<
>

Time is right for Clippers to grab some of L.A. spotlight from Lakers

With Kobe Bryant on the way out, Chris Paul and the Clippers have a chance at a higher profile in Los Angeles. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- We're about to find out which Los Angeles NBA team has the better transition game. As Kobe Bryant heads into retirement and the Los Angeles Lakers head off into the unknown, this is as good an opportunity as the Los Angeles Clippers may ever get to fast break toward a greater market share, even if total domination might be unattainable.

"I would like to see it shift to the Clippers, but I don't think it will," said James Goldstein, the superfan who has season tickets on the baseline for both teams. "It seems to be like a tradition in L.A. to be a Laker fan. And it doesn't change."

It's why only a handful of Clippers-colors-clad fans were in the lower bowl when the Lakers hosted the intracity meeting Wednesday night, after nearly 20 percent of the fans wore purple and gold when the Clippers were the home team at Staples Center the night before. It's why the Clippers have not surpassed the Lakers' ratings on the regional sports networks despite trips to the playoffs the past two years while the Lakers sat at home, according to the Los Angeles Times. Still, the ratings gap is smaller than ever, although that's due more to the Lakers' numbers dropping rather than the Clippers' numbers surging.

The Lakers are a national phenomenon, with a fan base of 15.7 million people, behind only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees, according to ESPN research. However, more people in Los Angeles watch the Clippers than the Lakers when the games are broadcast on ESPN. And the Clippers are even making inroads among the celebrities; the likes of Rihanna, Jay-Z and Beyonce are just as likely to sit in the front row when the Clippers' red-and-blue-trimmed court is down as when the more familiar purple and gold is on the floor. Actor Anthony Anderson often sports Clippers gear on the TV show "Black-ish."

"It's shifting from Lakers to Clippers, I think, a little bit," said former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, a Southern California kid who watched Wednesday's game with his son a few rows from the court. "It's always going to be a Lakers town, because of the history and the players and the championships and all of those things. The Clippers want to get to that point. They've got a long way to go."

They'll have to hang fabric of their own, rather than cover the Lakers' championship banners and retired numbers with portraits of Clipper players on their game nights.

The Clippers just got their first permanent presence in the building. Well, technically, it's outside the building. Over the weekend the media entrance was named for Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler. Different media areas in Staples Center were already named for Los Angeles Kings announcers Bob Miller and Nick Nickson and legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn.

They don't sell announcer jerseys at the team store, though. The Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have 14 All-Star appearances between them. But Paul is a difficult vehicle for converting Lakers fans because his presence brings back painful memories of the vetoed trade that would have made him a Laker in 2011. The Dodgers stopped bringing him out to throw first pitches because it led to awkward booing of a hometown sports star.

And Griffin's luster was diminished when he punched the team's assistant equipment manager in the face during a dispute on the road. Griffin might be off the hook as the local sports villain, however, after Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell recorded teammate Nick Young discussing liaisons with women other than his fiancée. Yes, we've reached the point where hitting the record button causes more brand damage than hitting someone.

The fuss over Russell reinforced an L.A. media truism: Los Angeles fans would rather talk about what's wrong with the Lakers than what's right with the Clippers.

In the grand opening/grand closing category, the Clippers' flagship radio station, AM 980 "The Beast" didn't even make it through a full NBA season in its new all-sports format. It was sold and the new owners turned it into an Indian music station.

Instead of a sports talk station with incentive to bring up the Clippers throughout the day, the Clippers are now on AM 570, the primary carrier for the Dodgers. The ESPN station, 710 AM, is the home of the Lakers and also has three members of the Lakers' broadcasting crew hosting shows. So the Clippers will have to do extraordinary things to crack into the daily sports discussion in L.A.

"It's always going to be a Lakers town, because of the history and the players and the championships and all of those things. The Clippers want to get to that point. They've got a long way to go." Matt Leinart

The field will grow more crowded this fall when the Rams return after a 22-year absence. The Clippers' initial response has been amicable, rather than animus. They had Rams running back Todd Gurley at a game, gave him a Clippers jersey, showed him on the giant screen and invited him to the locker room to meet the players. Maybe the Clippers can afford to be friendly with the competition as long as the Rams are so competitive; the Rams haven't had a winning record in a season since 2003.

Los Angeles loves a winner. If nature abhors a vacuum, L.A. can't stand championship droughts. It will gravitate toward any team that fills the void.

Leinart experienced it at USC, when the Trojans got rolling under Pete Carroll and went to back-to-back national championship games, winning in Florida and losing that classic in the Rose Bowl.

"It took time," Leinart said. "Pete's first year, we couldn't get 30,000 in the Coliseum. It did shift. All of a sudden we started winning and the town kind of gravitated toward SC. It was awesome, man."

They're gearing their efforts at the younger demographic. They had a Disney day, with Disney characters roaming around the court. They introduced a new mascot, Chuck the Condor, who will allow them to have a presence beyond the court and when the players don't feel like making community appearances. While Chuck drew immediate Twitter scorn (then again, what doesn't?) none other than Kobe himself endorsed the Clippers' game plan.

"I think the organization is doing things the right way," Bryant said after the game Tuesday night. "I think they're really looking to turn things around. I think the passion they're bringing is remarkable."

Then again, Kobe has said positive things about the Lakers organization even while in the midst of posting the worst records in franchise history over the past two seasons. Of course, it helps that the organization made him the highest-paid player in the game over that stretch.

The question is where will the Lakers go and what will they be without Bryant? Has he truly created legions of Lakers fans, or are they strictly members of the Cult of Kobe?

One indication might be found in Chicago, where the Bulls' sellout streak that began in 1987 continued through Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993 and lasted through his return and second retirement in 1999, not ending until Nov. 8, 2000. Lakers fans will keep coming to Staples Center for a while due to inertia. They'll continue to wear their No. 24 and even No. 8 jerseys.

One example of what the future held in store sat to Leinart's left. His son Cole had a purple Kobe Bryant jersey and a blue Clippers "Lob City" hat.

Kobe is his favorite player, but "I love the Clippers way more."