Barely keeping his head above the foam in a turbulent sea of red plastic, Stephen Kim, a loyal Los Angeles Lakers fan, admits he loved Kawhi Leonard. “I really wish he came to the Lakers, but he snaked us a little bit,” he says.
Instead, on July 6, the 28-year-old reigning NBA Finals MVP joined the Clippers — the other LA team, a franchise whose losing stench has waned only slightly over a decade of consistent quality.
Kim is reclining in a Clipper-colored ball pit at Kawhi’s Fun House, a carnival-themed pop-up shop on LA’s grungy-trendy Melrose Avenue celebrating the release of Leonard’s signature New Balance sneaker. Playing on the “Fun Guy” alter ego of the notoriously stoic Leonard, it’s about as fully imagined as these things go, with a ring toss and a claw machine and rigged basketball rims and teenagers running the prize games in themed black overalls. At this carnival, though, they’re giving away the toys, a familiar feature of Clipper-oriented marketing in this uniformly Laker town. As Leonard pointed out during his introductory press conference, for the last several years, the Clippers have been the superior Los Angeles basketball outfit. Nevertheless, Kim was confident not only in his own squad’s supremacy, but also in their newfound rival’s imminent demise. “Once they blow up this season, all those Clipper fans are gone,” he predicts.
The arrival of Leonard — who brought with him the multiply proficient forward Paul George — and the Lakers’ acquisition of the genuinely freaky Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, means the city of Los Angeles now holds four of the league’s top ten or so players. More importantly, it means that for the first time, the Lakers and Clippers are pitted against each other in contention for the grand prize. The winner of the 2019 NBA offseason, as James said at Lakers media day September 27, was Staples Center, the arena the teams share. He couched the remark in an answer that downplayed the Clipper threat as much as possible and, rather noticeably considering the question he was asked, disregarded Leonard completely.
Every Laker fan, it often seems, sounds like eighteen-year-old Stephen Kim or this particular LeBron James — though to be fair, if you were one you probably would, too. The Lakers have won sixteen NBA championships –their fans will remind you to count the rings — and are one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, occupying a place shared by upper-tier sports franchises like the New York Yankees or Manchester United. They are American exceptionalism distilled into basketball fandom; when the calendar hits April, Laker flags begin flying from car windows. If Los Angeles has an everyman, it is the Toyota Prius; if it has a god, it is Kobe Bryant. By contrast, the Clippers have never made the conference finals, let alone win an NBA championship. They have served for most of their history as the cheaper ticket for fans of visiting teams (a holy purpose, to be sure).
More painfully, the Clippers have long been a dignity-starved bizarro knockoff of Laker prestige. The Clippers’ logo was for years a poor facsimile of the Lakers’, they play in the same arena but receive an inferior schedule (as long as they’ve been at Staples, the Clippers have played several Sunday morning home games, which are anathema to players and fans alike) and their constant state of disarray has neatly foiled the Lakers’ relentless trophy collecting. In fact, the tale of two teams dates back to 1979, when Jerry Buss bought the Lakers with cash he borrowed from Donald Sterling, who bought the Clippers basically out of jealousy two years later.
The rivalry between these franchises and their fans, if one could be said to exist, is thus one historically defined by a comical power imbalance. But the Lakers and Clippers are now evenly matched on the court — Vegas ranks them one and two in championship odds — and still, at a promotional event with arcades and merchandise emblazoned with Leonard’s face and signature phrases, the majority of carnival goers seem to be Laker fans.
Such a phenomenon was unremarkable to Keveon Lewis, a Clippers fan since the nineties, who stumbled upon the Fun House by accident. A native of Compton, Lewis didn’t know many fellow fans, but that didn’t determine his rooting interest. “I always root for the underdog,” the 39-year-old says, a box of popcorn in hand. “We always triumph over people that are bandwagon. Most Laker fans are bandwagon.”
Lewis then betrayed the strange mixture of hope and dread that afflicts all Clipper fans. His prediction for the season was almost absurdly conservative — “they’re definitely going to the playoffs.” He believes his team will win it all — just maybe not this year or this decade.,“One day the Clippers are gonna win the championship,” he says with a laugh. “One day. I might be like sixty before they do it though.”
There is no Clipper territory in Los Angeles, and there are no Clipper bars; as far as I can tell, the Clippers are the only team in America whose supporters are regularly asked in their hometown to defend their fandom. (Not explain — defend.)When the Clippers play the Lakers as the home team, their fans are drowned out by a sea of purple and gold. To decide to become a Clipper fan in Los Angeles, then, is not only to adopt the underdog, but also to volunteer for loneliness, frustration and ridicule. On the other hand, the Lakers are an Angeleno’s birthright, part of a package that comes with hair product, Snoop Dogg, avocado toast and traffic.
Great Clipper teams have scarce impact on the basketball landscape in Los Angeles even when the Lakers disappoint. The Lob City era — when a core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan made the Clippers a highlight factory and perennial contender — overlapped with a six-season span in which the Lakers had fewer wins than any team in the NBA. But while an upswing in All-Star selections, commercial endorsements and nationally televised games made the Clippers ubiquitous in the broader basketball world, that success never translated into the local groundswell it undoubtedly would have produced in other cities — let alone the global brand recognition the franchise seems to crave.
Of course, those aspirations are quixotic and entirely self-serving. Fortunately, Ballmer’s money (with a net worth of some $52 billion, he’s the wealthiest owner in American pro sports) and his willingness to spend it ultimately makes realizing them unnecessary. You don’t need a rabid home crowd, after all, to build a winner; Leonard, when he was still a Raptor, said he didn’t play for fans anyway. (At that moment, he was one win away from his second title and Finals MVP.) That attitude casts him perfectly as the hero for an infinitely outnumbered contingent that simply would not exist if majority rule of their home city was atop their priorities.
The preponderance of Laker fans at the event hints at a fundamental truth about the dynamics of basketball fandom in Los Angeles: It doesn’t matter how good or how relatable the Clippers are — and their peaks and valleys resemble the human experience far more than a proven winner’s do — because they are out of place; they are a funhouse mirror for the Southland populace, reflecting something uncanny, ludicrous even, jarring almost everyone America’s plastic surgery capital comprises.
Still, Clipper management believes that if you win it, they will come. These pop-up shops are everywhere and nowhere in L.A., instant fads that dissipate as soon as you hear about them, making this one a fairly ominous metaphor ahead of the most hyped season in Clippers franchise history.” But championships are forever, as any Laker fan will have reminded you during their recent drought. It only takes one ring to start counting.