Let’s start with the Lakers — they’ve been really good for a really long time. Even before relocating to Los Angeles in 1960, the Minneapolis Lakers won 5 NBA Championships as the most dominant team in the 1950s. Since they’ve come to LA, not only have the Lakers won 11 NBA titles, they’ve won over the hearts of LA natives for the way they won, fielding larger than life athletes like Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, and now LeBron James. If there’s one thing that’s true about LA fans, it’s that we like winning, and winning in style. With a few minor bumps in the road notwithstanding, the Lakers have been doing that more consistently than any other team since their arrival to the West Coast.
The opposite could never be more true than it is for the Clippers. Beginning as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, they became the San Diego Clippers in 1978, eventually making their way to Los Angeles in 1984. Up until 2010, the Clippers made only 4 playoff appearances, never making it past the second round. They were perennial losers, the complete opposite of the Lakers who were the hottest ticket in town and continue to be so.
The Lakers were Showtime, Shaq and Kobe — a supercharged, high-end Italian sportscar that had power and style. The Clippers were a consistent trainwreck every night.
Growing up in the mid-90s meant that apart from the game or two that was nationally televised that week, my NBA basketball viewing was mostly limited to the local team. But we had two in Los Angeles, and two games were better than one. ESPN wasn’t showing games, NBA League Pass didn’t exist, and neither did the Internet. There was WGN available, showing Chicago Bulls games because the world demanded to see Michael Jordan, which was nice. But other than that, there was no streaming of games online or highlight videos to watch on YouTube. All we had were the Lakers and the Clippers to satisfy our cravings, so we felt lucky to have more than one team.
More importantly, the Clippers were absolutely no threat at all to the Lakers. They were the lovable losers, the Bad New Bears on hardwood. Ralph Lawler and Bill Walton were great to listen to. It was an amusing sideshow and a chance for Lakers fans to flex that part of their subconscious that was normally inaccessible — rooting for the underdog. Yes, we Lakers fans actually rooted for the Clippers in the ’90s. I can remember when the Clippers traded Danny Manning for Dominique Wilkins in 1994 and actually being excited to watch their games. Of course, they were still terrible even with The Human Highlight Film in tow.
When the 2000s came around, the Lakers were back to being the Lakers. It took them a few years to transition out of the Showtime Era, but thanks to the genius of Jerry West (more on him later) the team had built another dynasty-producing roster led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Being a bit too young for Showtime, this was my first taste of Laker greatness, and it felt appropriate and rather expected that this team would win three championships in a row, because that’s what the Lakers do — win.
The Clippers were still a bad team, but they were an exciting bad team. Lamar Odom was a dynamic young talent. Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles were hitting threes and catching lobs, tapping their knuckles on their foreheads along the way. The team was young, flashy, and losing — just the way Lakers fans liked. Their status of being the entertaining, non-threatening sideshow was still intact.
This pretty much remained the case for the rest of the decade. There was a minor blip for the Lakers with some pretty lean years in the middle. The Clippers even managed to win a playoff series as well. But by the end of the decade, order was restored with the Lakers winning back to back NBA championships and the Clippers being the NBA’s doormat.
Up to this point, this was the same story throughout the entire existence of these two teams in Los Angeles. The Lakers were the real team. They sat at the adults table and chased NBA glory, seizing it more often than not. The Clippers, on the other hand, were always at the kids table, and we would laugh and chuckle as they spilled food on their clothes and made a mess. I, like many of my fellow Lakers fans and LA natives, thought this was always how it was going to be. There was no reason to think otherwise.