THURSDAY, APRIL 1, 1993, SPORTS
Copyright 1993/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Clippers Finally Come of Age
There used to be a scene in the old Westerns where one gunslinger would ride into town and come up to another and snarl, “There isn’t room enough in this town for the both of us, Buster, so why don’t you get on your horse and ride out while you still can!”
It was sure-fire theater and sold a lot of popcorn. I was reminded of it the other night at the Sports Arena, where the Clippers suddenly came of age. They stopped being the pimply-faced kid at the end of the bar dreaming of glory and instead went up to the town bully and said, “Make me!”
The game between the upstart Clippers and the old pro Lakers was a watershed moment. They walked down Main Street at high noon, and the Lakers blinked.
It isn’t as if the town is the Clippers’ — but it isn’t the Lakers’ anymore.
The Lakers, for years, didn’t even know the Clippers existed. Remember the famous time in New York when the Giant manager, Bill Terry, maliciously asked, “Brooklyn? Are they still in the league?” And the Dodgers, smarting, knocked them out of the pennant in a season-closing series?
The Lakers, luxuriating in the glory years when they had the roughest hombres in the West — Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Wilkes, McAdoo, Cooper and Scott — had no reason to know if the Clippers were still in the league. Or where. They beat them when they were the Buffalo Braves. They beat them when they were the San Diego Clippers. They beat them when they were the Los Angeles Clippers. They beat them wherever they found them.
The Clippers were kind of a municipal embarrassment. They went through more towns faster than the Ohio River or Butch Cassidy on the lam. They wore out their welcome right after they wiped their feet, and when owner Donald Sterling figured he might as well join the rest of the country and move them to Los Angeles, the reaction was, “L.A. already has a team. Have you given any thought to Anaheim?” Or Dubuque, for that matter.
No one ever used that sports-page cliche, “cross-town rivals,” because there wasn’t really any rivalry. The Lakers used to treat the Clippers as kind of a complicated workout. An uncontested shootaround.
The Lakers got to thinking they could send 10 guys from the back of a truck out there with “Lakers” scrawled on their jerseys, and the Clippers would fold. But this began to change subtly when first Kareem, then Magic, left the Lakers.
The rivalry extended off the court. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West never played each other on the court, but as general managers, they went one-on-one with each other with customary intensity.
Getting a winning team in the NBA is a crapshoot. A Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan comes walking out of the collegiate ranks to prove to be an all-world only infrequently. More often, a guy with equal collegiate credentials can’t jump shoot in this competition.
Most years, you don’t get superstars. You have to be crafty and figure out who are the best of the journeymen.
Los Angeles is no stranger to the notion of cross-town rivalries. UCLA and USC would rather beat each other than win the conference. But the pros have never had any comparable feuds.
In New York, the Dodger fans hated the Giants’. But in California, the Giants are 400 miles away. It’s easier to hate someone whose ballpark you can invade periodically to vent your hostility. In New York, they hated one another whether their teams were last or first.
Does Los Angeles need a contender to care that much? Will the fans leave in the seventh inning or hit the parking lot with a quarter to play unless a championship is at stake?
The Lakers look like a guy with one foot on a banana peel and the other on a roller skate. The Clippers won’t remind you of the Bird Celtics or the Magic Lakers, but they artfully use what they have.
One of the things they have is a kind of bull-elephant backfield. Stanley Roberts and John Williams look in poor light like a pair of Alps and are as impenetrable as rush-hour traffic. When those two lock arms, the only way to the basket is by Figueroa Street. They are the only duo on the floor who are 7 feet tall — and 10 feet wide. They should play in Santa Claus suits.
And the Clippers have Mark Jackson, a cat-quick, savvy point guard — we used to call them “playmakers” — who keeps the Clippers on their toes with his fast footwork and ear-high passes. He is to the Clippers what Joe Montana was to the 49ers. He steers them downcourt, then commands the attack under the basket, skillfully working for the open man. His idol and role model was Magic Johnson. “I’m no Magic,” he admits. “But I try to set up the floor the way he did.”
Since Jackson played his whole career in and around New York — at St. John’s and with the Knicks, before the Clippers slickered him West — he is asked whether a New York-style rivalry is possible in laid-back L.A.
“In New York,” he explains, “the attitude is set up by the media. It’s not that they’re more knowledgeable or more caring, they’re more demanding. They read a story in the papers and get their perception from that. They not only boo ineffectiveness, they boo great players. This town booed Babe Ruth, don’t forget. They booed Earl Monroe. There’s a lot more pressure playing in New York because you’re bucking preconceived notions.”
It has been suggested (here) that the difference between the New York fan and the L.A. fan can be summed up in the attitude of the guy at the race track watching his horse struggle to the wire. In New York, the fan’s face is contorted with rage. “Don’t die now, ya dog!” is his scream at the mount. In L.A., the fan is more inclined to plead and encourage than to insult. “Just a few more steps, sweetheart, you can do it!”
“They get on you here, too,” Jackson says. “But I think we passed a test tonight. We’re still a game behind the Lakers, but they know we’re here now. I’m proud of this team. We needed this win and we got it.”
It’s the Lakers’ turn to wonder, “Who are these guys?” It’s their turn to consider getting out of town, according to the Clippers.
All dynasties fade in time. The Lakers owned this town for a long time. But that funny little team on the other end of the freeway passed a major test Tuesday night. It was the first time since 1974, when they were the Buffalo Braves, that they have won a season series from the Lakers.
If anybody has the right to say, “Be outta town by sundown!” it’s the new kid on the block. He gets to wear the white hat in this chase.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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