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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Suddenly, These Clippers Have Star Appeal

May 21, 2006|Mark Heisler

So, do you think this could ever become a Lakers town again?

People keep asking whether this could ever be a Clippers town. In case you haven't noticed, it's already a Clippers town.

Look around. The Clippers are selling out every game, and their crowds are wild. The Lakers are home, presumably watching anything but Clippers games.

Clippers tickets, once allotted in bulk to supermarkets, are being offered by ones and twos on the Internet for hundreds of dollars.

They're averaging a 7.7 rating in this market for three TNT games this round, with Game 7 projected to bump it to about 8.0. The Lakers averaged a 7.3 on TNT, even with a monster 10.0 for Game 6 against Phoenix, the highest-rated first-round national cable game.

The Clippers are still a long way from the mania the Lakers inspired. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they aren't what they were. Fortunately for the Clippers, neither are they. In the newly proclaimed Clipper Nation, it's springtime, at last.

This town is as ... open to change ... as Jack Nicholson, which sounds healthy to me. Following a team here is more like a choice between entertainment options as opposed to a religion.

Of course, it's some trip for those of us used to a different ambience, with rites of spring such as Phil Jackson's annual Mother's Day salute in his pregame news conference, "Happy Mother's Day, all you mothers."

The Clippers say they can't accommodate bandwagon-hopping celebrities because their courtside seats belong to fans who want to see the games ... but darned if the stars aren't popping up in ever greater numbers.

I can just imagine some Lakers staffer being detailed to watch the games and write down the name of every new star who comes out now, so if they call up for tickets next season, they can be referred back to Clipper Nation.

Bruce Willis ... Princess Stephanie of Monaco ... Garry Shandling ... Elisabeth Shue ... Terrell Owens ... Andrew Bynum -- hey, doesn't he play for us?

JACK NICHOLSON?

Who's next, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and the Laker Girls?

And it's only the second round. Even in the Lakers' glory days, the stars didn't descend on the courtside seats until the conference finals.

At the moment, it still feels weird, all around.

"We lost that double-overtime game in Phoenix with Jack Nicholson there," Elton Brand said, "so we're not sure Jack will be invited back."

The Clippers have done it the traditional way -- winning -- even if it took 22 years. All they have to do to keep their new place is go on winning more than the Lakers. It's not as absurd as it used to be ... or absurd at all.

The Lakers are still unique with star power and credibility born of putting up nine banners and appearing in 22 Finals. According to hits on The Times' website, the second-most read story the other day was an NBA notebook, led by Mike Bresnahan's five-paragraph report that Kobe Bryant would be on TNT's studio show.

The Lakers insist they're "one or two pieces away," but their pieces could be one or two seasons away. It's one of the great all-purpose rationalizations, much like "Anything can happen in the playoffs."

Who isn't a piece away, assuming it's Kevin Garnett?

The Clippers are no pieces away, needing only experience and continuity to get better. Now a big-market team, as opposed to a waif in a big market, there's "no shortage of money" in the memorable words of owner Donald T. Sterling, so securing Coach Mike Dunleavy, Sam Cassell, Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Kaman should be easy.

(We should get the Mr.-Sterling-was-speaking-metaphorically backgrounder any day, but Forbes magazine projected last season's income at $14 million, and that was without this season's five playoff dates.)

At this level, you don't get a B for signing two or three of four. Failing to keep Radmanovic would mean losing a key shooter. Not extending Kaman's deal would suggest they're still not comfortable with big contracts.

The Clippers control Kaman for two more seasons with a team option for 2006-07 and the right to match any offer in 2007-08. They've never signed anyone this early in the process.

In 2003, Brand, the NBA's Sir Galahad and a Sterling favorite, was at this point and they didn't sign him. The next summer Brand signed an offer sheet with Miami that the Clippers matched, beginning the new era.

Happily for them, Elton is Elton and never uttered a complaint, assuming such a thing is even in his psyche.

At 26, Corey Maggette is the senior Clipper, with six seasons here, which serves as a reminder that if they're going anywhere, they're only starting out.

"It's just been a different feeling," Maggette said. "I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and it's definitely good."

It doesn't get much better. With a three-day break before they put it all back on the line in Game 7, it's the most wonderful weekend in their history.

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