“This isn’t supposed to happen, it’s really throwing me off mentally,” says Los Angeles native Peter Vineland, a self-described “basketball nut” sipping a beverage at Starbucks in Sherman Oaks. “I’m sorry for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers but surprisingly happy for the Clippers.”
Vineland is talking about the reversal of fortunes that is playing out here at the start of the National Basketball Association playoffs. For years, it has been the Los Angeles Lakers dominating the postseason – winning 11 championships since 1972, including a three-peat from 2001-03. And the Los Angeles Clippers have usually been in the cellar, the team that Lakers fans such as Vineland didn’t ever watch on purpose and didn’t even want even to admit was from the same city.
This year, the Lakers barely made it to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and scored a piddling 79 points in losing the first game of their first-round series to the San Antonio Spurs. Meanwhile, the Clippers are leading their playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies, 2-0, and star guard Chris Paul made the game-winning shot Tuesday night with 0.1 seconds remaining, bringing a bit of Laker "Showtime" to the Clip Joint.
As with the Roman Empire or a Hollywood starlet, sports runs through cycles in which those on the bottom rise to the top and those on the top fall. This is that time for Los Angeles.
“The Lakers have been the shining star for decades, and the Clippers almost the laughing stock of the league,” says Dan Lebowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. “Now the Clippers are the darlings of the league, the Cinderella team to watch. This is going to be good.”
Lakers Superstar Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in a recent game and will be out for the remainder of the season at least – and the Lakers have yet to figure out how to make up for Bryant’s 27.3-point-per-game average.
“There’s one big, blistering question facing the Lakers,” writes Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Bresnahan, looking ahead to Wednesday’s second playoff game against the Spurs. “So, uh, who’s going to score for you guys?”
Watching Sunday's game from home, Bryant tweeted coaching tips, such as how to buck up the defense and get the ball to seven-time all-star center Dwight Howard. He reportedly got enough negative feedback that he will not be tweeting Game 2, though at least one teammate welcomes it.
“I love when Kobe tweets,” forward Metta World Peace in the L.A. Times. “Kobe should tweet Game 2 the whole time, every possession, critique us, criticize us, chew us out.... I love Kobe. Kobe's great.”
Bryant's absence merely punctuates the changing of the guard in Los Angeles. After all, it’s not just the teams that are shifting, but the key players who hold the spotlight.
When Paul was acquired in a 2011 trade, he gave the Clippers instant credibility. Some consider him to be the most dynamic point guard since Magic Johnson. Besides Paul, the Clippers boast forward Blake Griffin, whose super-athletic dunks and shot blocking have become the stuff of YouTube legend.
Although the Lakers are not completely out of the running, sports analysts are saying Los Angeles's mantle of basketball greatness is being passed.
“Kobe has been the face of basketball there for so long, it seems it’s time to pass it on,” says Lebowitz, noting that the Clippers managed the draft well in recent years and made good trades. “They created a great team with good chemistry between players.”
And in the true measure of L.A. sports clout, celebrities are now as common a sight courtside at Clippers games as at Laker games. So “L.A. can still be proud, just that it will be beaming from a different spotlight,” he adds.