The Los Angeles Lakers had finished their workout at Loyola Marymount University last Friday afternoon, and coach Pat Riley motioned trainer Gary Vitti into the team huddle to explain how the Lakers could reach their destination for the next night's road game, a far pavilion called the L.A. Sports Arena.
"What's the matter?" Magic Johnson asked Mitch Kupchak, who was getting directions. "Didn't you drive there to see your boy?" Magic said teasingly, alluding to Bruce Springsteen, whom Kupchak has seen in concert numerous times.
"No..." Kupchak said, annoyed, as Magic stared at him with laughing eyes, "...I took a limo."
Somewhere in that scene there was a message that the Los Angeles Clippers—late of Buffalo (where they were known as the Braves), late of San Diego, lately of the Sports Arena and, after falling 108-103 to the Lakers, losers of eight of their last nine games before beating Phoenix 114-109 on Sunday—would love to spread around the city that for two decades has doted on the wildly successful Lakers. It would go something like this: The Lakers may be the darlings of the limousine set, but all roads and all means of transportation lead to Clipper games.
Despite their record, which stood at 5-10 at week's end, the Clippers have cultivated a reputation as The People's Team since moving the 100 miles up the freeway from San Diego last May. They've fielded popular players, most notably Norm Nixon, Bill Walton and Marques Johnson—at popular prices, a $15 top. At the Forum, where the average seat goes for $22, the upstarts are the Inner-City Clippers. To Clipper fans, the rivals are the Inglewood Lakers.
But to Dancing Barry, the light-footed lunatic whose gambadoes in the aisles are a hallmark of Laker games, the Clippers are a form of leverage. When he showed up at the Clippers' home opener, Barry steadfastly ignored the crowd's pleas for him to dance. The next day he called—rather, he had his agent call—Clipper general manager Carl Scheer to find out whether the Clippers wanted to bid for his services. They didn't, so Barry went back to the Lakers—but not until he'd wangled a better deal for himself.
And when Riley heard that he would have to share his practice site at Loyola Marymount with the Clippers, he angrily phoned Scheer. Riley didn't like the idea of rival players fraternizing—of former Laker guard Nixon and Laker swingman Michael Cooper dealing any for-old-times'-sake skin, or of Walton and Laker forward Kurt Rambis swapping trail-mix recipes. "It's like war, Carl," he told Scheer.
"I go to war."
If so, it's a civil war, as a brief genealogy of the two teams reveals. Take a deep breath:
Part of the cash Jerry Buss spent to buy the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979 came in a loan from Clipper owner Donald Sterling, who's a buddy of Frank Mariani, whose longtime real-estate partner is Buss, whose Beverly Hills neighbor is Sterling, whose team traded Byron Scott to the Lakers last season for Nixon, whose departure induced the prolonged funk of Laker fan Jack Nicholson, whose reaction was to wear black to Laker games and buy season tickets to the Clippers, whose president is attorney Alan Rothenberg, whose negotiations with the Milwaukee Bucks on behalf of Cooke and the Lakers in '75 brought to L.A. one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose only peer in the local collegiate hoop pantheon is Walton, whose move from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Clippers in '79 resulted in a compensation case (with grave ramifications for the Clippers) handled for the Blazers by Rothenberg, who also represented Cooke in the sale to Buss of the Lakers, whose original L.A. home was the Sports Arena, where the faithful patrons included a 10-year-old Angeleno named Marques Johnson, whose trade to the Clippers in September reunited him with his former UCLA teammate Walton, whose agent is Ernie Vandeweghe, whose son is Trail Blazer Kiki Vandeweghe, whose current inamorata is Jeanie Buss, whose father is....
"With all those subplots," Rothenberg says, "this rivalry is like a Shakespeare play."
Alas, on Saturday night the Clippers supplied a Falstaff in the person of 7' 2" James Donaldson. Logging 23 minutes as the starting center in place of Walton, who's still hobbled by a left ankle he injured when he was kicked during the season opener at Utah, Donaldson spent the fourth quarter muffing layups, most of which the Lakers turned into rim-rattling dunks at the other end. That pleased perhaps half of the crowd of 14,991, the largest in Clipper history.
Those Laker fans who have trouble getting good seats in the Forum, where the sight lines are better for hockey than for basketball, turned out to see their favorites for as little as two bucks. Scheer offered a $2 discount to any rain-soaked refugee from the Southern Cal-Notre Dame game, which was played in the adjacent Coliseum that afternoon. "If you believe in your product, you get them in one time and make them houseguests forever," Scheer says. "But this Fan's Team thing can explode in our face if we're not competitive on the floor."
After generating enormous goodwill over the summer, the Clippers drew 12,018 to their home opener and beat the Knicks 107-105. At one point late in that game, all five L.A. players were on the floor fighting for a loose ball. But coach Jim Lynam's team has struggled since then. Injuries to guard Derek Smith, Johnson and Walton have thwarted Lynam's efforts to integrate seven new faces into his lineup.
The Lakers, on the other hand, began the season 3-5, their worst start since 1977. On Nov. 9, Riley replaced forward Jamaal Wilkes with Larry Spriggs, and when Spriggs, a third-year man from Howard and the only Laker not making guaranteed money, became a starter, the Lakers ran off seven straight victories before losing to Seattle on Sunday, 105-94. "We've been sedentary, settled, set-in and sedate," Riley says. "Overcoming that is our greatest challenge as a team."
The Clippers' challenges are more daunting. "We want to emulate the Dodgers," Rothenberg says. "Their presence in this town is like the utility company's. The Raiders and Lakers field great teams and figure the public will follow. But, as a consequence, both of them must win and win big. We feel you can't be faddy. If you're the 'in' thing, you'll eventually become the 'out' thing."
Sterling, who was regarded as a public nuisance in San Diego, named Rothenberg president last year, and over the summer he brought in Scheer, a three-time ABA Executive of the Year who had been ousted last May as the Denver general manager. Scheer and Rothenberg spent the off-season matching Denver's offer sheet to Smith, making the deal that brought Johnson, swingman Junior Bridgeman and forward/center Harvey Catchings to L.A., and signing the Clippers' top two draft picks, Lancaster Gordon and Michael Cage. "The moves all went a long way toward keeping Bill from taking an offer sheet from another team," says Clipper vice-president Arn Tellem, who worked out the details of Walton's four-year contract that is fraught with clauses that could mean as much as $3 million to Walton. "The only guy we didn't get that Bill wanted was Kiki Vandeweghe."
Buss has done nothing to hinder the Clippers' operations, though the interlopers' arrival in L.A. flouts Article 9 of the NBA constitution, which holds that no franchise can move to within 75 miles of another without the resident club's say-so. The Clippers, emboldened by the court decisions against the NFL's attempt to keep the Oakland Raiders from moving to L.A., contend that Article 9 violates antitrust law. The league has nonetheless filed a $25 million lawsuit against the Clippers, possibly with an eye to stripping Sterling of the franchise.
Some people would simply like to strip the team of its nickname. "San Diego Clippers makes sense, because of the Navy," says one fan. "But L.A. Clippers? Does that refer to a poodle crimper on Rodeo Drive?" But, hey fella, how many lakes are there in L.A.?
Most fans, like Nicholson, are less exacting. "I just like the game, you know," he says in his you-ladies-like-to-have-lunch rasp. Like many of the Clippers' 5,500 season-ticket holders, he found the new team's terms—$2,050 for a courtside season's seat as opposed to $4,100 for his front-row Forum location—endearing. But he doesn't like their chances. "When you have two clubs, one's always going to suffer at the hands of the other. L.A. doesn't support anything but a winner."
Consider Dancing Barry, he of the hard-sell soft shoe. He didn't show on Saturday night, not even to watch.
"Too controversial," he said. "I'm going to the hockey game." That's where Buss was, too.