The Lakers, the Clippers and a Rare Fight for L.A. Basketball Primacy

Written by on February 20, 2020

LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard slipped into the interview room at Staples Middle clad in pearl-white sweats, calling to thoughts a Jedi sage. His face a masks, he gave no signal of recognizing any reporter, and set to analyzing the just-concluded sport with the dispassion of a chess grandmaster.

What, a reporter requested, did you want about your workforce’s efficiency?

An extended pause. “I loved the third quarter, we received out in transition. That’s the factor I preferred.”

That was quickly sufficient of that. Leonard slid out of his chair and was gone.

The subsequent night, I walked into the Lakers’ postgame locker room in the identical area. Anthony Davis had toes planted in a bucket of ice and a scraggly beard curling out from beneath his hoodie, making him appear like a cross between a monk and a stork. Digicam individuals and reporters shaped a half-moon across the locker of LeBron James, who 20 minutes later wandered out of the bathe, his scalp wrapped in a durag and a towel round his waist.

This ageing star cradled a Bose speaker and combed out his beard as he sang alongside to the rapper Drake:

“I’m solely getting older, someone ought to have advised you …”

He craned his head and tossed a stanza at Davis and one other to JaVale McGee and one other to Danny Inexperienced, they usually provided name and response. Pulling on a Dodgers cap, James stood and turned and gave an prolonged, perceptive tackle the night time’s victory, even joking about his age, earlier than he excused himself and ambled out the door.

“Spouse’s feeling beneath the climate, man,” he mentioned. “Obtained to go.”

To wander by means of the catacombs of Staples Middle final month, watching the Lakers and Clippers play a collective 5 video games in 4 nights, was to look at a curious cohabitation, two of the N.B.A.’s finest groups sharing a house area. Their star gamers and coaches are as totally different as Venus and Mars, whilst they attempt for a similar purpose: an N.B.A. championship.

Which may sound like a Hollywood-scripted battle for the center of this metropolis, however that will be to overstate. The Clippers can lay robust declare to being a prime contender this 12 months, and their Massive Tech oligarch proprietor, Steve Ballmer, has waged a six-year guerrilla conflict to say the hearts and minds of Angelenos, building dozens of Clippers-logo-emblazoned basketball courts and decking out youth groups in Clippers colours.

However this metropolis way back settled on a single beau: the Lakers.

The Lakers have these 16 championship banners swinging within the Staples Middle rafters together with all these retired jerseys of gamers who want solely a single title — Magic and Kareem and Elgin and Wilt and Shaquille and Kobe.

The deaths of Bryant and his daughter and 7 others in a helicopter crash in January served to underline an umbilical connection between workforce and metropolis, as Angelenos figuratively draped themselves in gold and purple mourning crepe. Suffused with sympathy and recollections and grief, town’s basketball temper shifted within the days and weeks that adopted, as speak of rivalry took a timeout.

A couple of weeks earlier than the accident, although, a Sunday in early January provided me the basketball equal of a full eclipse of the moon: a hoops doubleheader. The Clippers performed within the afternoon in opposition to the hapless (a pointless adjective) Knicks, and the Lakers took the gymnasium again that night for a sport in opposition to the Detroit Pistons. It was the sort of day when one may moderately take a measure of the city’s basketball temperature.

On Jan. 5, I wandered to the 20th row at Staples earlier than the laser reveals and digital actuality nuttiness kicked in to speak with the tattooed grasp barber Robert Echiribel. A buyer at his Santa Monica store, Energetic Barbers, had handed him freebie tickets to the Clippers, however he cautioned me to not confuse his presence along with his loyalties.

“I’m Lakers, man, all my life,” he mentioned. “The Clippers received all the appropriate items, however let’s face it: The explanation I’m right here is that the ticket is free.”

He pointed on the rafters, disgusted. Earlier than each Clippers sport, the workforce drops sheets of cloth and hides these Lakers banners. “You might be sharing somebody’s dwelling and whenever you stroll within the room, you don’t take down their images,” he mentioned. “It’s an indication of disrespect.”

Clippers followers weren’t too arduous to search out, although. The workforce invariably sells out. Al and Irma Lopez, retirees, sat 15 rows again beneath the basket and counseled the workforce for providing measurably cheaper seats — about half the going worth for Lakers video games. However they admitted they have been a contact lonely.

“Not solely all my pals are Laker followers, so are my two sons,” Al Lopez mentioned. “They speak banners and stuff and I say, ‘Yeah, however we received the winners.’”

The Clippers’ largest stars, Leonard and Paul George, possess a home-born benefit, as the lads got here of age on the exurban jack-rabbit desert fringes to which so many working-class Los Angeles-area households have been consigned by the economics of a metropolis as grossly costly as New York.

However avenue cred buys solely a lot love. The Clippers opened their dwelling schedule in opposition to the Lakers this season, and when Leonard — the workforce’s marquee signing, a champion contemporary off a title final 12 months with Toronto — took the microphone to say a couple of phrases, the Lakers followers who had jammed the sector showered him with boos.

Not lengthy afterward, Leonard attended an L.A. Rams soccer sport and his smiling face appeared on the scoreboard, and once more: Boooooooooo.

I hopped in a automobile and drove by means of sun-washed Los Angeles (Be aware to my editor: Sure, I urged this story in January for a purpose) in the hunt for incipient Clipper love. I nosed south towards working- and middle-class Inglewood, the place the Clippers plan to construct a Spaceship Enterprise of a new arena alongside Century Boulevard. I discovered a hoops court docket painted in Clippers colours, and gamers in Lakers purple and gold jerseys.

Yo, any Clipper followers right here?

Ray Guidos stopped bouncing his basketball, squinted and shook his head at that idiot query.

“Man, you’re going to have bother discovering Clippers,” he defined, although by then I didn’t want a proof. “It’s Lakers, Lakers, Lakers.”

I drove on and pulled right into a parking zone lower than a mile from the location of the proposed area and chatted with Ray Guevara, a younger safety guard exterior a Ross Gown for Much less. He watches the Clippers fortunately sufficient — if the Lakers are usually not on. “Fact is,” he mentioned, “it’s a Laker city.”

I nodded, and nosed the automobile again towards Staples Middle.

As Staples belongs to the Lakers, the Clippers play greater than their fair proportion of midday video games in Los Angeles, a bio-rhythmic travesty for gamers and coaches accustomed to working nights. Coach Doc Rivers, eyes pink and watery from too many nights of observing too many sport movies, made no try to cover his distaste.

“I hate afternoon video games,” he mentioned throughout my go to, leaning into the verb.

And his gamers?

“I don’t even ask them, as a result of I’m afraid of their solutions.”

Rivers, 58, is a quick-to-laugh boulevardier; Frank Vogel, 46, the Lakers coach, impacts the persona of an insurance coverage adjuster. He lets his stars toss down the character.

Rivers tells the gathered reporters that he has not a clue if Leonard, whose chronically achy legs brought about him to overlook 22 video games final season, will play this sport. He not often performs on consecutive nights, a technique designed to make sure his availability for the video games to return that can matter extra.

“I anticipate the medical employees to inform me,” Rivers mentioned.

That method has led to indirect locker room grumbling. Respect however not love accrues for this star. A day earlier, the Clippers dropped a sport to the pitiful Pistons, and Clippers middle Montrezl Harrel, a burly dreadlocked Vary Rover of a person, sounded as if he had had sufficient.

“We’re not an amazing workforce — it’s important to get out of your thoughts,” he advised us. “We now have two gamers who’ve by no means been part of this workforce.”

The gamers in query have been its stars.

The Clippers’ sport in opposition to the Knicks, a workforce final aggressive through the administration of James Garfield, was a free-shooting affair. Whereas Leonard rested, George dominated, with fallback jumpers stolen from Kobe Bryant, who had stolen the transfer from Michael Jordan. Within the N.B.A., admiration is expressed by means of artistic theft.

George completed with 32 factors. However the Knicks, nobody’s concept of an offensive juggernaut, scored 69 factors within the first half. What, reporters requested Rivers, did you inform your gamers at halftime?

“Guard somebody,” he replied.

The Clippers stay a Jaguar firing on half of its allotted cylinders. As Leonard is never heard, and George — who is also now injured — may be prickly, Rivers takes the position of the lightning rod.

Did you place an excessive amount of stress in your veteran Patrick Beverley by asking him to play the unaccustomed position of level guard? A reporter may need thought he was poking on the coach.

Rivers laughed.

“Yeah, that was silly, horrible teaching!” he mentioned.

After the sport, the Clippers banners rolled up and that flotilla of gold-and-purple Lakers championship banners as soon as once more floated free. An usher pointed at a seat close to courtside. “That one was $180 for the Clippers,” he mentioned. “It’s $400 for the Lakers.”

Monetary widespread sense, he mentioned, has made Clippers followers of a few of his pals.

The Lakers locker room was a Chateau Marmont, that trendy outdated stars and starlets lodge, for the elegantly attired. Kyle Kuzma, his hair dyed molten gold, peeled off his silk shirt and cashmere sweater and leopard-print pants Davis paused to whisper a joke to James, whose couture is never lower than au courant.

The Lakers have stars to spare. Rajon Rondo, as soon as a Celtic level guard and inveterate antagonist of all issues Lakers, mans the backup level. Middle Dwight Howard, whose egocentrism has brought about him to cycle by means of six groups within the final eight years, ran round tossing up his arms in mock LeBron fashion, claiming the position of court docket jester.

No Laker paid him any thoughts.

The workforce took the ground in opposition to the Pistons with a Globetrotter-like spin and whirl, behind the again passes and hovering blocks. James, at 35 an historic on this planet of the N.B.A., lacks fairly the outdated elevate on his soar shot, so he has covertly aged by reincarnating himself as Magic Johnson and turning into the league’s finest passer.

He got here downcourt, placing the ball as soon as, twice between his legs, and with a sleight of hand flipped the ball into the air to Davis, who, like a 6-foot-10 huge receiver, caught and tossed it by means of the ring.

The joint went wild.

James took a seat with 21 factors, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Lakers cashed one other win.

By then, my Los Angeles go to was close to an finish, and nonetheless questions nagged. Is that this a correct rivalry? May the Clippers and the Lakers ignite one thing as insanely tribal because the outdated Celtics-Lakers rivalry, that conflict of six a long time’ classic?

I put the query to Vogel. “You wish to beat each good workforce,” the insurance coverage adjuster advised me.

Thanks quite a bit.

I sidled as much as Rivers and heard one thing extra satisfying. A former Knick level guard, he had realized to like hating the Chicago Bulls. “I like something with animosity in professional sports activities, like it,” he mentioned. “We’re not there but however we’d get it within the playoffs. Anger offers you that further juice.”

Cool. Then one other query occurred: If the Clippers beat the Lakers this spring and go on to take the championship, would Los Angeles followers lastly embrace them? I posed that one to Echiribel, the Santa Monica barber.

If that occurs, he mentioned, “It is going to be like, ‘OK, cool, possibly I’ll go to the parade.’”

Then he paused and added: “If I don’t should work or meet somebody for lunch.”

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