There is an air of finality which pervades over this Spring’s NBA Playoffs. Looming behind record television ratings lie the uncertainty of the new collective bargaining agreement, which has the potential to alter the league’s economic and regional power balance. On the court, the time for the heirs of Jordan seems to be coming to a close—as Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett—the men who once played against his aging Airness, prepares to leave the stage. Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Dirk Nowitzki are poised to seize the throne, and right on their heels are the league’s youngest stars; Durant and Rose, eager to jump the line. For most Angelenos, the annual Spring basketball fever that grips the city have come to a premature and inglorious end with the Lakers embarrassing meltdown. And for some Clippers fans, the end of Phil Jackson’s era one week after Blake Griffin’s unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year has instilled hope that the ground is finally shifting between LA’s two NBA franchises.
But the relationship between the Lakers and Clippers and their coexistence in Los Angeles have been always been more complex than a simple intra-city rivalry. Even in a large metropolitan center like LA, there might not be enough contrarians and underdogs to constitute a fan base for the woebegone Clippers franchise. Though it would pain many Clippers fans to admit, the refracted glory of all those Lakers championships might have done more to fill the stands at the Sports Arena and Staples Center than their team’s performance through the years. In a way, it might be said that the Lakers success has made the viability of a second or third team in the city possible. As the career of Kobe Bryant winds to a close, however, just as Blake Griffin’s star is ascending, the Clippers find themselves in an unfamiliar position of having the city’s most electrifying athlete, and quite possibly, the league’s next marquee player. What happens in the next few years; how the franchise handles the growth and development of Blake Griffin, and how they assemble a team worthy of his immense talents, will determine if the Clippers can change their franchise’s trajectory once and for all. Heading into this summer of transition, it is perhaps worthwhile to look back upon the men who have defined both teams, and how it came to be that more people in Los Angeles now identify themselves as basketball fans more than any other sport.
It has not always been this way. Basketball, played indoors, conceived in the harsh New England winter and reared in Mid-Western gymnasiums, seems a poor fit for a Southern California culture blessed with abundance sunshine. When the Lakers first moved to Los Angeles, they would draw a few hundreds fans to a high school gym. Upon returning home from a road trip, players would get on a truck with a bullhorn, drive down Wilshire Boulevard and take turns bellowing at people on the streets, imploring them to attend that evening’s contest. The late Chick Hearns would recall, “They were drawing nothing. They would play one night at a high school gym. They played the Shrine Auditorium on a stage! If you fell off the side, you dropped six feet.” The Lakers early years in Los Angeles were defined by their courageous but ultimately futile attempts to wrest the NBA crown from the imperial Red Auerbach and his Celtics. John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty riveted the city’s attention, but professional basketball’s popularity lagged behind baseball, football, and even boxing in the public’s consciousness. But by the time Magic announced his shocking and tearful retirement in 1991, the Lakers have captured the city’s affection. Starting with Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers made a concerted effort to court Hollywood stars and cultivated an atmosphere of glitz and glamour in a city that adores both. Over time, over many championships for the Lakers and over many lost seasons for the Clippers, the crowd at Lakers and Clippers games will come to reflect the city as it imagines itself to be, and the city as it actually was.
From the very beginning, the stewardship of the current Lakers franchise under the Buss family and the Clippers under Donald Sterling have been closely intertwined. After all, it was to Donald Sterling whom Jerry Buss depended on for last minute financing when he acquired the Lakers in 1979. And it was Jerry Buss who convinced Sterling to buy the Clippers and move the team from San Diego two years later. Both men made their fortunes during the last great commercial real estate crash of the 1970s and rode the subsequent rebound in Westside properties to great wealth. In the summer of 1979, Jerry Buss introduced his prized rookie, Earvin Magic Johnson, to the city’s luminaries at Sterling’s annual White Party. Years later, Magic would remember that evening as his introduction to the glamour and wealth of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Sterling’s Gatsbyesque mystique on that late summer night never extended to his future basketball team. Jerry Buss’ Lakers, with an ebullient Magic at the controls, would establish themselves as the gold standard of the modern NBA, winning 10 NBA championships in three decades, while Donald Sterling’s Clippers would compile one of the most wretched records in professional sports during the same span.
For over twenty years, the General Managers of both teams were Lakers legends; Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, brothers-in-arms who had succumbed, time and time again, to Red Auerbach’s Celtics. In his prime, Elgin was a phenomenal athlete, pulling off breathtaking acrobatic moves that would presage the arrival of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. Four years older than Jerry West, Elgin was the dominant personality in the Lakers locker room when West arrived as a nervous rookie. Though the relationship between the two men remained cordial, there was always a tinge of rivalry between the proud Baylor and the insecure West. At the dawn of the Civil Rights era, a phenomenal star of Elgin’s caliber couldn’t help but look askance at the loner with a thick Appalachian accent who suddenly became the face of the Lakers franchise and would later become the league’s logo. Many years later, even their great rival Oscar Robertson bristled, “All of you media guys are racist. You can’t ask me a question without asking about Jerry West.”
Eight times, Elgin Baylor would lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals, and eight times, he wound up on the losing end. In Game 5 of the 1962 NBA Finals, Elgin scored 61 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in leading his team to victory over the hated Celtics. But in the end, it was for naught, though his 61 points have endured as an NBA Finals record, the Celtics would go on to capture their fourth straight crown. Elgin’s balky knees finally forced him to retire in 1972, nine games into the season. Whether by luck or by inspiration, the Lakers, led by West, won the next game in honor of their former captain. Then they went on a tear, winning a remarkable 33 games in a row, finally culminating in the first NBA championship for the city. Elgin Baylor, the savior of the franchise during its darkest days, would retire without a title, and he would retire one game before his team went on the longest winning streak in NBA history.
In his later years, Jerry West would claim that Elgin Baylor was one the best player he had ever seen and had the honor of playing with. At the peak of his prowess, Elgin might have indeed been a superior player, but as general managers in the NBA, there was no question who was the better judge of talent and architect of a team. Prior to the 1983-1984 NBA season, Jerry West cleared the Lakers logjam at point guard by trading Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for the rights to sharpshooter Byron Scott. The lighting quick Nixon joined a Clippers team that boasted the previous season’s Rookie of the Year—Terry Cummings—who led the team in both scoring and rebounding in his first campaign and seemed poised for stardom. In the first of many boneheaded moves that would recur under Sterling, Terry Cummings was then traded to Milwaukee before the team moved from San Diego to Los Angeles.
As Elgin Baylor took over the reins of the Clippers franchise, the team he assembled had intriguing talent but lack any sense of direction. Gunners like Norm Nixon and Quintin Dailey shot the ball without remorse, while the franchise waited in vain for an enigmatic Benoit Benjamin to fulfill his vast but ultimately wasted potential. The Clippers went 12-70 in 1986, they would marginally improve to 17 wins the following year, and notch 21 wins the year after that. During that time, the Lakers were in the midst of winning back to back titles, the first team to accomplish such a feat since the Celtics. Byron Scott, the player that Jerry West had traded for was instrumental in spreading the floor during their championship run. On the 1987-1988 team with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy, Byron Scott led them all in scoring and shot a remarkable 53% from the field as a long distance marksman.
The makeup of that Lakers championship team was a stark contrast to the Clippers. Jerry West had assembled a team whose stars complemented one another perfectly; Magic ran the offense with élan, Kareem’s sky hook remained one of the most unstoppable shots in the game, Big Game James’ spin move was devastating in the low block, while Byron Scott silky smooth jumpers kept the defense honest. Their role players; AC Green, Mychal Thompson, Michael Cooper, and Kurt Rambis all defended and rebounded with steely toughness, as if girding themselves for a showdown with their nemesis in Boston. Years later, West would say, “I’ve seen teams trade players who score tons of points and people say, ‘How in the world can you trade that player?’ He might score tons of points and his team won’t win. I’ve also seen teams trade players who are very good players and you substitute another player in there and the team just fits better together.” It was something that West instinctively knew; that the personality and chemistry of a team can be as crucial as talent when the goal is to win an NBA crown.
The Clippers that same year was led in scoring by Michael Woodson, who believed in hoisting up a lot of shots and hoisting them up quickly. The mercurial Quintin Dailey was also there, capable of catching fire and scorching an opponent for 30 points one night while shooting the Clippers completely out of contention the next. The only saving grace for the franchise that season was the performance of rebounding phenom Michael Cage, who hustled for every loose ball as if the game was never out of reach. Cage needed 28 boards in the final game of the season to snatch the rebounding title away from Charles Oakley. He would grab 30, giving a small measure of solace to Clippers fans as the Lakers celebrated the league’s first back-to-back championship in twenty-two years.
For basketball fans of my generation, our love for the game was forged by those Lakers and Celtics rivalries of the 1980s. We were a bit too young to remember the days before Magic and Bird, when the NBA Championship was shown on tape delay at midnight, when the Association was near bankruptcy, marred by drug scandals and the perception that the league was too black, too urban, and too out of control. In the 70s, the country was still recovering then from the wounds of Vietnam, from the riots that swept through Harlem, Watts, Chicago and Detroit, and from the sense that the country had lost its vitality and its way. At its lowest ebb, the NBA was seen by middle America as emblematic of the era’s worst traits; filled with selfish, egotistical players who wanted to showboat, preen, and party more than they wanted to compete. Magic and Bird came into the league in 1979 and instantly restored the league’s credibility and its competitive spirit. That one was black and one was white, that they outwardly played such an aesthetically different game, and that they would renew the league’s most storied rivalry was too much for casual fans to ignore.
But behind Magic’s ebullience joy and Bird’s taciturn demeanor was their fierce determination to win, such that they would never allow outside distractions to interfere with their final goal. The renowned boxing trainer Cus D’Amato once said that you can only be as good as your opponent, and that you must honor a great rival because he will reveal your flaws and frailties, which you must overcome in order to become a worthy champion; to become the man that you were meant to be. During their playing days, there was no love lost between Magic and Bird, they would keep tabs on each other’s stats from the previous night for extra motivation. And when they met each other on the court, particularly when an NBA championship was on the line, casual fans tuned in with the hope that they might see something rare and incandescent, something on the level of the Thrilla in Manilla, when the level of competition is raised to such lofty heights that it might reveal some dark mystery of the human heart.
As much as Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain established the popularity of professional basketball in Los Angeles, Magic’s Showtime Lakers and their rivalry with Larry Bird’s Celtics was the pivotal moment for the modern NBA. Not only did Magic and Bird revitalized a league that was near bankruptcy, they ushered in a new era of modern sports, paving the way for Michael Jordan to redefine merchandising, advertising, and entertainment on a global scale. Until Blake Griffin, the Clippers never had a player with the ability to dominate the game at such an elite level. His electrifying assaults on the rim have captivated even casual fans dulled by the blur of ESPN Highlights. On any given night, there is a chance that Blake will show you something that you’ve never seen before, something that borders on the impossible. And there is something intangible too, when Blake throws down a monstrous dunk over a defender, he glares at them like the legendary 1920-30s fighter Mickey Walker, the Toy Bulldog, who used to loom over his fallen opponent and marveled at the destruction he has wrought, as if his own abilities to inflict violence terrified even himself. Blake has the requisite charisma and physical dominance to become the league’s next marquee player, just as Kobe tries to ward off the ravages of time and fans grow weary of King James’ professional AAU squad. For the first time, Donald Sterling and his men must now work under the burden of expectations, of assembling a team worthy of their young star, and putting their franchise on equal footing with their co-tenants at Staples Center. In the months ahead, Blake Griffin and Kobe Bryant will influence their teams in significant ways. How their respective front offices deal with a fading star and a rising one, how they cater to the personality and drive of their franchise players will determine the fate of their teams for years to come, propelling them toward either glory or ruin.