- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2011

Penny Marshall typically follows a year-end script: home for the holidays, followed by a Caribbean vacation. Not this year.

A devoted basketball fan, the longtime actress and film director plans to stay in Southern California, the better to make use of her Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers season tickets during a compressed, lockout-delayed National Basketball Association season that tips off on Christmas Day.

Even more surprising? She’s particularly excited for the Clippers, a forlorn franchise that forever has been the Ice Station Zebra of professional hoops.

“It used to be that a team like San Antonio would come in for the weekend, play the Clippers and the Lakers, and I would sell my Clippers tickets and just go to the Lakers game,” Miss Marshall said. “Now, I’m not so sure. Now, you want to keep the Clippers tickets.”

This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with the most downtrodden team in NBA history potentially becoming a hotter Hollywood ticket than their elite, same-city rivals. In the wake of the Clippers acquiring superstar point guard Chris Paul in a much-publicized trade from the New Orleans Hornets, the question facing Los Angeles sports fans isn’t just whether Mr. Paul’s new club is a now a better basketball team than the Lakers.

It’s whether the Clippers can finally steal some of the Lakers’ formidable celebrity cachet, too.

“If you look at Los Angeles culture, it’s very finicky,” said Laura Lane, a sports and pop culture writer for ESPN.com and Life & Style magazine. “One second you’re hot, the next you’re not. They love you when you’re winning. But if you’re not winning, they’ll go somewhere else.

“And they love fresh new faces and stars. That’s Chris Paul right now. He’s young. He was the coveted player in the whole league. And the Clippers were the team who got him. For Hollywood, especially young Hollywood, I think the Clippers could be the hot ticket now.”

Ms. Lane, a Southern California native, paused.

“I never thought I would say that,” she said.

A tale of two teams

To understand why the Clippers out-glamouring the Lakers would be the surest sign yet that the Mayan calendar predictions of 2012 apocalypse aren’t totally off-base — it helps to know a bit of basketball history.

The Lakers and Clippers play in the same city. They share the same arena, the Staples Center. They have similar official logos, down to a forward-sweeping font.

Otherwise, they’re pretty much “The Odd Couple’s” Felix and Oscar — or, to put it in baseball terms, the New York Yankees and Mets.

The Lakers are the Yankees. Basketball royalty. Winners of 16 championships, the franchise of legendary players such as Jerry West and Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant. Practically a civic institution, the Lakers are Hollywood’s favorite team, with games that double as star-studded, see-and-be-seen meet ‘n’ greets that go way beyond iconic diehard fan Jack Nicholson sitting in his equally iconic courtside seats.

Think Denzel Washington. George Lopez. Dyan Cannon. Jay-Z and Rhianna. Leonardo DiCaprio sitting next to Tobey Maguire.

Everybody wants Laker tickets. Everybody. Even, according to Miss Marshall … Chris Paul. “I actually sold him two of my Lakers playoff tickets [last spring] so his father and brother could come to a game,” she revealed. “I guess he won’t need that anymore. He is a doll.”

“It’s such cultural cachet,” Ms. Lane said. “A reality star, an established Academy Award winner, you see everybody at a Lakers game. It’s the one place where all of Hollywood mixes and mingles — movie stars, TV stars, rappers, young and old Hollywood.

“All of the Hollywood agents have courtside seats. That’s how they lure new clients in, how they praise clients they already have. It’s the cool thing to do.”

By contrast, the Clippers are the Mets. Second-class sports citizens. Over the course of 33 seasons in San Diego and Los Angeles — the club began as the Buffalo Braves — the Clippers have been to the playoffs all of four times, enjoyed three winning campaigns, drafted epochal busts such as Michael Olowokandi and generally been regarded as a rolling carnival of ineptitude.

Reviled by basketball fans for being tightfisted, team owner Donald Sterling also has embarrassed the NBA by heckling his own players and being accused of housing discrimination and sexual harassment; a decade ago, Sports Illustrated put a photo of three paper bag-wearing Clippers fans on its cover with the caption “The Worst Franchise in Sports History.”

“Sometimes I got to two games in one day, the Clippers in the afternoon and the Lakers in the evening,” said James Goldstein, a Southern California resident and longtime season ticket holder for both teams. “The Clippers seem like a minor-league operation. They have a completely different set of fans, because the tickets are inexpensive versus Lakers games. The upper deck is usually half-filled with children who are given tickets for free. It’s a different atmosphere. You feel it.”

Notable Clippers courtside celebrity regulars? Billy Crystal, 1990s sitcom regular Kadeem Hardison and Frankie Muniz, the former star of “Malcolm in the Middle.” There’s also Miss Marshall, who sits next to the Clippers’ doctor near the team’s bench.

“The years the Clippers were bad, I’d wander,” Ms. Marshall said. “I’d go say hi to the visiting team, then go in the back and lay down in the video crew room to take a nap.”

Game changer

Enter Mr. Paul. A dynamic scorer and playmaker, the 26-year-old is arguably the best point guard in the sport, the only player in NBA history to average more than 20 points and 10 assists in the playoffs.

After Mr. Paul informed New Orleans that he would not re-sign with the club upon becoming a free agent next offseason, the Hornets — currently owned by the NBA and looking for a buyer — arranged to trade him to the Lakers.

Led by commissioner David Stern and reportedly at the behest of small-market team owners who did not want to see Mr. Paul join the Lakers and exacerbate the gap between the NBA’s haves and have-nots, the league office vetoed the trade. The highly unusual move left the Lakers and their fans deeply frustrated while throwing the basketball world into a tizzy.

When Mr. Paul subsequently was dealt to the other tenant of the Staples Center — a move perceived by some as a face-saving move by Mr. Stern — longtime Clippers fan Darrell Bailey was overcome.

“I literally cried, man,” said Mr. Bailey, 43, known in NBA circles as “Clipper Darrell” for his support of the team, which includes attending 386 consecutive Clippers home games and driving around Los Angeles in a tricked-out “Clippermobile.” “It was tears of joy. To get an elite player like Chris Paul, this is fantastic. He’s a game changer.”

The acquisition of Mr. Paul potentially sets the two squads on different paths: Though the Lakers have established stars in Mr. Bryant and Paul Gasol, the team’s makeup is slow, aging and creeping closer to its expiration date than another championship.

Meanwhile, the Clippers have a young, exciting duo in Mr. Paul and Blake Griffin, a powerful, high-flying power forward who was last season’s Rookie of the Year and leads the league in jaw-dropping slam dunks.

For the first time in franchise history, the Clippers reportedly have sold out all of their season ticket packages.

“For years I had two [season ticket] seats,” Mr. Bailey said. “Nobody would ever want to go with me, so the last three years, I went to one seat. Now my phone is ringing off the hook. ‘Hey, can you get me in for a few games?’ I only have one seat. Y’all have to buy your own tickets!”

And those Hollywood celebrities long populating Lakers games? Will there be defectors? If the Clippers can consistently win games, Ms. Lane said, anything is possible.

“The Lakers won’t lose old Hollywood,” Ms. Lane said. “But young Hollywood, they’re not diehard fans. Bruno Mars, Beyonce, Lil Wayne, they don’t have a history with the teams. They just go to the hot ticket, gravitate to the coolest thing. That’s why they get their hair done to sit courtside.

“Celebrities like to hang out with other celebrities. Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber will befriend each other at a game. The Clippers are a fresh young team, and if they can get that younger generation, they could have them for years to come.”

Noting that in the wake of their failed attempt to land Mr. Paul, the Lakers recently traded away forward Lamar Odom, the husband of Khloe Kardashian, Ms. Lane added: “You probably won’t see the Kardashians courtside at Lakers games anymore.”

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