Commentary

Lakers still the gold standard in L.A.

Despite surge in popularity after offseason overhaul, Clippers chasing Lakers at Staples

Originally Published: January 13, 2012
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Chris Paul and Kobe BryantAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesCP3 and the Clips may be the talk of the town, but the town still belongs to Kobe and the Lakers.

There's only one place to get the proper perspective on the Lakers-Clippers dynamic, the often-dormant rivalry that's been reactivated this season. That would be here on the western baseline at Staples Center, where Jimmy Goldstein sits no matter which basketball teams are playing in the building.

He has been a Lakers season-ticket holder since 1965 and has bought Clippers season tickets since they moved to Los Angeles in 1985. He's a fixture at both of their home games, instantly recognizable in his Roberto Cavalli attire and hat. Always with the hat. Goldstein wore a lime-yogurt-green leather jacket as he discussed the state of pro basketball in the city. A few feet away the Miami Heat were warming up, for the Clippers' biggest game so far … until they play the Lakers on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJames Goldstein
Kent Horner/NBAE via Getty ImagesNBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein says it will take the Clippers some time to win over Los Angeles.

It's not enough for the Clippers to beat Miami. Not if they can't establish superiority in their own building. The Clippers are the only team in the league whose success will always be measured against their cohabitant above anything else.

The Clippers are armed for an overthrow better than they've ever been before. They finally parlayed a No. 1 overall pick into a franchise-altering player with the arrival of Blake Griffin (even if it was delayed for a year by injury), then added Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups and the NBA's most significant player of this offseason, Chris Paul. They move the ball and throw it down through the hoop thanks to Griffin and his fellow big finisher, DeAndre Jordan.

"I think that the Clippers are the most exciting team in the NBA right now," Goldstein said. "Not the best team, but the most exciting team. The fan base, from what I've observed so far, seems to be an extension of what was here before. I don't see celebrities here; I don't see the so-called Westside crowd that you see at the Laker games. It's a completely different crowd."

The "Westside crowd" Goldstein speaks of, the folks from the 310 area code and glamorous places such as Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood and Santa Monica, haven't abandoned their Laker tickets to migrate to the Clipper games. Rihanna did show up at the Clippers' game against the Heat on Thursday … after she had already checked out the Lakers two days earlier. Even when the Clippers do get celebrities, they're secondhand.

The masses have yet to be converted. On Christmas Day, the Lakers-Bulls game, a 2:30 p.m. PT start, averaged a 12.1 rating in Los Angeles and Clippers-Warriors at 7:30 p.m. did a 3.4 rating. On exclusively local broadcasts on the FSN networks, Clipper ratings have ranged from a 0.75 to a 2.57 and the Lakers have ranged from a 3.00 to a 5.28. That's the uphill battle the Clippers face. When it comes to sports -- and perhaps only when it comes to sports -- L.A. craves an established tradition more than shiny new things.

"I think it's going to take some time," Goldstein said. "It may require for the Lakers to go down. And I don't think that's happened yet.

"I think the Lakers are still strong, even though they made the mistake of unloading Lamar [Odom]. I think Kobe [Bryant] is playing at a higher level than he has in a few years. I haven't written off the Lakers. I don't think the Laker fans are ready to switch allegiance yet."

It's only right. The Clippers should have to earn dominant status, not take it by default. With a rejuvenated Bryant dropping 30- and 40-point games on the regular, the Lakers have won four consecutive games to regain their customary spot atop the Pacific Division. The Clippers are a game behind them.

The Clippers have finished ahead of the Lakers before, most recently in 2005-06, but the Clippers have never actually won a division title. That brings up an interesting issue: If the Clippers did win the Pacific, would they dare to hang a banner up among the bevy of banners for the Lakers' 16 championships?

And if the Clippers did start winning banners, there isn't much room to hang them. Would they ask the Lakers to move some of theirs?

Among the four pro teams in Staples Center, the Clippers are the only tenants without a piece of fabric on the wall. The Lakers have their championships, plus a group of retired jerseys worthy of their own wing in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The NHL's Kings have a conference and a division championship and retired numbers that include Wayne Gretzky's famous 99. The WNBA's Sparks have league championship and retired jersey commemorators.

The Clippers? Nothing.

And if the Clippers did start winning banners, there isn't much room to hang them. Would they ask the Lakers to move some of theirs?

There are some tiny turf battles between the Lakers and Clippers. For instance, I get asked a lot why the Clippers don't use the same dramatic lighting as the Lakers do, which focuses the action on the court while the rest of the arena is darker. (You can see good examples of the differences on this sports photography Web site.) The short answer is that the Lakers paid for the additional lights necessary to get that effect, and they consider it as much a part of their unique game experience as the purple and gold court. In other words, the Clippers would have to get their own.

Goldstein doesn't have a rooting preference between the Lakers and Clippers. He's friendly with many of the players on visiting teams and is there to watch them even more than the home team. He's a fan of basketball more than anything else. And he's a fan of the unknown.

"You know what you're getting from the Lakers," Goldstein said. "The Clippers have new players, so that makes it more interesting for me, to have some discoveries and something unexpected, than to know what you're getting before the game even starts."

The comparisons are inevitable. Although the Clippers should theoretically have a broader audience -- their tickets can often be bought for half the cost of the same seat at a Laker game -- they remained confined and defined by the Lakers. The Clippers have given Los Angeles a fresh alternative. The Lakers have given the Clippers a purple-and-gold standard to reach.