As the NBA tips off its season, there are still those basketball eugenicists—some of them here in Los Angeles—who believe that Clippers fans, in fact, don't exist. I beg to differ. Despite the Clippers being heckled as the "Worst Franchise in Sports History" on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April 2000 and finishing over .500 only once through their 19 seasons in Los Angeles, I walked up to the ticket window this year and plunked down nearly $1,700 for a pair of upper-deck season tickets. And it seems I'm not the only masochist in town. Despite a 27-55 record last year, the Clippers drew well. They ranked 14th out of 29 NBA teams in attendance last season at 17,231 fans per game, ahead of the reigning Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets, a squad in Minnesota that won 51 games, and the pro team in the reputed basketball mecca of Indiana. All these fans despite the huge shadow of the 14-time world champion Lakers, plus the town's copious entertainment options.
So if Clippers fans do exist, then the next question is, Who are these people? What propels a relatively smart basketball fan into an alliance with an undeniable stink bomb, all the while rejecting one of the sexiest sports franchises on the planet? Four reasons:
Class Warfare: The most obvious reason to root for the Clippers is that they're cheaper. A front row, center court seat in the upper deck runs a Lakers fan $35, while the same seat costs $20 at a Clippers game in the same stadium. Lower deck between the baselines: $187.50 versus $90. Clippers fans factor the season with an entirely different financial calculus than does the Lakers season-ticket holder. After a while, we just prefer to tool around in our Civic hatchback; let the Lakers fan rev up his Hummer H2 until he's fully asphyxiated himself and the planet.
The Non-Glommers: In Chicago, the Bay Area, or New York City, fan loyalties break down upon geographical lines. No such territorial precepts govern Los Angeles basketball. The only steadfast rule is that, given the Clippers' relative youth in the city (only 20 years), adult natives overwhelmingly support the Lakers. For the very same reason, the Clippers offer an appeal to those born elsewhere—i.e., Los Angeles' ever-growing population of transients. A disproportionate number of Clippers fans are expats who hail from the I-95 corridor and could never stomach the Lakers the way they could the Kings and Dodgers. Cheering for the Lakers would constitute the ultimate sin: bandwagoning. And even if it wasn't, it would seem like it. Today, with the heightened jawing between Shaq and Kobe, affiliation with the Lakers is all the more unpalatable for those who fancy themselves hard-core basketball fans. Self-conscious Angelenos have been known to sit through nine grueling innings of a Dodgers blowout, if only to defy the stereotype of the blasé L.A. sports fan. These martyrs make up the Clippers audience, too. "Fans who love puuuuure basketball," the 2002-03 Clippers marketing campaign howled—not that the product that the Clippers put on the floor in recent years resembles pure basketball. For us, though, it's the thought that counts.
The Hipster Factor: Particularly during the promising 2001-02 campaign, when exciting upstarts Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson patented their fists-on-skull gesture and the team seemed poised for the playoffs, the Clippers established legitimate cred in Los Angeles. The team averaged more than 18,000 fans per game during the season, and if you strolled through Elysian Park on a Sunday afternoon, you were as likely to see an 11-year-old wearing a Miles jersey as a No. 8 Kobe special. Much of the Clippers' newfound support came from hipsters in the gentrified neighborhoods east of Highland Avenue. These writers, graphic designers, and animators exist in the same professional universe as those inhabiting the lower bowl of Staples during a Lakers game, but they harbor a disdain for their neighbors that can be expressed only though metaphor. And in terms of sports fandom, the Clippers are that metaphor. The Clips are mod indie fare to the Lakers' big-budget studio snore. Even though the team reverted to its cataclysmic depths last season, the label has stuck—the Clips are the team for kids who like to like bands nobody else likes.
The Hollywood Myth: A culture of insatiable dream-chasing permeates the L.A. Basin—you know, that whole Nathanael West-Budd Schulberg thing. Those who buy into the mythology stick with the Lakers, the team that miracles never seem to fail (last season's playoffs excluded). Those of us snakebitten by the Hollywood dream—failed screenwriters, underemployed musicians—flock to the Clippers. We know the percentages of success are stacked against us—not by the Bambino or some mystical goat but by the very real boners of Clips owner Donald Sterling. The Clippers routinely dispense the lowest payroll in the league. And like clockwork, every three years their youthful stars—often among the league's top draft picks—flee to find greener pastures elsewhere. This season, Sterling tempted Clip fans by re-signing intelligent, young players Elton Brand and Corey Maggette to long-term deals worth more than $124 million. Still, we cling to the culture of low expectations. Just making the playoffs would be cause for celebration, and the rare regular season victory over the Lakers is front-of-the-press-guide fodder. The Clippers personify the Angelenos' beleaguered quest for achievement, or, failing that, mere respectability.
I once asked a friend of mine—a gay, black Republican from North Carolina with judicial ambitions—the obvious question, "Why?" "The line was shorter," he replied. At the final preseason game at Staples Center, I was only the fourth bidder in a silent auction for a sharp-looking Clippers Foundation bowling shirt. I'm not certain the price I paid will even offset the write-off for the organization. Membership to Clipperdom has its privileges, among them shorter lines.