From the moment I was born I was taught that Los Angeles Lakers basketball was a way of life, just as most kids growing up in Southern California during the 1980's were. In fact, the earliest memory I have is of watching Kareem's sky hook on TV and trying to mimic it on a Playskool mini-hoop that my dad had bought me. There was something about the game, something about the team, that hooked me from an early age.
My dad took me to my first live game at the Great Western Forum when I was 5, and my excitement level was off the charts. To watch Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and the rest of the Showtime Lakers live in person instead of on our TV was incredible. I cheered like a maniac throughout the game and even wagged my finger, Dikembe Mutombo-style, at Charles Barkley when he was ejected for throwing an elbow.
When the games were on my dad and I would sit and watch, him ever the pessimist that believed the game was "over" if the Lakers were down at any point in the first half, while I was just mesmerized by the sights and sounds. He instilled in me a love for the Lakers while Magic Johnson and the Showtime squad proved that, at its highest level, basketball ceases to be sport and becomes art. We would turn the TV volume all the way down and bring in the radio for nationally televised games so we could experience the Lakers as they were meant to be, with the late, great Chick Hearn doing the play by play.
The one thing we didn't do was watch the Clippers. Even when the youth team that I played on wound up with the unfortunate luck of being named after LA's other team, they were still kept out of our Lakers-centric world. The Clippers were in LA just to leach off of the growing metropolis, and as such their presence was nothing more than an annoyance to be tolerated.
Year in and year out, the Lakers featured superstars, celebrities, championships, and beautiful basketball. The Clippers had none of those things. They were the Bad News Bears of the NBA, and had dared to encroach on the Lakers territory in 1984, when Showtime was in full swing.
Today, things have changed quite a bit. While my dad and I still don't watch much Clippers basketball, our beloved Lakers have fallen on hard times, breaking the franchise record for losses in the past two consecutive seasons while aging star Kobe Bryant fights a losing battle against Father Time. A series of poor decisions and terrible injuries have made those glorious days of Showtime feel farther away than ever before. TV ratings are down and ticket prices are actually dropping, which is something that happens about as often as James Harden shaves.
The Clippers, on the other hand, have an MVP-candidate in Chris Paul (thanks David Stern) to lead the way. They were also fortunate enough to draft uber-athletes Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, whose vicious dunks have given Los Angeles some of the most exciting basketball plays since Magic ran the fast break.
The feel-good vibes for the modern-day Clippers don't stop with their play on the court though. Last year they pried Doc Rivers away from the Celtics and inserted him into a dual role as both coach and President of Basketball Operations. Rivers, with a championship under his belt from his time in Boston, was a big step up from the much-maligned Vinny Del Negro and is expected to help lead the Clippers to the promised land.
Doc also drew the ire of Lakers fans when he decided to cover the Lakers championship banners during home games. While he said that he was attempting to create a pro-Clipper environment when Staples is dressed up in red and blue, the move also signified that the franchise was ready to fight the Lakers for the heart of Los Angeles.
The Clippers were also able to rid themselves of Donald Sterling, the owner whose penchant for cutting costs kept the team profitable but far-removed from contention. Sterling had a habit of saying and doing despicable things, which brought negative attention to the franchise. Taking his place is former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who brings his insanely deep pockets to home games and cheers with as much enthusiasm as the five-year-old version of me at my first Lakers game.
What it all adds up to is that the Lakers are no longer the best team in Los Angeles, and truthfully and haven't been for the past three seasons. This shift has led many to speculate that LA is slowly but surely becoming a Clippers town and that Lakers fans will switch their allegiance to support a winning side. Is this really the case though, or are Lakers-haters just using the recent success of the Clippers to take a shot at the purple and gold and exaggerate their demise?
The truth of the matter, as usual, lies somewhere in between. While there is no denying that the Clippers are title contenders and the Lakers are not, fans have not completely abandoned the good guys for their red and blue clad Staples Center tenants. Check out this Twitter map of NBA fanhood, and notice how all-consuming Lakers purple is:
What's shocking about the map is the fact that nearly every area in the United States that doesn't have an NBA team in it is packed with Lakers fans.
It's also striking that there is no trace of Clippers red in the state of California, not even a small bastion carved out by their fans. The Clippers fan base is so much in the minority that Blake Griffin called out Clippers Nation for their lack of support after a game at Staples Center against the Golden State Warriors felt like an away game due to the pro-Warriors crowd. It would seem, for the time being at least, that the Lakers are still the king of Southern California and just about everywhere else in the US in terms of total fans.
TV ratings, however, tell a bit of a different story, as the Lakers have seen their Nielsen numbers drop below 2.0 for the first time ever. To put things in perspective, the Clippers, with their best team ever, put up a 1.10. While the Lakers do pull more viewers, the discrepancy should be even larger considering their massive fan base. What this shows us is that there are many Lakers fans that simply aren't tuning in to watch the games, which is understandable given the nearly joyless nature of the season. We can only imagine how low the numbers would be if it weren't for the phenomenal Jordan Clarkson, aka Mr. Rookie of the Month.
Still, even with the declining TV numbers and the recent success of the Clippers, Los Angeles is a Lakers town. While Lakers haters may love to say that the Clippers have taken over that simply isn't the case. But could the Clippers do it eventually? Could they siphon off enough Lakers fans to truly convert LA into Lob City?
People like myself who grew up as Lakers diehards won't stop supporting the team after a few down years. While these are certainly frustrating times the tried and true Lakers fan base is too tough to abandon ship now; it's just not what we do. If progress isn't made soon though, or worse if more mistakes are made, then it's possible that even the most stalwart Lakers fans will turn their backs. For now though the core of the Lakers fan base is intact, even if we aren't tuning in to games as regularly as we used to.
Even in the unlikely event that Lakers diehards do start to tire from supporting a losing franchise, it's not probable that they transition over to the Clippers. The quasi-rivalry has enough passion behind it to prevent that, as evidenced by the heartwarming welcome Chris Paul, the face of the Clippers, gets when he shows up at Dodger stadium:
No, the diehard Lakers fans won't be handing Los Angeles over to the Clippers anytime soon.
Bandwagon fans, on the other hand, are an interesting case. While they are often disparaged by the diehards, the fact of the matter is that they make a big difference in the financial and consequently on-court success of a team. In spite of the stigma, having bandwagon fans can be a good thing. While the Lakers have certainly seen a big decline in their bandwagon fan base (they wouldn't be bandwagoners otherwise), the Clippers haven't done much to capitalize and steal these fans away.
For all the high-flying action that Paul, Griffin, and Jordan produce the team just isn't all that likeable. Griffin and Paul in particular have a reputation for egregious flopping, which can turn fans off. As such, many bandwagon fans have been pushed towards the Golden State Warriors and their Splash Brothers. The younger generation is another story though. While fans who grew up with the Lakers are going to stick with them, and bandwagoners will switch to the team of the moment, the youth of Los Angeles are in serious jeopardy of falling under the Clippers spell.
I was five years old when I fell in love with the Lakers. Five year olds today, however, have grown up in a world that has mostly known the Lakers for their struggles rather than their success. Many adult Lakers fans are tuning out during this downturn, and the long-term impact is that their children are not growing up the way myself and others of my generation did, where Lakers basketball was a way of life.
Pau Gasol said it best when he was asked if there was a concern about children growing up Clippers fans rather than Lakers fans, saying "That's where the parents come in." He's absolutely right, and unfortunately for the Lakers those parents are increasingly not watching the games.
If Los Angeles is going to sink into the hands of the Clippers in the future it will be because of the youth of today, who are growing up in a world deprived of great Lakers basketball. The Clippers, for all their struggles historically, are a highlight-friendly team that could very well capture the hearts of kids who are growing up on Blake Griffin dunks.
That isn't to say that things can't turn around quickly for the Lakers. Jordan Clarkson has ignited the dwindling Lakers fan base with his ever-improving play, and Mitch Kupchak could have as many as four picks in the 2015 draft plus a solid chunk of cap space to work with. A young, exciting core featuring Clarkson, a returning Julius Randle, the draft picks, plus solid free agent signings could turn things around as soon as next season for the Lakers and bring fans back home. Let's also not forget the massive amount of attention that next season will bring due to Kobe's likely farewell tour.
Should they flounder again though, and the Clippers continue to find success (or, heaven help us, win a championship), the younger generation of basketball fans may find themselves being drawn over to the dark side. Once allegiances are set they can be difficult to break, and Southern California kids who grow up with a Lakers squad that acts as the league's doormat will have little choice but to join Clippers Nation. A frightening thought, to be sure.
While Los Angeles is clearly not a Clippers town now the idea of it becoming one is not nearly as crazy as it was just a few years ago. The threat of the Clippers stealing fans away from the purple and gold just underscores how important it is for the Lakers to rebuild quickly. The youth of Southern California need a quality Lakers team to grow up with. Towards that end Lakers fans need to keep their fingers crossed for lottery luck on May 20th, then trust in Mitch Kupchak to find success in free agency. The season may be almost over, but the real battle for Los Angeles is just beginning.