LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard slipped into the interview room at Staples Center clad in pearl-white sweats, calling to mind a Jedi sage. His face a mask, he gave no sign of recognizing any reporter, and set to analyzing the just-concluded game with the dispassion of a chess grandmaster.
What, a reporter asked, did you like about your team’s performance?
A long pause. “I enjoyed the third quarter, we got out in transition. That’s the thing I liked.”
That was soon enough of that. Leonard slid out of his chair and was gone.
The next evening, I walked into the Lakers’ postgame locker room in the same arena. Anthony Davis had feet planted in a bucket of ice and a scraggly beard curling out from beneath his hoodie, making him look like a cross between a monk and a stork. Camera people and reporters formed a half-moon around the locker of LeBron James, who 20 minutes later wandered out of the shower, his scalp wrapped in a durag and a towel around his waist.
This aging star cradled a Bose speaker and combed out his beard as he sang along to the rapper Drake:
“I’m only getting older, somebody should have told you …”
He craned his head and tossed a stanza at Davis and another to JaVale McGee and another to Danny Green, and they offered call and response. Pulling on a Dodgers cap, James stood and turned and gave an extended, perceptive take on the night’s victory, even joking about his age, before he excused himself and ambled out the door.
“Wife’s feeling under the weather, man,” he said. “Got to go.”
To wander through the catacombs of Staples Center last month, watching the Lakers and Clippers play a collective five games in four nights, was to observe a curious cohabitation, two of the N.B.A.’s best teams sharing a home arena. Their star players and coaches are as different as Venus and Mars, even as they strive for the same goal: an N.B.A. championship.
That might sound like a Hollywood-scripted battle for the heart of this city, but that would be to overstate. The Clippers can lay strong claim to being a top contender this year, and their Big Tech oligarch owner, Steve Ballmer, has waged a six-year guerrilla war to claim the hearts and minds of Angelenos, building dozens of Clippers-logo-emblazoned basketball courts and decking out youth teams in Clippers colors.
But this city long ago settled on a single beau: the Lakers.
The Lakers have those 16 championship banners swinging in the Staples Center rafters along with all those retired jerseys of players who need only a single name — Magic and Kareem and Elgin and Wilt and Shaquille and Kobe.
The deaths of Bryant and his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in January served to underline an umbilical connection between team and city, as Angelenos figuratively draped themselves in gold and purple mourning crepe. Suffused with sympathy and memories and grief, the city’s basketball mood shifted in the days and weeks that followed, as talk of rivalry took a timeout.
A few weeks before the accident, though, a Sunday in early January offered me the basketball equivalent of a full eclipse of the moon: a hoops doubleheader. The Clippers played in the afternoon against the hapless (a needless adjective) Knicks, and the Lakers took the gym back that evening for a game against the Detroit Pistons. It was the kind of day when one might reasonably take a measure of the town’s basketball temperature.
On Jan. 5, I wandered to the 20th row at Staples before the laser shows and virtual reality nuttiness kicked in to talk with the tattooed master barber Robert Echiribel. A customer at his Santa Monica shop, Active Barbers, had handed him freebie tickets to the Clippers, but he cautioned me not to confuse his presence with his loyalties.
“I’m Lakers, man, all my life,” he said. “The Clippers got all the right pieces, but let’s face it: The reason I’m here is that the ticket is free.”
He pointed at the rafters, disgusted. Before every Clippers game, the team drops sheets of fabric and hides those Lakers banners. “You are sharing someone’s home and when you walk in the room, you don’t take down their photos,” he said. “It’s a sign of disrespect.”
Clippers fans were not too hard to find, though. The team invariably sells out. Al and Irma Lopez, retirees, sat 15 rows back under the basket and commended the team for offering measurably cheaper seats — about half the going price for Lakers games. But they admitted they were a touch lonely.
“Not only all my friends are Laker fans, so are my two sons,” Al Lopez said. “They talk banners and stuff and I say, ‘Yeah, but we got the winners.’”
The Clippers’ biggest stars, Leonard and Paul George, possess a home-born advantage, as the men came of age on the exurban jack-rabbit desert fringes to which so many working-class Los Angeles-area families have been consigned by the economics of a city as grossly expensive as New York.
But street cred buys only so much love. The Clippers opened their home schedule against the Lakers this season, and when Leonard — the team’s marquee signing, a champion fresh off a title last year with Toronto — took the microphone to say a few words, the Lakers fans who had jammed the arena showered him with boos.
Not long afterward, Leonard attended an L.A. Rams football game and his smiling face appeared on the scoreboard, and again: Boooooooooo.
I hopped in a car and drove through sun-washed Los Angeles (Note to my editor: Yes, I suggested this story in January for a reason) in search of incipient Clipper love. I nosed south toward working- and middle-class Inglewood, where the Clippers plan to build a Spaceship Enterprise of a new arena along Century Boulevard. I found a hoops court painted in Clippers colors, and players in Lakers purple and gold jerseys.
Yo, any Clipper fans here?
Ray Guidos stopped bouncing his basketball, squinted and shook his head at that fool question.
“Man, you’re going to have trouble finding Clippers,” he explained, though by then I didn’t need an explanation. “It’s Lakers, Lakers, Lakers.”
I drove on and pulled into a parking lot less than a mile from the site of the proposed arena and chatted with Ray Guevara, a young security guard outside a Ross Dress for Less. He watches the Clippers happily enough — if the Lakers are not on. “Truth is,” he said, “it’s a Laker town.”
I nodded, and nosed the car back toward Staples Center.
Guests at Home
As Staples belongs to the Lakers, the Clippers play more than their fair share of noon games in Los Angeles, a bio-rhythmic travesty for players and coaches accustomed to working nights. Coach Doc Rivers, eyes red and watery from too many nights of staring at too many game films, made no attempt to hide his distaste.
“I hate afternoon games,” he said during my visit, leaning into the verb.
And his players?
“I don’t even ask them, because I’m afraid of their answers.”
Rivers, 58, is a quick-to-laugh boulevardier; Frank Vogel, 46, the Lakers coach, affects the persona of an insurance adjuster. He lets his stars toss down the personality.
Rivers tells the gathered reporters that he has not a clue if Leonard, whose chronically achy legs caused him to miss 22 games last season, will play this game. He rarely plays on consecutive nights, a strategy designed to ensure his availability for the games to come that will matter more.
“I wait for the medical staff to tell me,” Rivers said.
That approach has led to oblique locker room grumbling. Respect but not love accrues for this star. A day earlier, the Clippers dropped a game to the pitiful Pistons, and Clippers center Montrezl Harrel, a burly dreadlocked Range Rover of a man, sounded as if he had had enough.
“We’re not a great team — you have to get out of your mind,” he told us. “We have two players who have never been a part of this team.”
The players in question were its stars.
The Clippers’ game against the Knicks, a team last competitive during the administration of James Garfield, was a free-shooting affair. While Leonard rested, George dominated, with fallback jumpers stolen from Kobe Bryant, who had stolen the move from Michael Jordan. In the N.B.A., admiration is expressed through creative theft.
George finished with 32 points. But the Knicks, no one’s idea of an offensive juggernaut, scored 69 points in the first half. What, reporters asked Rivers, did you tell your players at halftime?
“Guard someone,” he replied.
The Clippers remain a Jaguar firing on half of its allotted cylinders. As Leonard is rarely heard, and George — who also is now injured — can be prickly, Rivers takes the role of the lightning rod.
Did you put too much pressure on your veteran Patrick Beverley by asking him to play the unaccustomed role of point guard? A reporter might have thought he was poking at the coach.
“Yeah, that was stupid, terrible coaching!” he said.
After the game, the Clippers banners rolled up and that flotilla of gold-and-purple Lakers championship banners once again floated free. An usher pointed at a seat near courtside. “That one was $180 for the Clippers,” he said. “It’s $400 for the Lakers.”
Financial common sense, he said, has made Clippers fans of some of his friends.
The Lakers locker room was a Chateau Marmont, that stylish old stars and starlets hotel, for the elegantly attired. Kyle Kuzma, his hair dyed molten gold, peeled off his silk shirt and cashmere sweater and leopard-print pants Davis paused to whisper a joke to James, whose couture is rarely less than au courant.
The Lakers have stars to spare. Rajon Rondo, once a Celtic point guard and inveterate antagonist of all things Lakers, mans the backup point. Center Dwight Howard, whose egocentrism has caused him to cycle through six teams in the last eight years, ran around tossing up his arms in mock LeBron style, claiming the role of court jester.
No Laker paid him any mind.
The team took the floor against the Pistons with a Globetrotter-like spin and whirl, behind the back passes and soaring blocks. James, at 35 an ancient in the world of the N.B.A., lacks quite the old lift on his jump shot, so he has covertly aged by reincarnating himself as Magic Johnson and becoming the league’s best passer.
He came downcourt, putting the ball once, twice between his legs, and with a sleight of hand flipped the ball into the air to Davis, who, like a 6-foot-10 wide receiver, caught and tossed it through the hoop.
The joint went wild.
James took a seat with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Lakers cashed another win.
By then, my Los Angeles visit was near an end, and still questions nagged. Is this a proper rivalry? Could the Clippers and the Lakers ignite something as insanely tribal as the old Celtics-Lakers rivalry, that war of six decades’ vintage?
I put the question to Vogel. “You want to beat every good team,” the insurance adjuster told me.
Thanks a lot.
I sidled up to Rivers and heard something more satisfying. A former Knick point guard, he had learned to love hating the Chicago Bulls. “I love anything with animosity in pro sports, love it,” he said. “We’re not there yet but we might get it in the playoffs. Anger gives you that extra juice.”
Cool. Then another question occurred: If the Clippers beat the Lakers this spring and go on to take the championship, would Los Angeles fans finally embrace them? I posed that one to Echiribel, the Santa Monica barber.
If that happens, he said, “It will be like, ‘OK, cool, maybe I’ll go to the parade.’”
Then he paused and added: “If I don’t have to work or meet someone for lunch.”
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