA because they don’t have ‘it.’ It’s called ‘it.’ Some people have it and some people don’t. They don’t. No matter what they do. First of all, they’re playing in our house. They need to go get their own backyard first. You’ve got to come to work every day and look at them banners up there and you don’t have none. Get your own living room. They’ve got money. The owner’s got money. Why don’t they go to Inglewood, buy the property across the street from the football field and they can have their little thang in Inglewood, right over there with the Rams and Chargers.”
Cowherd asked if Snoop views the Clippers as a stepbrother.
“I look at them as an adopted brother that we really didn’t want,” he said. “My mama went and adopted ’em when we wasn’t looking. We’ve got to share all our food with them, our clothes with them and everything, man. When are they going to move out?”
Case closed. If Snoop says so, then the #BattleofLA is over even before it started.