The Clippers and Lakers tip off a season unlike anything in L.A. history
Los Angeles is now the epicenter of the NBA universe
Tuesday night’s season opener between the Los Angeles Lakers and the LA Clippers had been required viewing from the moment the NBA schedule was released. In the days leading up to tipoff, there was a vigor coursing through Los Angeles’ veins comparable to a Hollywood blockbuster premiere or a heavyweight prizefight.
In the current landscape of pro sports, the Lakers and Clippers are unique: Two juggernauts that play in the same building with the star power of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
They can’t avoid each other. Their faces are pasted on the side of buses and their voices are used in commercials.
At the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles near the Staples Center sit two billboards overlooking Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar that could pass for promotions of a new Avengers film. One shows George in mid-shot with the caption: “Everything shines brighter in L.A.” In the other, featuring a yelling Davis, reads: “Write your own Hollywood ending.” The signs are so big it’s almost disrespectful not to take a picture — as most people do when walking by or pulling their cars to the side.
The larger-than-life portrayals of Davis and George are indicative of the level of delirium in Los Angeles now. There was no escaping Lakers vs. Clippers talk. It was on the radio. Discussed at basketball courts and sneaker shops.
At Cool Kicks in Santa Monica, customers pop in and out. Nearby, there’s an impromptu live street musical performance from a one-man band singing and playing guitar, a seafood restaurant and a coastline with waves crashing without a cloud in the sky. Inside the store, thousands of dollars of merchandise sit on the walls boasting signature shoes from Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and others.
“These Chicago to Laker SB Air Jordan 1s were $450. LeBron signs them and now this is a $1,000 shoe,” said Mook, who uses just the one name and works at Kicks. “Price went up. Any Laker color anything is going crazy. It’s good for us.”
As customers buy merchandise and trade shoes, the talk of the store never leaves Tuesday night’s game. Who you got tonight? How many you think AD’s gonna have? How about Kawhi?
“At the end of the day, the Lakers run the house. The Clippers is basically like living in their parents’ house,” joked Ben Beyen, who also works at Kicks. “Once they move out, Clipper talk can happen. But right now, it’s Lakerland.”
As if the world needed another territorial dispute, right? But this time, it’s fun. This newfound battle of Los Angeles has everything Hollywood prides itself on: star power, bad blood and two opposing forces battling for physical, mental and cultural supremacy.
Joining the local competitiveness — and at times pettiness — comes out-of-town intrigue. Houston resident Leslie Hewitt purchased a ticket four days before the season opener. “One of my lifetime dreams was to see a Staples Center game,” he said after getting shots up on Venice Beach’s famed basketball courts hours before Tuesday’s tipoff. “LeBron is my favorite player, so to see him in L.A. is a dream come true.”
Hewitt’s western migration isn’t an anomaly. After James joined the Lakers in the summer of 2018, ticket prices spiked by 63 percent to an average of $209. With the addition of Davis, those numbers jumped again to an expected $250, according to TickPick, a secondary ticket company. In comparison, following the signing of Leonard and trade for George, the Clippers were the second-most tracked team on SeatGeek behind the Lakers.
Unlike Hewitt, who bought his tickets on a whim, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti already had his priorities in order Tuesday night. First, he put his daughter, Maya, to sleep. Then he bolted downtown to catch the Clippers and Lakers. Garcetti grew up watching the “Showtime”-era Lakers. An exuberance resides in his voice recounting Shaquille O’Neal’s and Bryant’s most successful times, too. Like most who have called Los Angeles home for years, the Clippers used to be an afterthought for him. But Garcetti understands this current Clippers team is unlike anything the city has seen.
“It’s not just the Clippers are grit and the Lakers are glam. This is a city that has both of them,” said Garcetti during a phone interview. “Younger Angelenos grew up with the Clippers, which was something unthinkable to a lot of us Laker fans. And now it’s not just basketball’s crown that’s up for grabs, the city is up for grabs in some ways.”
Drama is a natural resource in Hollywood. It sells tickets. And most importantly, it creates revenue.
“The energy here has increased exponentially since we got all the big names here in town with us,” said Kellen Asai, front desk manager at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE, across from the Staples Center. “I expect it to pick up a lot for Lakers and Clippers games. It’s gonna be a big upswing in just all-around business for the hotel and for the area.”
No city rolls out a red carpet like Los Angeles, but even the mystique in the air feels more royal than normal. Vendors sell makeshift “Battle of L.A.” shirts while an aroma of marijuana hangs in the air. Lakers jerseys outnumber their Clippers counterparts.
At Tuesday’s game, both teams released preview videos staking their place in the city’s psyche. Leonard and George’s appearances in a promotional ad for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton’s Terminator: Dark Fate is proof of a new day. Championship-level star power in Los Angeles doesn’t just bleed purple and gold. From the entertainment and hospitality industries to nightlife, there’s a lot riding on the Lakers and Clippers living up to the gargantuan hype preceding them.
“Star power is nearly everything in Los Angeles, and really drives interest and builds brands when it is combined with winning,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. “Particularly in this crowded market, where standing out from the pack is an ongoing challenge.”
And Los Angeles is now a house divided.
“This s— means nothing,” one Laker fan in a James jersey says while exiting Staples, referring to the Clippers’ 112-102 win over the Lakers. “Just Game 1. This is the closest you’ve been to an NBA Finals anyway.”
“Yeah, sure,” his friend in a Kawhi jersey said, laughing. “Until we’re having a parade here in eight months.”