California tribes clash on court and off

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." – Abraham Lincoln

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

California is a house divided against itself this week – and fans, both north and south, can hardly stand it.

The L.A. Lakers and the Sacramento Kings clash here at Staples Arena tomorrow in what could be the final game of the NBA Western Conference finals.

But the best-of-seven series – a seesaw battle of fast breaks and clutch free-throws, disputed fouls and last-second three-pointers – has also served as a spotlight for a long-simmering, outside-the-arena battle of which many Americans are only peripherally aware: a clash of two cities, two cultures, and two Californias.

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As gleaned from talkradio to sports columns, TV hosts to fan banter, the point/counterpoint defines a sharp fault line in tastes, politics, and personality.

Southern California is a bunch of shallow, glitzy, freeway-building, water-wasting, hydro-carbon-spewing, arrogant airheads, say folks from Sacramento. Its symbol, they say, is Staples Center, a purple-seated pleasure palace built in the center of the smog-shrouded, high-rise shadowed, gang-infested, "sprawlopolis" of Los Angeles.

Not to be outdone – or out insulted – southern Californians are responding in kind ... right after they park their BMWs, finish their double lattes, and rinse off their sunscreen. Sacramentans are a bunch of small-town, small thinking, red-neck, blue-collar, cow-punching, lawmaking losers, they say. The city symbol, they counter, is ARCO Arena, a styleless, utilitarian people-box placed smack dab in the corn and rice fields outside the "tiny" (pop. 407,018) state capital.

The hyped back and forth serves as a convenient conceit for journalists. But the barbed-tonguery is more than just hot air.

A significant number of Sacramentans, and by extension many northerners from the diversely rich and poor enclaves of the San Francisco Bay Area to the 1960s refugees of the redwoods, really do disdain the values they see embraced by southern Californians.

They see a city that allowed itself to carve up the desert, forgo public transportation for land-wasting, air-polluting freeways. They resent the constant battles over water, which is plentiful in the mountainous north, scarce in the arid south, and often used on opulent golf courses and hotel fountains.

And they see a selfish entertainment factory that they feel is more intent on profit from trash-culture export than on healing its own innercity, beset by homelessness, unemployment, and racial conflict.

That concern is symbolized by the Lakers. Many in Sacramento feel the team has become a corporate machine more intent on providing multimillion-dollar salaries for rock-star-size egos than in providing affordable, world-class, competitive sports by world-class human beings who care about the neighborhoods in which they live and play.

"All they seem to care about is money, image, and self ..., and I see their values when the Lakers come to town," says Marshall Greene, a lawyer who grew up in L.A. and moved to Sacramento after college. He now values the small-town atmosphere and values of Sacramento. The price of homes is half that of L.A., and cost of living is 21 percent lower.

"I'm glad I got outta there," he says.

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn is quoted in local papers as having experienced the northern wrath firsthand, while attending law school in the north.

"They live and breathe this hatred [of L.A.], it gives some kind of meaning to their existence," he says.

And while the mayor holds that the feeling is not mutual, the press has seized on comments by Laker coach Phil Jackson in recent years, during other hard-fought Kings/Lakers battles. Sacramento fans are "semicivilized" he said. "Rednecks."

To still others, such comments are contrived to boost ticket sales. But they say the Kings/Laker face-off does legitimately spotlight both the size and diversity of the state.

"Only California is large enough, diverse enough, and so strange a state that it could contain two cities as different as Sacramento and Los Angeles," says consultant Richard Golb, who grew up in L.A., and lived for six years in Sacramento.

"L.A. is hot, cool, and fast, and the only thing hot, cool, and fast in Sacramento is the summer temperatures, the delta breeze, and traffic on the outerbelt."

To him, star guard Kobe Bryant reflects L.A. ("hip, cool, young"), while center Vlade Divac reflects Sacramento ("slow, lanky, and older – but solid.")

Partly because of such characterizations, the unwritten, unsaid, but strongly held belief is that the smaller town with the younger team (the Kings entered the NBA in 1985) simply has an inferiority complex when compared with its cross-state rival.

"L.A. has a whole bunch of sports teams with histories of greatness, from the Dodgers to the Lakers," admits Sacramento Bee sports editor ArmandoAcuna."We only have one team, and we've never won a championship."

In this regard, Mr. Acuna says a Sacramento win against L.A. would be more important than winning the NBA finals.

"It would be monumental for this town for their team to beat our cross- state rival that does have history and heritage. It would instantly put us on the map."

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