My earliest memory of the Los Angeles Lakers was attending one of their basketball games at the Great Western Forum in 1999. Even then I knew it was a weird time in Lakers history. The Lakers, of course, are Los Angeles’ storied sports franchise. They are the second winningest club in National Basketball Association (NBA) history behind only the Boston Celtics, and they are considered one of the most successful franchises in all of sports. But in 1999, despite having a roster consisting of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the team had been losing games, and their underperforming resulted in the firing of one head coach earlier in the year and the replacing of his replacement shortly thereafter. Lakerland had grown so desperate to turn things around that they even signed Dennis Rodman, floating in post-Bulls waywardness, to the kind of contract that seemed to say, What the hell else have we got to lose?
Though it yielded a nice string of wins to begin with, the Dennis Rodman experiment was short-lived. Lakers fans and personnel alike hoped that Rodman’s erratic presence would somehow jolt the team into a flurry of energised winning, but Rodman seemed to lose interest and ended up playing in only 23 games before his contract was terminated. My clearest memory of that night was the way his gold-dyed hair looked like the popcorn on an MTV Movie Award statue and him sitting at the end of the bench during the fourth quarter with his arms crossed and a towel over his head.
This was before the Lakers became the team I would grow up watching. Thinking back to that game in 1999, I can’t help but feel like the entire Lakers organisation just wanted this particular era to end, just so they could start a new one, one that involved more wins and championships. The franchise hadn’t really gone through a rebuilding process since relocating to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960, and this first one was already taking too long. This was the team’s last season playing at the Forum, archaic in atmosphere even then, the vestiges of the ’70s and ’80s, decades when the Lakers were almost always top contenders, hung so oppressively in the air that even I felt wistfully nostalgic for those years, and I wasn’t even alive for much of it. I have since become interested in histories and perhaps this is partly where the feeling stems from. Sometimes the things I’ve read about and the things I’ve actually experienced blend together into a skewed, rosy nostalgia, one that somehow combines that which happened and that which I feel should’ve or could’ve happened. Anyone interested in the past might be prone to this feeling of being ensnared by it, a kind of a priori prison of the mind.
As underwhelming a memory as that was, my first memory of the Los Angeles Clippers was even lower. In the same NBA lockout season of 1999, which was shortened to 50 games from the usual 82, the Clippers started off 0-17. I had just started playing basketball and wondered why the Clippers didn’t just sign me to a what-the-hell-else-have-we-got-to-lose contract, but I didn’t pine for it that deeply because I had never watched the Clippers. Still, just hearing the news around the league that the Clippers lost another game was enough to make me assume that putting on a Clippers uniform in those days sounded like a rather difficult thing to do.
Unlike the Lakers, who endured the occasional ire of their fans for underperforming, I wasn’t too sure whether the Clippers had any fans at all. In contrast to the rich history of the Lakers franchise, the Clippers have been mostly the butt of every joke, or at least as many times as they’ve been on the losing end of competition. Historically speaking, and especially during the late ’90s and early naughts (my adolescent years) in Los Angeles, the Clippers were considered perhaps the worst franchise in all of sport.
The advent of the 1999-2000 NBA season held much promise for Lakers fans. The team welcomed Phil Jackson, the man who coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the aforementioned Dennis Rodman to multiple NBA championships, as their new head coach, hoping that their own young stars would buy into Jackson’s singular, more philosophical approach. The organisation ushered in this new age by playing their first year in the newly built Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. They would share the large arena with the other Los Angeles basketball team, the Clippers.
Venue was just about the only thing the two teams had in common, as the 1999-2000 season was much more lopsided. The Lakers posted a league-best 67-15 record and would go on to win their first championship since 1988. The team’s season included a 19-game winning streak (the sixth-longest in NBA history), the first league MVP award for Shaquille O’Neal, and the first championship for the Jackson-led squad, co-fronted of course by basketball’s most legendary odd couple, O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who would lead the Lakers to two more consecutive championships, thus marking yet another important era in Lakers lineage.
Once again in contrast, the Clippers that season posted a league-worst 15-67 record, which was astonishingly an improvement from the previous season’s woeful 9-41 record during the lockout. For Angelenos, especially Lakers fans, having the two teams now share an arena was too rich a dichotomy. Los Angeles was once again Lakerland; the Clippers were now just crashing on the couch.
My family has always been a Lakers family. One day my dad called my mom at work, telling her that he and the kids were in the area, and offered to bring her lunch. (My mom worked as a nurse at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, which coincidentally is the Lakers’ official team hospital.) What my mom didn’t know was that my dad took my brothers and me to the sports apparel shop before the taco stand. I don’t know whether it was something he had planned or the sudden impulse buy of a proud father, but soon his three boys were all outfitted in gold Lakers jerseys. My younger brother and I both wore Bryant’s #8, while my youngest brother, a tiny toddler, wore big Shaq’s #34. It must’ve been one of my mom’s better, if not more perplexing, lunch breaks, walking out onto the hospital parking lot, seeing her three Filipino boys sporting fresh bowl haircuts and Lakers jerseys. She did, after all, occasionally refer to us as her basketball team.
My family would always watch Lakers games together, usually after dinner or, on Sundays, after coming back from church. (In fact, my family would determine which mass to attend based on the Lakers’ Sunday schedule.) My dad was a longtime Lakers fan. He has also always been a very orderly person. Laker wins, especially now that they were happening again, were part of sports world order, something he could count on happening, something he could take pleasure and comfort in whenever things worked out the way they were expected to. I think he admired an organisation built on greatness, and each game was like a good workout or a successful automobile check-up. Everything was in fine working order. My mother used to root for the Celtics when she first started seeing my dad, but I think it was only to get his goat. It wasn’t long before she rooted alongside him. In terms of excitement, the Showtime-era Lakers were the hottest ticket in American sports at that time, and I like to believe that the Lakers played some part in bringing my parents closer together, much in the same way they eventually did my entire family.
If it weren’t for the Lakers, I don’t know how often I would’ve spoken to my parents as a teenager. The Lakers brought us all together a guaranteed four nights a week, a family game night of a different tradition. While the television screen replaced the kitchen table as the thing we all faced during dinner on those nights, game nights were always us at our effortlessly closest. During family gatherings, of which there were many, anytime the Lakers were scheduled to play, the game became the reason for the gathering, and everyone seemed to forget which Auntie’s birthday it happened to be, including the Auntie in question, who stood next to the television screen so she could read the score.
Meanwhile, the Clippers did little in the way of reminding most Angelenos that the Lakers weren’t the only ball club in town. People say everyone loves an underdog, but that can’t be true. Los Angeles wouldn’t be Lakerland if that were the case, and the Bulls in the ’90s and the Heat today wouldn’t have fan bases either. While it might be more accurate to say that everyone might enjoy an upset victory every now and then—a small surprise within a system that, quite frankly, seems to have been always built on expectations—the fact of the matter is that not every fan can handle so much losing.
But then again, how does one explain the fact that New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs have such diehard supporters? Can anyone explain the allure of the underdog? Does it have something to do with justice? Justice that comes with surprise in the face of expectation?
The Clippers were a bit different. While the Mets and the Cubs still filled their stadiums, the Clippers struggled in their fan attendance just as much as their record. I knew nothing of the team, though I never disliked them. In fact, I can’t recall any hatred for the Clippers from any of the Laker fans I knew growing up. There was no rivalry, so there was no hatred. The Clippers were just another sub-.500 team that happened to share an arena with the World Champions.
I happened to start watching the Clippers simply because I loved watching basketball and the Lakers didn’t play every night. So on Lakers off-nights, I settled for second best, or twenty-ninth best, and watched the Clippers play and, very often, lose. The team would win about once a month, and whenever that happened I felt a specific kind of joy. The Lakers won almost all of their games; in fact, they lost about as seldom as the Clippers won. The Lakers were expected to win, so even in nail-biting, close victories, the joy I felt in a Lakers victory felt like something much closer to relief.
The Clippers team I first came to know was made up largely of rookies and second- and third-year players. Kids, essentially. This was before the NBA set an age requirement for players at nineteen, in response to an influx of talented and highly-scouted high school basketball players foregoing college and entering the NBA draft instead. Because of the team’s perennially low standing, the Clippers were always rewarded with high draft picks year after year. Their 2000-2001 roster regularly featured three rookies on the floor at the same time—20-year-olds Keyon Dooling and Quentin Richardson, and 19-year-old Darius Miles—playing along ‘elder statesman’ Lamar Odom, the 21-year-old team captain, and Michael Olowokandi, who was 25. For the most part, their collective inexperience kept them from winning more games, but their collective youth began to win me over. After all, I was a kid, too. I was short and scrawny and played with a chip on my shoulder, and so I experienced from time to time that unique thrill in proving someone wrong.
Clipper wins were thrilling because they were few and far between. For much of the time, watching these kids get blown out by older, experienced teams like the San Antonio Spurs or the Indiana Pacers grew tiresome, which kept my Clippers fandom at second rate, something they were used to. My family never watched the Clippers, so whenever the Lakers and Clippers had separate games televised on the same night, we would watch the Lakers. On those rare occasions that I’d be watching a Lakers game by myself, I’d switch over to the Clippers game during timeouts and commercial breaks.
The mid-2000s brought outlier seasons for both Los Angeles franchises. The 2004-2005 NBA season marked the first time the Clippers posted a better regular season record than the Lakers, winning three more games than Los Angeles’ ‘A-Team’. It was also the first time in many years that the Lakers failed to make the playoffs, joining their crosstown brothers in an extended summer vacation. This was the first season Kobe Bryant played without Shaquille O’Neal, who was traded to the Miami Heat in the offseason. Bryant, eager to prove his worth as a leader capable to winning on his own, played that way, attempting too much and thus winning too little. Additionally, without the likes of Phil Jackson to tether and ground Bryant’s out-of-control basketball behaviour, the young gun perhaps succumbed to the pressure of bearing the burden of the Lakers’ legacy.
Meanwhile, the 2004-2005 Clippers roster looked completely different and less like summer camp. The five young players mentioned above were by now traded or gone via free agency, and the team happened to be made up of more certified veterans. One season later, the Clippers would not only finish ahead of the Lakers in standing but qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1997. This all happened to occur while I was studying in college and, being away from the family unit and fostering new interests, had stopped following basketball. Occasionally I’d hear reports of Clipper wins and Laker losses; such lopsidedness made it all the more difficult to return as a fan of either.
History repeated itself, and the NBA universe righted its course, coincidentally around the time I returned to the home of my parents after being away for a couple of years. The Lakers—with a matured Kobe Bryant, the return of Phil Jackson, and front office manoeuvres only a storied franchise can pull off—returned to greatness, winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. The veterans that led the Clippers to playoff berths in the mid-naughts were either traded away or retired, and once again the roster was made up of youngsters from successful college programmes, getting their first run at NBA life and lots and lots of losing.
Perhaps, if I were as dedicated a Lakers fan as I considered myself to me, I would have stayed at home, because once I moved to the east coast, the Lakers-Clippers dichotomy was once again shifting. There are more Clippers games being nationally televised than Lakers games. My parents no longer watch every Lakers game; they might tune in at the beginning, but once the team would fall behind, there would be no hesitation in switching over to The Voice. During a visit home last year, I had corralled my parents to watch a Clippers game on television with me. Neither of them had jumped on the Clippers bandwagon in recent years, remaining steadfast in their Lakerland mortgage. My dad watched silently as the other Los Angeles team trounced its opposition. Eric Bledsoe, a young guard who played for the Clippers at that time, was having a particularly good game. ‘The Lakers could use him,’ my dad said.
During the 2011 offseason, the NBA nullified a trade that would’ve granted the Lakers the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul. His addition would’ve surely brought the team back to its historic ranks. The team’s misfortunes came to a head when Kobe Bryant went down with a serious injury. Meanwhile, Paul was leading his new team, the Clippers, to victory and respectability.
Will history once again repeat itself? Will the basketball universe once again right its course? Is Los Angeles still Lakerland? With Kobe Bryant on the injured list and a handful of unrecognisable faces in purple-and-gold uniforms unable to win games, I haven’t been able to watch them lately and see the team that meant so much to me growing up. Just this past March, the Lakers suffered their most lopsided defeat, a 48-point loss. They were playing the Clippers.