Commentary

Ready for their close-up

Originally Published: July 11, 2013
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Chris PaulAP Photo/Reed SaxonSign of the times: Ryan Hollins, left, and Chris Paul are pretty happy to be on the Clippers.

In Los Angeles, there are hard-and-fast rules. The star of the movie walks the red carpet last. Valets park the Teslas in front, Toyotas in the back. The Lakers eat filet and the Clippers gristle.

That's what makes these strange days in L.A. That third rule is suddenly upside-down.

Wednesday, for instance, the Clippers called a news conference and people came.

Then Clippers freshly re-signed forward Matt Barnes said something previously unheard in the history of the English language: "I wanted to win, so I picked the Clippers."

Excuse me?

And a few days ago, the Clippers' all-universe point guard, Chris Paul, who just re-upped himself, walked into one of the hottest shoe stores in L.A., Fight Club, only to find zero Clippers caps, as usual.

"But this time was different!" Paul glows. "The guy told me they were sold out of them! Sold out! So that's progress, right?"

Meanwhile, 70 feet down the hall at Staples, the Lakers are a yard sale. Kobe Bryant is trying to rehab an Achilles injury that could take another six months. The team failed to sign the big superstar center it always used to sign -- Dwight Howard, who defected to Houston, of all places. And the Lakers answered the Clippers' boffo six-player signing news conference with their own, ahem, press release announcing the signing of backup center Robert Sacre.

Wow. Light me a sparkler.

We're through the looking glass here, people: I have the Clippers winning 20 more games than the Lakers this coming season, improving on the 11 more they won last season. Las Vegas has the Clippers at 15-1 to win the title, versus 40-1 for the Lakers. The Clippers have the better coach (newly signed Doc Rivers), the better shooters (just signed J.J. Redick plus Jared Dudley), Lob City versus Bald City (Blake Griffin versus Chris Kaman) and a healthier, younger superstar (Paul versus Bryant).

Yes, the Lakers are still the shoe and the Clippers the gum, but things are about to get sticky for the status quo in Hollywoodland.

"When I was a Clipper the first time [nine years ago]," Barnes says, "we were just the JV team. Our home games against the Lakers were really just Lakers home games. We were nowhere. But now, anywhere we go in the country, I see Clippers stuff. I mean, Oklahoma City, Miami, everywhere."

The Clippers swept the Lakers for the first time in their history last season (4-0). They sold out every game (94 straight sellouts now). They won their first Pacific Division banner (which they won't dare put up). All of which got coach Vinny Del Negro fired.

They went out to Memphis in six games in the first round, which tormented Paul. "All I kept focusing on was 4-2, 4-2," he says. "Drove me crazy."

He won't admit it, but sources say he wanted a new coach of his own choosing, even to the point of naming the interviewees. He wound up with Rivers, the most popular one in the league. Then the team got him shooters he needed, the chippiness he wanted in Barnes, and some point guard help in UCLA product Darren Collison.

"I'm so excited, I almost feel like a rookie again," he says.

OK, so the Clippers are still going to be the dinghy to the Lakers' yacht. Their locker room is still going to be smaller than the Lakers'. The cost of a courtside seat for the Clippers is still going to be $1,650 four digits less than for the Lakers. The Lakers are still going to thump the Clippers in retired jerseys (9-0), championship banners (16-0) and statues in front of Staples Center (3-0). But until the Lakers reload in 2014-15, it will be the Clippers riding shotgun in L.A. and the Lakers in the trunk.

Progress: "When I was growing up in Pasadena, I was a Lakers fan," says Clippers center Ryan Hollins. "The Clippers were so bad that when they were playing anybody but you, you rooted for them. You wanted them to win a few games. But now, it's all different. Now it's a passionate rivalry. I know families that this rivalry has torn up. Lakers fans hate us now. I guess that's a compliment, right?"

Progress: When Paul threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game last year, he was booed by Dodgers fans. How dare you not pick the Lakers? When he threw out the first pitch this year, he was cheered. Hey, you're really good!

Progress: At the Westfield Mall, less than a mile from the Clippers' practice facility, Clippers stuff is finally starting to bloom among the fields of purple and gold. At Foot Locker on Wednesday, I counted Lakers caps over Clippers caps 19-4. That's an improvement. Used to be 25-1. At Lids, they had 110 more Lakers caps. Used to be 200. Even at the Team Store at Staples Center on a neutral day, the Clippers are up to a 4-1 deficit.

[+] EnlargeStaples Center Store
Rick ReillyThe souvenir shop at Staples Center won't look like this much longer.
Now the Clippers have to help themselves.

Why do the Clippers allow every home game to be played under the weight of all those Lakers championship banners and retired jerseys? When you see a concert at Staples Center, those banners are covered up with a black cloth. Why don't the Clippers cover them up? What Clippers fans want to be reminded of all that ... Lakerness ... every time they look up? I get that AEG, which owns Staples, owns 25 percent of the Lakers and 0 percent of the Clippers, but still... Do the McCoys have Hatfield pictures up at home?

This is a new time in Los Angeles. The wizard of Beverly Hills, owner Jerry Buss, is dead and, so far, the new Busses are late in arriving. The Clippers actually outdrew the Lakers at home last year -- by 229 people per game. And although the old stars such as Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon keep hobbling up to their Lakers seats, plenty of newly minted stars, such as Rihanna, Jessica Alba and Kate Upton, have been seen cheering on the Clippers.

You understand this is like trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper. It's still not easy being blue. Barnes went into the Team Store at Staples this Christmas to get some stuff for his family. Neither team was playing that day. Yet Barnes found only wall-to-wall Lakers gear. The clerk explained that all the Clippers stuff was on the other side of the reversible wall.

"We'd have to turn the wall around," the clerk explained.

"So turn it around!" Barnes barked.

Not a bad motto.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com