If you had told me last year after I watched the Washington Wizards take on the Los Angeles Clippers in California that I'd be back again after just one year, I'd have said you were crazy. But here I am writing this blog post after four days of work and the past two nights over at Staples Center watching my beloved Wizards take on not just the Clippers, but the Lakers as well. Two nights ago, I watched my team win their first division championship in my 17 year and counting run as a season ticket holder. Unfortunately, we couldn't pull out a second win in as many nights against the Clips on a night when defense was mysteriously absent in the first three quarters and Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter were mysteriously absent in the fourth quarter.
I can't remember the last time the Wizards played the Clippers and Lakers back to back in Los Angeles. It may actually have never happened. I loved it because I got to see the Wiz two nights in a row without having to move anywhere. I also loved it because the contrast between going to a game featuring the Lakers, who are very definitely one of the two most successful franchises in NBA history, rather than the Clippers, who are very much the upstart ugly stepsister of the pair, is interesting to see on back to back nights. There's a lot to compare and contrast there. I'm picking six things, because the best things in life come in six packs. Read on.
1. Ticket Prices
As of the end of last night's game, the Clippers are 45-31 and sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference. They've qualified for the postseason already and are very definitely in a fight with the Utah Jazz to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers, on the other hand as of last night, are just 21-52 and are in last place in the Conference. They are already eliminated from the postseason but in some happy news for Lakers fans, they will not set a franchise lowest wins in a season mark for the third straight year.
Know whose tickets cost more on the secondary market? The Lakers for sure. I bought my tickets for both games on StubHub (whom I LOVE) and looked in the upper deck, the Premier level (the equivalent of Verizon Center's 200 level with a little extra), the lower level and the center three sections of the lower level. The cheapest ticket I could find in each of those sections for the Clippers game was $11.96, $57.20, $48.35 and $141.30 respectively. Prices for the Lakers game in those four spots were lows of $27.90, $36.32, $85.47 and $175.95. More expensive across the board except in the Premier seats, where I ended up sitting. As good as the Clips are, the Lakers are still the show.
On the north side of Staples Center there is a plaza which serves as the primary entrance to the arena. Scattered about the plaza near that entrance are a series of seven statues: one of Wayne Gretzky, one of Oscar De La Hoya, one of legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn and four of Lakers legends who brought the team championship contenders and NBA titles. The Lakers own the outside of Staples. There is very little signage hung on the building to suggest this is the home of the Lakers. They don't have to. Their former players are everywhere in bronze form.
So what happens before a Clippers game? Well, there's a very large banner hung from the roof and there's some kind of outdoor broadcast booth erected in Star Plaza (that's the name of the place; it's just missing Clippers' stars) in an in vain attempt to draw attention from their big brother Lakers. There's an obvious inferiority complex on display that wouldn't be there if they didn't share the facility with a way more successful team. There are no Wizards statues in front of Verizon Center. But there are also no other teams' statues mocking the lack of success of our franchise.
Ahh the harmony...
When I walked in Staples Center I was handed a program with the words "Remembering 1987" on the front, a reference to the 30 year anniversary of one of the Lakers' championship teams led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was both appropriate and sad. That team is worth celebrating but there's also nothing current to make any noise about if you are the Lakers. But I have to tell you, Lakers fans show up. Wearing Magic Johnson jerseys, Shaquille O'Neal jerseys and Kobe Bryant jerseys. They are living in the past because there's nothing good about the present but they are there in all their delusion about their team.
Clips fans? Well there are some but I'm not sure how much they believe. Sure there were a few Chris Paul jerseys, plenty of Blake Griffin jerseys and maybe one or two DeAndre Jordan jerseys but all the jerseys are shiny new. There's a feeling that folks are jumping on the bandwagon and they are hoping like heck that the Clips redeem them. I saw a number of Wizards shirts and jerseys at the Lakers game but there were (in my informal survey of the building) more Wiz fans on the second night vs. the Clippers. This is a fan base that wants to believe but doesn't feel confident about it. I guess that's better than being a just wanting to believe but knowing there's no hope Lakers fan.
4. The Banners
Gaze toward the west end (at least I think it's the west end) of Staples Center during a Lakers game and you'll see a lot of gold banners with purple stitching on them hanging above the upper level of seating, one for each of the 11 titles the team has won since they moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and one for the remaining five the team won in Minneapolis (which admittedly is not purple and gold but blue and gold). There are no division championship banners or conference championship banners; the additional 54 (!!!) banners that would be required for that display would just clutter up the building rafters. It's pretty impressive I have to say. Especially if you are a Clippers fan.
The night after I took a couple of pics of the Lakers' banners, I returned to Staples and took a similar photo of that end of the building during the Clippers game. All I can say is it's a good thing they can print large banners with the likenesses of players who have never won a championship or even made it to the Conference Finals. The Clippers made it their first 41 seasons in the league without winning a thing before winning a division title in years 42 and 43 (2013 and 2014). I thought they'd at least have those two hanging in the building but I guess I either couldn't find them or they are not there. Maybe there's a rule in the building if you don't win it all, you don't get to hang any laundry. If that's a rule, the Clips have to hate that one.
5. The Intros
So far in this post, I've dissed the Clippers pretty heavily. I think as a Wizards fan I have the chops (if that's the right word and I'm pretty sure it isn't) to do that. But if there's one spot the Clippers have the Lakers beat, it's in this department, but maybe not for the reason you expect.
If you are an NBA franchise, no matter how good or bad you are, it seems like you have to have a lights out (I mean that literally) special effects type video for the introductions of the starting lineups (this year the Wiz have three, one of which features Jason Smith playing Skee-ball which is the best thing ever). If you are good, these things can be awesome; if you are not, they seem a little silly. The Clips are good and their pyrotechnics and laser show let's get ready to rumble starting lineup intro is appropriately scaled. The Lakers are not good. Theirs is a bit sad.
I don't think I've seen a starting lineup announcement quite like the Lakers use. After they turn out the lights, they drop two enormous curtains from the scoreboard to form a cylinder of fabric on which they project way larger than life images of their star players and blast music to get the crowd fired up. And by "star players" I mean Nick Young, D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. etc. etc. Sort of a lot of fuss for those guys, right? I know I've made fun of the Clippers for being historically bad in this post, but they win this one.
6. The Game
Celebrating the Clippers in this post is short lived. I've only made it to about half the arenas in the NBA but if there are two franchises which get game lighting right, it's the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
When I go to a basketball game, I want the focus squarely on the court, not on the crowd. I want the playing surface lit brilliantly like a Broadway musical or a movie stage set. I don't care how good the team hosting the game is (and let's face it the Knicks and Lakers are awful), you ought to light the building like you mean it. That means the court brilliantly lit up and the stands dark to make the lighting on the court that much more bright by contrast. They get this in New York and they get this in Lakerland. The bright lights make the court and the jerseys of the two teams stand out so theatrically, I don't understand why all arenas don't do this. Sure it makes it difficult to see your cup holder when you are done taking a swig of your beer but who cares? It's what's on the court that counts.
The Clippers don't get this. Nor do the Wizards and many many many other NBA franchises. At a Lakers game you can't see the crowd; at a Clippers game, you can. And there's nothing wrong with the way the Clips do it until you take in a Lakers game. It's almost like they are doing it differently to just be different without realizing that the value is so much less. Actually, that would be historical Clippers to a tee.
DeAndre, Jamal, Blake, J.J. and Chris. Those guys or banners. Take your pick.
I'm disappointed that I've seen the Wizards lose twice in a row to the Clippers in Los Angeles but I'm for sure not disappointed in any way that I leveraged a work assignment to get out here twice in one week to see the Wiz take on Los Angeles' finest (and not finest I guess). Traveling to new places or places you have been before enriches life's experiences. I wouldn't have missed the Wizards clinching their first division title since 1979 for the world, and I'm glad things came together so I could see them do it in person in L.A. I feel I deserved that experience, no matter where it happened and I feel lucky that I was in the right place at the right time.
There's one other story worth telling here. Before the Lakers game the first night, I had my cab driver drop me off at El Cholo on Flower Street just a couple of blocks from Staples. El Cholo was the joint that introduced nachos to Los Angeles (and perhaps the entire United States by extension) in 1959. Over a plate of Carmen's Nachos I met my new friend Clem and we spent 30 minutes or so talking hoops, from Lonzo Ball (Clem thinks his dad talks to much and he's right) to west coast vs. east coast in the NCAA final four (I'm pulling for South Carolina; Clem wants Gonzaga or Oregon) to this year's NBA MVP (Clem's looking at Russell Westbrook; I hope I convinced him James Harden is first followed by John Wall).
I love random encounters with basketball fans. Clem bought Lakers season tickets some years ago with some friends and had them for a few seasons but really loves all sports. I know I talked with this guy for just half an hour in my life but I wish him the best. And I'm glad his Lakers lost to my Wizards. And I'm sure I'd be happy for him if his team beat mine and won their first championship (yes, I know it's JUST a division) in 38 years. Can't we just all get along? Going home tomorrow late. Go Wizards.
Jordan (the wrong one), Wall, dude with a Wizards hat and Jordan (the right one but only just).