The idea of theLakers playing the Clippers in something called a Hallway Series is only slowlygaining currency in Los Angeles. It wouldn't be the most outlandish thing tohappen in L.A., where a white Bronco once led a slow-speed freeway chase andearthquakes regularly rumble, but it would crack the top 10. Let's put it thisway: Even in a city that tends to celebrate illusion over reality, the notionof a Bryant-Brand matchup, for keeps, takes an awful lot of mind-wrapping. ¬∂These are strange times in Southern California, where rain fell through almostall of April and the Clippers have gotten into the playoffs. The latter was astartling development, the franchise having missed out on the last eightpostseasons and the same clueless owner still pushing the buttons. But theClippers' playoff berth, coupled with the last-minute entry of the Lakers,whose tradition had been put on hold for a season while Phil Jackson worked onthe engine, offered a chance to watch a lot of seismic-specific basketball andstudy parallel cultures at the same time.
And now that thetwo teams are on the brink of playing a second-round Western Conference seriesat their shared arena, the Staples Center--the Clippers having dumped theNuggets in five games and the seventh-seeded Lakers up 3-1 after squeaking bythe Suns in a surely demoralizing overtime victory on Sunday--there is theprospect of sociological chaos, a combustible clash of competing civilizations.Or, as Clippers forward Elton Brand suggests, "It will be bananas."
In basketballterms, none of this may be that astonishing. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, areal estate mogul who has historically treated his team like a foreclosureproperty, decided to go for a little curb appeal last summer. With MikeDunleavy at the controls, he signed off on major improvements, upgrading thebackcourt with Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. It must have hurt Sterling,relocating his payroll into the Lakers' neighborhood (well, Nuggets' territory,at least; his $51 million is still $21 million short of Jerry Buss's outlay),but there he was, courtside in May, watching his team manhandle Denver.
The Lakers,meanwhile, had been in uncharacteristic regroup mode, with Jackson trying topuzzle through a team that had Kobe Bryant and not much else. Bryant had been afascinating player all season, what with his 81-point outburst and a half-dozengames of 50 or more, but one-man shows usually close quickly in the NBAtournament. Yet Jackson, who now seems a steal at $10 million a year, is not tobe underestimated. He prodded the team into a season-ending sprint to theplayoffs, where the operative action verb hasn't so much been manhandle asmastermind. Jackson has his team winning by--quite suddenly--not having Kobescore. (The poor guy was averaging just 23.0 points against the Suns, hardly aday's work during the regular season, when he averaged 35.4.)
Taken together,the two scenarios have created a little confusion, at least in L.A., where theLakers' brilliance has been as yawningly routine as the Clippers' ineptitude.When one franchise has given its fans Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and titles in groupsof three while the other has served up Benoit Benjamin and a playoff historythat takes up a half page in the media guide, and then both get into theplayoffs alongside each other--well, it can be too much. It's O.J. fleeing thepolice during an earthquake.
The Clippers, fortheir part, are pretty cool with all this. They are mostly young, largelyoblivious to the social hierarchy of the last three decades. They don't presumethat their first playoff series win since 1975-76, when they were the BuffaloBraves, will rewrite local basketball history. "Same breath as theLakers?" says Cassell, the Clippers' talking machine. "Wow! One yearwon't do it. We don't have a guy who can score 50, just a bunch of guys whoneed each other. Same breath? Wow! They've got Kareem, Elgin Baylor, JerryWest, Magic Johnson--need I say more?" Cassell, whose playoff experience isas valuable as his shot, actually does say more, but that's for anotherstory.
This humility isin contrast to Lakers pride, which takes the form of offhand arrogance. Whenthis correspondent phoned both p.r. departments, seeking game credentials, hereceived a quick and unidentified callback from one of them, granting hisrequest. "Now is this the Lakers or Clippers calling?" thiscorrespondent asked. There was a long, overly dramatic sigh on the other end."The one with nine trophies."
Let's not call itarrogance, just pride. But that pride is so ingrained in Los Angeles that to beanything but a Lakers fan--take in a game, glad-hand a movie exec or two andbeat it out of there with five minutes left--is surely a symptom of some formof pathology. When you buy a Clippers ticket it's not so much because you likethe Clippers (or even that it's all you can afford) as that you hate theLakers. TV actor Frankie Muniz (the Clippers' rather downscaled version ofLakers railbird Jack Nicholson) is a die-hard, having ground his baby teethwhile watching the exploits of Loy Vaught and Terry Dehere. "I despise theLakers with a passion," says Muniz, who put off a move to New York so thathe could remain courtside for his team's unprecedented run. "I would ratherthe Clippers win one game all year if it meant the Lakers would lose all theirgames."
Thepurple-and-gold don't do anything in particular to provoke this hatred, exceptto win, be exciting and attract a glamorous and well-heeled bunch. Theircrowds, of course, are an awards ceremony unto themselves, aself-congratulatory confab of celebrity that has everything but a red carpetand Joan Rivers. The star power at any Lakers game can be quite impressive,with Salma and Pam rubbing ... shoulders, but for the playoffs the dial jumpssomewhere between People's Choice and Golden Globes. When the Lakers finallygot back home last Friday after splitting games in Phoenix, they were greetedby Charlize, Cindy and Jack. The kind of people who score courtside seats at$2,200 a pop don't require last names.
(What's this?Denzel's wandering over to press row now, wants to know what's up with ReggieBush. We don't know.)
Clippers gamesdon't look like swap meets but they aren't the Emmy's either. Billy Crystal isthe most recognizable regular, having worked his underdog shtick at half-court(where seats go for a mere $800) for 15 seasons, going back to when theClippers were still in the dowdy Sports Arena. "They had good, cheaptickets," Crystal says. "I think I even got in a couple ofgames."
Whereas theLakers' attendance is pretty much a given, with 33 of 41 games selling out thisyear, the Clippers are reduced to unseemly giveaways and undignifiedpromotions. Would the Lakers ever offer two-for-ones? Would they advertise thatKevin Garnett was coming to town? For that matter, as easy as they might be tosee in person (Games 2 and 5 were not sellouts), the Clippers can besurprisingly difficult to follow outside Staples. Many of their road games donot appear on Los Angeles TV, and the radio broadcasts air on a talk stationthat features Al Franken and Randi Rhodes.
Then there'sStaples itself, which reinforces the Clippers' second-class citizenship mostcruelly. Of course it's very much their fault that they have no team regaliahanging from the rafters, where every other tenant is represented. While theLakers have all those championship banners and seven retired jerseys, theWNBA's Sparks and the AFL's Avengers have gear up there as well. Nobody'ssaying a statue of Michael Cage needs to be placed next to the one of Magic,but do the seats have to be purple? Does the Clippers dressing room have to be1,300 square feet smaller than the Lakers'? Does the media room have to benamed for Chick Hearn?
Even a bad seasonor two won't dissolve the Lakers' mystique. After missing the playoffs lastyear for the first time in 11 seasons and nearly missing this year's, theydidn't lose much intramural ground. Derek Fisher, a championship veteran whodeparted in July 2004 for Golden State, got a great hand when he showed up atStaples to watch the Lakers play last Friday. He later explained that L.A.would always be a Lakers town, no matter if the teams' fortunes are reversed."The difference is, a whole generation grew up Lakers fans," he said."You can't change that in one year. It'll always be a Yankees-Metsthing."
And yet, for thisseason anyway, the roles do seem reversed, with the Clippers dominating in anear-Showtime fashion. They have a top 10 player in Brand, a floor leader withbig-game bravado in Cassell and a young playmaker with a touch of Magic inShaun Livingston. To go up 3-1 last Saturday in Denver, the Clippers employed asuffocating defense, again shutting down Carmelo Anthony, who shot just 33% inthe series. On offense they distributed the ball magnificently, with sevenplayers scoring in double figures.
Kobe, meanwhile,has let his teammates do the heavy lifting. In Game 3 at Staples, when theLakers flummoxed high-octane Phoenix, the K-chant was for 6'11" KwameBrown, who scored 12 points, and not for Bryant, who was "held" to 17.With typical idiosyncrasy, Jackson has insisted that the Lakers attack inside,using their height advantage, and neglect, for now anyway, Kobe's offensivearsenal.
This has beenfine with Bryant, even though local columnists have decried his"passivity" and implored him to let it go more. The game plan has madestars of Lamar Odom, a former Clipper who had double doubles in two of thefirst four games, and Luke Walton, who in Game 3 took one more shot (19) thanKobe, in a 99-92 win. "Shocking," Walton admitted.
Still, for allthat, it's Kobe's team when it has to be. On Sunday the Suns, up 90-85 with12.6 seconds left, looked to be evening the series. But after Smush Parker hita three and then dislodged the ball from Steve Nash, Kobe hit a loopingshot--degree of difficulty: 8.6--with 0.7 seconds left to tie the game. Then,in overtime, with Phoenix up 98-95, Kobe scored on a layup with 11.7 secondsleft to draw L.A. within one. Nash got swarmed taking the ball upcourt, and theSuns lost the jump ball to Kobe, who ... hit a 17-footer at the buzzer for thewin.
It was, for thatbrief moment, just like old times, Lakers mystique materializing out of thinair, star power conquering all. It was like old times in another way: Evenbefore the Lakers could assert that ancient arrogance--before they deliveredthe goods in the most dramatic ending of the season so far--their fans hadbegun streaming out of Staples, beating the traffic.
What might havebeen different this time, there were new ones waiting to take their places atStaples, a comparatively low-rent group whose stubborn fanaticism was about tobe repaid in a game the next night. Since when do Clippers and Lakers fans passin the night, this time of year, anyway?
The best first round in recent NBA history? NBA insider Chris Ballard weighs inat SI.com/nba.