It is like every other city. It can have its moments of rage. It can have its moments of kindness. It can have its moments of inspiration. For the last few decades it has had its moments of celebrations. Champions clad in purple covered the confetti laden streets in exhilaration. Los Angeles seemed different then, less ordinary, more personal. But the truth is, it has always been different. It was not horizontal like the sweltering cities in the east. It was not brown like the narrow old cities in the south. It was not damp like the rainy cities in the Midwest. It was not open like the cities in the upper plains, the Montana’s and Dakota’s. Los Angeles was a collection of roads taking you everywhere and cars stuffed like fishermen nets with dreamers. Here they dug and planted roots and became someone else and cut off their wings. Here entire families, entire clans, came from far flung places.
People move when they get tired. The Lakers moved out of Minneapolis for the same reason: it was time to go. Winter was brutal and the money was slow. When Bob Short packed up his team he brought with him Jerry West who was a rookie. Jerry was paired with spectacular forward Elgin Baylor. They played in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, a place with bad acoustics but great sight lines. West and Baylor were a formidable one-two combination. They were the stars. A Laker game meant watching from a distance in the upper seats. They were breathtaking. A Laker game meant watching in celebrity row. They were mesmerizing.
Art is one thing. You see it. You are not quite sure what you are looking at, what it is supposed to represent. Los Angeles was not art. To the naked eye it appeared to be a place in transition, an identity made out of clay. Something was always being torn down and built from the ground up or changed. The second year in town the Lakers had rooted themselves to the relaxed nature of the California lifestyle. Celebrities paid attention, grabbed the front seats and watched in awe this passion play with Baylor and West. The regular season was remarkably easy. The team won fifty four games and reached the NBA finals. The Lakers played the Celtics. In game five of the series Elgin Baylor defied gravity and logic. He scored 61 points, pulled down 22 rebounds although he fouled out the game. However in the 7th game of the series, Frank Selvy missed a game winning shot that would have taken the title. The Lakers lost in overtime. This particular failure would haunt Selvy for the next 40 years, a testament to what losing does to men.
It does not matter what era you play in. Athletes are the same creatures. Losing creates its own paranoia. Lose once and you say things to yourself for comfort. Lose twice and you talk about being unlucky. Lose a third time and you think it is you. You did something wrong. The Lakers kept losing to the Celtics. In 1968 the Lakers acquired the most dominant player in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was a mammoth of a man. He referred to himself as Goliath but Goliath was nothing compared to Wilt. The league changed rules just to accommodate Wilt’s dominance. They widened the lane. They changed free throw and inbounding rules. He was a force. He averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds in his third season, the same season in which he scored 100 points in a game.
After 1968 when Wilt was acquired, the Lakers excellence went unchecked. They appeared in the NBA Finals twenty times over the next forty two years. They would win eleven of their sixteen titles in that period of time. They would retire nine players jerseys. Their most talented players would earn 8 MVP trophies, 4 scoring titles, 6 rebounding tiles, 5 assist titles. Their history would include some of the greatest to ever suit up. It would be a special fraternity that included Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul- Jabaar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant. In a city that gravitated towards illusion and deal making, the super talented athletes shared the fame. But fame is related to winning. Sometimes it is related to dreaming.
You can dream with your eyes open. When you dream this way you see the road. You see where you can possibly fall out. But you don’t want that. You don’t want your heart to be broken again. The Clippers began playing in Los Angeles in 1984. Their tickets were dirt cheap. You could see Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon for a fraction of the cost. In the early years the Clippers were unlucky or poorly managed. Like most bottom feeders, it would get worse before it would get better. It was winning twelve games one particularly miserable year. It only magnified their inability to compete in the city. The Lakers won sixty five games that year and the NBA championship.
Sports in general, basketball in particular, is about accumulating talent. Clippers assembled playoff talent in 1991 with Ron Harper, Danny Manning, Charles Smith and Loy Vaught. In mid season they hired the tough but mercurial Larry Brown as their coach. It was the first time the Clippers had a better record than the Lakers at 45-37, their first winning season since moving to Los Angeles. But very few noticed. The Lakers were still recovering from the Magic Johnson retirement; the city was still mourning his exit.
Light reflects back onto the user. Sometimes there are shadows. The Clippers took a few steps forward. A lot of steps back. In February of 1994 the Clippers traded their most prominent draft pick to date, Danny Manning, to the Atlanta Hawks for an older Dominique Wilkins who averaged twenty nine points and seven rebounds. It did not help much. The Clippers lost seventeen of their last twenty two games. Then in 1998, with the number one pick, the Clippers selected Michael Olowokandi and started the season 0-17.
Success in basketball is a constant search. It is a search for character. It is a search for potential. It is a search for talent. In the draft the Clippers always had opportunities. They passed on Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Shawn Kemp. They passed on Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash. They passed on Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter. But if this is a tragedy, this combination of scouting failures and evaluation mistakes and general incompetence, it is not a real tragedy. It is a sports tragedy, one without cruelty. Of the other kind, what happens in real life to people who do not deserve sorrow but receive it anyway, it was the Clipper team of 1996.
That team was coached by crusty coach Bill Fitch who barked out orders to his players and wore a perpetual scowl. Rarely did he smile. His best players that year were Loy Vaught and Malik Sealy. Malik Sealy was the first to die. He was killed in 2000 in a car crash at the age of 30, still in his basketball prime. The second to die was back up center, Kevin Duckworth, a big burly man whose career success was with the Trailblazers. He died of a heart attack in his hotel room in Oregon in 2008. He was 44 years old and suffering from congenital heart disease. The center on the ’96 team, Lorenzen Wright, had already buried a child. Then seven years later, in 2010, Lorenzen was reported missing. Six days later his body was discovered riddled with bullets in a wooded area. He was thirty four years old, the third to die. But time goes on, isn’t that what they say? A rarely used player, Dwayne Schintzius, a seven footer, was diagnosed with leukemia and at the age of 43 died in Tampa. He was the fourth Clipper death. When they were teammates these fallen players won 36 games. Collectively during that season they averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists. It was enough to get them to the playoffs although they were swept by the Utah Jazz. But games are games. Life is life. Children are left behind. Mothers cry. What matters is this sad twist of fate that had these men in Clipper uniforms one year and then dead in other years. It was sorrowful and devastating, and for their families, and for the organization, unadulterated misery.
And so on opening night in 2013 two organizations who moved to Los Angeles to fulfill their dreams will meet. The Lakers have reigned for fifty years plus. Their success is unparalleled. The Clippers are part of the broken hearted club. They have buried players. They have traded players. They have given up on players. They have passed on players. Even with dynamic Chris Paul they have yet to win a second round playoff series. Nevertheless, the Clippers have made shrewd moves. In a way the franchise is reborn. But you cannot change years or history.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the Lakers are everything the Clippers want to be: heroic, glamorous, titleholders, achievers, worshipped, larger than life. The thing is, no other city in America has ever had this. The best juxtaposed against the worst. For twenty five years the Clippers have represented the cursed while the Lakers have flourished. The Lakers are exceptional only because that is how they think of themselves. You are what your success or failure says you are. So the Clippers hiding championship banners behind photographs of players who have never won anything is corroboration. They want to change the conversation away from how things used to be. The focus is right now. Today. Yes, there are all of those California roads. The Lakers have been on all of them a thousand times. They have been cheered and adored and crowned; Los Angeles will always be a Laker town. But the Clippers are not competing against history or even the Laker organization. It is for the love of the city of Los Angeles and the only thing it cares about. Winning a title.