Well, Thanksgiving was fun, wasn’t it? I had to leave my car out on the West Coast and fly cross-country to Boston to meet up with some family, but it was much less stressful than expected — the airport lines were non-existent, and I spent pretty much the entire flight sipping screwdrivers and watching “Dexter” and “Terriers” episodes on my computer. (Ran out of episodes on the way back and was forced to finally watch “Crank: High Voltage,” which was both terrible and wildly inappropriate to be watching on a crowded plane of strangers). Kudos must be given to the Southwest Airlines flight attendants, as well — I got four different ones over my two-part return and departure trips, and all four were cranking out the yuks over the PA like it was their job. I wonder if it’s in the fine print of their contract or something.
The weekend with family was fun as always, though my performance in the annual family football game (two dropped passes, blown defensive assignment on go-ahead touchdown) might get me uninvited for next year. It was a little weird to go six days without attending a basketball game, but at least I got to watch the NBA’s shit sandwich of a nationally-televised Thanksgiving weekend schedule over the two nights. I don’t know if the league is contractually obligated to show the worst games possible for these nights, or if they just feel like throwing a bone or two to some teams (Sacramento, Charlotte, Memphis) who otherwise would never be on TNT or ESPN2, but good goddamn did they choose some unmarquee match-ups. (The NBA on TNT guys seemed unsure why they were even there, like “They expect us to actually talk about these games?”)
Anyway, I flew back to LA on Saturday in preparation for my double-header at Staples Center on Sunday — a Clippers-Jazz game in the afternoon, and a Lakers-Pacers showdown at night. Between a surging Clippers squad (winners of two of their last three, which might as well be a ’71 Lakers streak considering their 1-13 start) and a cruise-control Lakers team (13-3, though coming off a tough loss in Utah), I hoped to at least get one win to pad the deplorable 3-9 record of my home teams thus far.
The (Clippers) Stadium: My Uncle Howard and Aunt Margie took me to the early game, after a stop at the Empress Pavillion for an excellent dim sum lunch. Driving up to the general Staples area, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many mass-capacity buildings in one area before — the Staples Center is barely even the main attraction of the complex amidst the Nokia Theater, Convention Center and gigantic Regal cinema. My uncle called the L.A. Live complex “L.A.’s attempt at their own Times Square,” which sounded about right, though L.A. Live seemed considerably more glamorous to me — or maybe just considerably cleaner and less over-crowded. Either way, it was pretty cool and decidedly location-appropriate. There was even an ice-skating rink in the middle of it — seemingly for no reason other than “Hey, if we can have an outdoor ice rink in the middle of this thing, why the fuck not?” I can dig it.
The Staples Center itself was a lovely building, its exteriors still looking shimmeringly state-of-the-art after a decade-plus of operation. (Then again, I always loved the design of the Staples franchise in general). The interiors were similarly classy, especially around our seats in the Premier Section — which basically just meant the chairs were purple and we were able to order drinks off menus — which were lined with framed photographs of the greatest sports and non-sports-related moments to take place at Staples since its inception. (My favorite was a shot of a super-smug-looking Kobe cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy after the Lakers’ ’09 championship.) And for reasons I’m not really clear on, there was a ridiculously cool baseball card museum-type thing on the ground floor, displaying cards and other pro-sport miscellany from over the years. It must have been relatively new, since my uncle (who relinquished his Clippers season tickets before last season out of frustration) had never seen it before.
The (Clippers) Game: Citing the fact that the Clippers “have a terrible record against teams with good fundamentals,” my uncle predicted something of a doomed result for the Clips against the Jazz, which I found somewhat hard to argue with. But during the first half, L.A.’s historically youth-heavy lineup (three rookies and two third-years in the starting lineup) was gelling rather nicely — Al-Farouq Aminu was hitting from the outside, Erics Bledsoe and Gordon were getting to the basket, and of course, Blake Griffin was being his usual monster self in and around the post. By the end of the first half, the Clips had gotten out to a 60-52 lead, and looked to be in firm control of the game. “That might be the best half of basketball they’ve played all year,” Uncle Howard commented.
I suppose extra copy is due here for Griffin, whose awesomeness you’re all probably starting to get a little sick of reading about already. It’s hard to refrain from whipping out some of the superlativiest of superlatives around this guy, though — his scoring ability around the basket is just unheard of. An unstable mixture of athleticism, recklessness, sheer indomitability and even a surprising touch of finesse, Blake was able to power in hoops that had absolutely no business going through the cylinder, making Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap look significantly clumsier on defense than they probably actually were. The crowd became so breathless every time he touched the ball that the biggest reactions of the night were reserved for his misses–a blown alley-oop, a missed putback dunk in traffic–which were still exponentially more electric than anything the other nine players on the court would do all game. (Most impressive of all, though, was a fadeaway jumper he hit in the first quarter, which could bring his talents to near-apocalyptic levels if he began sinking it regularly).
Anyway, the good times probably couldn’t last with this Clippers team (“What’s so exciting about a Clippers game is that you never know how they’re going to lose,” Aunt Margie deadpanned), and the third quarter was a largely unsurprising rude awakening. After guarding him in single coverage for most of the first half — a questionable decision to begin with — Jerry Sloan wised up and had the Jazz take Griffin (and to a lesser extent, Gordon) out of the game in the third quarter, forcing the rest of the Clips to step up, which they were more than happy to not do. Much of the blame for L.A.’s sagging second-half performance, deservedly or no, goes to power forward Brian Cook, who might have the ugliest line-drive jumper I’ve ever seen and who got a disturbingly high number of second-half minutes, going scoreless on 0-6 shooting. The most enthusiastic cheer of the night came when he was finally taken out of the game with five minutes to go in the fourth — “PUT ON YOUR WARMUPS AND NEVER COME BACK!!” the fan in front of me shouted.
The Jazz outscored the Clippers 27-14 in the third quarter and never looked back, eventually winning by a score of 109-97. (For the record, even after being “shut down” in the second half, Blake still ended up with 35 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists for the game.) “I see this as being representative of the Clippers experience,” my uncle told me by way of consolation. “They get your hopes up, then dash them against the hard rocks of life.” Fair enough.
The (Clippers) Fans: Not exactly a packed house at Staples on this Sunday afternoon. My uncle predicted an announced attendance of 14,000 and an actual attendance of 9,000, though I’m not sure if the Clips were even able to draw in the latter amount — lotta empties to be found in just about every section throughout the stadium. The fans that were there, for the most part, reacted to the game with a kind of jaded, seen-this-movie-before hesitant enthusiasm, cheering dutifully enough but never really letting their guard down for the seemingly-inevitable Clipper fold. It became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the game’s second half, but once L.A. began to self-destruct, there were no boos either — I guess booing implies some sort of surprise or disappointment, where Clippers fans had been resigned to the fate of the game long before its result became obvious.
To be fair, though, the Clips fans I talked to (including my uncle) were all very knowledgeable, articulate and pragmatic as concerned the team. The pervasive feeling about the fanbase seemed to be one of mild disappointment over the team not being more of a contender this year, but of general optimism for the future with the team’s young core seemingly already in place with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. “I kind of felt like those two are like a poor man’s Durant and Westbrook,” a fan named Eric told me. “They could kind of be like the Thunder, bad for a few years, then…” Jordan, another fan in our section, agreed that Griffin and Gordon could be the core of a playoff team. “Absolutely. Get a couple more shooters around them … I don’t expect it to happen this year, but maybe after one more draft pick.”
Somewhat to my surprise, people were feeling charitable with first-year coach Vinny Del Negro as well. “I like the job he’s doing,” said Jordan. “It seems like he’s getting them to play hard. Not something you saw with [ex-coach Mike] Dunleavy.” Eric felt the team’s 3-13 start under VDN was excusable: “I think he was dealt a tough hand, especially with the veterans he expected to be on the court out for so much of the season.” They were also largely OK with the team’s swing-and-a-miss of an off-season, where they set their sights on LeBron James and ended up with Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye. “I thought they might have had a chance at a second-tier guy, thought that maybe they would get Rudy Gay,” said Eric. “But [GM Neal] Olshey did a good job of managing the cap, not overpaying someone who wouldn’t have made a difference.”
As for what made differentiated Clippers fans from supporters of their more-popular, more-successful roommates, according to them, it mostly came down to heart. “Phony” and “poseurs” were two words that kept coming up regarding Laker fans when I was talking with my uncle about the difference, who said that Clipper fans tended to be “more passionate.” That was the key word for Eric too, who called Laker fans “spoiled” and said “there’s a certain level of passion in Clippers fans … you saw that in ’06 with the kind of rabid passion in their playoff series.” The other main reason was a more practical one — affordability. A transplanted Nets fan named Michael, who had the line of the night when he told me he was taking his daughter to the game (“I’m trying to teach [her] the moral virtue of rooting for a losing team”), said he simply couldn’t afford the Premier-type Seats for Lakers contests. “I would go to Lakers games if I could,” he admitted. “But it’s still fun.”
Most Popular (Clippers) Jerseys: Griffin, Griffin, Griffin. Handful of Eric Gordons, zero Baron Davises or Chris Kamans, and about 90% Blake Griffins. I barely even saw any retro jerseys, though I did see one particularly devoted (or caustically sarcastic) soul sporting a Michael Olowokandi throwback.
Also Worth Noting: The Clips dancers (Clippers Spirit, I think they’re officially called) were probably the hardest-working bunch that I’ve seen at any of the games thus far. They were out there seemingly at every timeout or quarter break, performing different routines in an impressive array of styles to a wide variety of songs. What’s more, they changed uniforms before going out each time (in the first half, at least), always reflecting a different spectrum of the Clips’ team colors. Considering that they probably have to endure a whole lot of shit for being part of Los Angeles’s Other Cheerleading Squad (I can imagine the conversations with friends back home: “Guess what, guys, I got a job as a cheerleader for an L.A. basketball team!! No, not the Lakers … Yes, Los Angeles does have two professional basketball teams … No, they didn’t just start, they’ve been around for over 25 years…”), my hat definitely goes off to the girls for putting in such work for a perpetually underachieving crowd.
(Less credit, however, to the team’s PA announcer, who when introducing the musical nominees for the Spirit’s final dance number, read Ke$ha’s name as “K dollar sign huh.” Come on, woman, turn on a top 40 station once or twice a year.)
Swag Acquired: A Clippers Santa Claus hat. I can’t properly explain why, but I’m absolutely giddy at the thought of being able to wear it at holiday parties.
Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:
Lush – “Hypocrite.” Not really an XM jam, to be fair — I’ve been going with the CD changer for most of the last week — but a jam nonetheless, a nicely cutting rocker from the dreamy 90s UK alt-rock group. For the record, their Split has got to be one of the most underrated albums of that decade, and especially functional for elongated night-time drives.
Up next: The second half of my Staples odyssey, the much-anticipated (by someone, probably) LA homecoming of Darren Collison.