Thirty-six hours after the Phoenix Suns eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs, Los Angeles' top sports-radio station was still playing promos for the "Hallway Series" between the Lakers and Clippers. Now, more than a week later, Angelenos finally seem to understand that the Lakers are gone. For Clipper fans, it's as if a giant brush cutter plowed the city's sports landscape to make way for the saplings. Signs of Clipperhood have sprouted all over town. Elton Brand jerseys dotted the loge level of Dodger Stadium during the recent homestand. The cashier at the 7-Eleven on Overland sported an LAC cap. And though he was entirely unconvincing, my refrigerator delivery guy professed a long-standing dual loyalty to both the Lakers and Clippers upon seeing my autographed Shaun Livingston jersey.
Now that Kobe and Phil's team has vacated the Staples Center—the Lakers' and Clippers' shared arena—the red "Welcome to Clipper Nation" banner will be up indefinitely. In the "Team L.A. Store" inside Staples, where merchandise is typically split down the middle, there is now Clippers' Anschluss as their gear has encroached the imaginary border. The Kobe "81" shirts are gone, and a creepy, grainy Sam Cassell floating-head T-shirt is flying off the racks. Outside on the concourse, the entire crowd is decked in free, cherry-red "Clipper Nation" T-shirts.
Among the other strange sights at a Clippers playoff game: a press row that's full of press. During losing regular seasons past, kids would overrun the empty upstairs press area. In Game 4, Corey Maggette tumbled into a pile of cameramen seated at the base of the basket—real estate previously occupied only by ball boys. Even the Clippers Spirit choreographed a new number, to the delight of my neighbors and my co-season-ticket holder. They came out to Mötley Crüe's "Smokin' in the Boys Room" dressed in Catholic schoolgirl garb like Mia Kirshner in Exotica: starched white blouse tied above the midriff, black tie, short skirt.
With the series tied 1-1 and the cheerleaders in playoff form, the Clippers came home for Game 3 with boffo momentum. The plan was that the Clippers would try the Lakers' strategy of pounding the ball inside against Phoenix's small, quick lineup ... and have the personnel to pull it off. Sure enough, the Clips executed their game plan to perfection. The only problem with Friday night's grind-it-out 94-91 game: They lost. Walking out of Staples down 2-1 felt like taking a stroll down Boston's Yawkey Way circa the late 20th century. A familiar breed of fatalism took hold on 12th Street and Figueroa Avenue: You work hard, you play by the rules, and whaddya have to show for it in life? Nada.
But before Game 4, something serendipitous happened: Chris Kaman hurt his shoulder. With their starting center on the sidelines, the Clippers were forced to play the Suns' fast-paced style. Shockingly, the less-quick Clippers were able to trap the Suns and hold the finest 3-point team in the league to under 30 percent shooting. On the offensive end, the Clippers sniffed out every mismatch and posted up the defenseless Suns whenever and wherever. When the game came down to the closing minutes, the Clippers' big guns, Cassell and Brand, took and made the big shots. Clippers 114, Suns 107.
Like any Third World country on its way to prosperity, Clipper Nation has disowned its shoddy past. For Clipper fans, 2006 is Year Zero in Los Angeles basketball, and the long shadows of the Lakers championship banners are receding. In fact, the Clippers' success this year is a direct result of not emulating the Lakers. In the summer of 2004, Kobe Bryant passed up Clippers owner Donald Sterling's huge contract offer to re-sign with the purple and gold. At that moment, the Clips cemented their image as a team of relatively uncharismatic, unselfish role players. It's a perfect match for a fan base that sees itself as middle class and not so gullible about Hollywood stardom.
No NBA team has star players with smaller egos. Elton Brand is the consummate lunch-pail guy, an undersized power forward who battles for every offensive board. Corey Maggette throws himself into the lane with reckless abandon—anything to get to the line. The 7-footer Kaman looks like a lost member of a Whitesnake reunion tour but has the footwork of a ballerina. And, finally, the Clips traded a couple of spare parts for Sam Cassell, a mouthy point guard who knows every trick in the book. If the Clippers roster is full of hard-working stiffs, then Cassell is the bombastic union chief.
On Sunday night, Clippers fans celebrated Cassell's heroics atthe Palm steakhouse across the street from Staples Center. According to the staff at the front of the house, Clipper fans sport more facial hair than their Laker counterparts and are less apt to yap on their cell phones while dining. Fans at the bar were glued to ESPN, incredulous that their team was leading off Sunday night's SportsCenter.Now, with the Clippers-Suns series tied 2-2, the vatos in Elysian Park are assembling Clipper flags atop their low-riders. And on sports radio, Hacksaw says there's an open line … and he wants to talk Clippers basketball.