The atmosphere was unlike anything else this season.
There was a unanimous sea of red t-shirts, cohesive chants and especially flashy introductions, flames and all. It was college basketball meets WWE. Only it wasn’t. It was Game 1 of the 2013 NBA playoffs.
“There’s nothing like it,” Chris Paul said after the game. “It’s two different seasons. It’s the regular season and the playoffs. The fans are here early.”
From the moment the ball was tipped, fans were on the edge of their seats. Zach Randolph was aptly booed whenever he touched the ball. Free-throw shooters endured Cliff Paul floating heads staring back at them. You could feel the presence of Clipper fans, which isn’t something you could always say.
While Clipper fans are certainly not apathetic, they’re not Utah-level crazy either, yet they showed a glimpse of their potential in Game 1. “Clipper Nation” is now a tangible thing; it’s not a gimmick or marketing ploy to unite a diverse, often-down fan base, but a rallying cry. Just like the team on the court, Clipper fans have found their identity over the past two seasons.
“We have a different type of crowd here,” Paul said. “They’re fun and exciting all game long. They see us playing hard in that way we know we can.”
I originally noticed it at the Clipper-Laker game earlier this month. In a match-up that’s usually felt more like a home game than a road game for the purple and gold, the Clipper fans were visibly angry and defiant, and showed their annoyance with the showy, entitled intruders, as if How dare you come in here and root for the other team.
Even though the Clippers play in Los Angeles, and have the Lob City moniker, it’s difficult for Clipper fans to puff their chests and act “Hollywood.” That’s the M.O. of those other L.A. basketball fans. It’s not the Clippers’ style, though who knows, things change, as evident by Chris Paul’s unforeseen arrival in Dec. 2011. Still, I wouldn’t count on it.
Clipper games have a family feel. The jumbotron emphasizes children dancing and couples kissing; it’s palpable the Clippers have a large following among the younger L.A. generation, especially those who view lobs as more exciting than day-to-day media drama. The games are fun, inclusive and different.
For a fan base that’s endured as much ridicule and snark as any, it must feel great to let loose and cheer for a competitive team. It’s a luxury most teams enjoy for brief periods before their inevitable dry-spell, but the Clippers have never had.
The Clippers have figured things out on the court, but what happens off of it may be more important. The Lakers, Knicks, Bulls and Celtics have universal fan bases; go to any city in America and chances are you’ll see people wearing gear from at least one of those teams. The Clippers are striving towards that, as are most teams, and playing in a market like L.A. — and having talent like Paul and Blake Griffin to advertise — is a major advantage.
Over the years, Clipper fans have been stereotyped as outcasts, misfits and hipsters. Why wouldn’t they just root for the Lakers like everybody else? It seemed as if they were purposely supporting counterculture instead of the norm.
But the new norm is that the Clippers are winning. They’re currently the most successful team in the city. With winning comes more fans, many of whom will be labeled as “band-wagoners” among the casual observer. But Clipper fans will accept them, as they’re not a hostile bunch. After all, these are the same people who’ve been screaming their hearts out for decades over 20-win teams, no matter how many fans actually attended games.
Yet even if news fans emerge, with different, temporary motives, the core values of Clipper fans will remain — passion and loyalty, first and foremost. How else can you describe basketball fans with a love of the game so deep that they’ll support a team that’s been down for as long as anyone can remember, and has rarely shown long-term promise?
So if you get a chance to go to a Clipper playoff game, take a look around. Look at the faces. The people. Soak it all in. Remember what it used to be like, and enjoy how it is now.
“They really are a sixth man,” Paul said, “and we need them in order to do what we want to do.”