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The idea of the Lakers playing the Clippers in something called a Hallway Series is only slowly gaining currency in Los Angeles. It wouldn't be the most outlandish thing to happen in L.A., where a white Bronco once led a slow-speed freeway chase and earthquakes regularly rumble, but it would crack the top 10. Let's put it this way: Even in a city that tends to celebrate illusion over reality, the notion of a Bryant-Brand matchup, for keeps, takes an awful lot of mind-wrapping. � These are strange times in Southern California, where rain fell through almost all of April and the Clippers have gotten into the playoffs. The latter was a startling development, the franchise having missed out on the last eight postseasons and the same clueless owner still pushing the buttons. But the Clippers' playoff berth, coupled with the last-minute entry of the Lakers, whose tradition had been put on hold for a season while Phil Jackson worked on the engine, offered a chance to watch a lot of seismic-specific basketball and study parallel cultures at the same time.
And now that the two teams are on the brink of playing a second-round Western Conference series at their shared arena, the Staples Center--the Clippers having dumped the Nuggets in five games and the seventh-seeded Lakers up 3-1 after squeaking by the Suns in a surely demoralizing overtime victory on Sunday--there is the prospect of sociological chaos, a combustible clash of competing civilizations. Or, as Clippers forward Elton Brand suggests, "It will be bananas."
In basketball terms, none of this may be that astonishing. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a real estate mogul who has historically treated his team like a foreclosure property, decided to go for a little curb appeal last summer. With Mike Dunleavy at the controls, he signed off on major improvements, upgrading the backcourt with Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. It must have hurt Sterling, relocating his payroll into the Lakers' neighborhood (well, Nuggets' territory, at least; his $51 million is still $21 million short of Jerry Buss's outlay), but there he was, courtside in May, watching his team manhandle Denver.
The Lakers, meanwhile, had been in uncharacteristic regroup mode, with Jackson trying to puzzle through a team that had Kobe Bryant and not much else. Bryant had been a fascinating player all season, what with his 81-point outburst and a half-dozen games of 50 or more, but one-man shows usually close quickly in the NBA tournament. Yet Jackson, who now seems a steal at $10 million a year, is not to be underestimated. He prodded the team into a season-ending sprint to the playoffs, where the operative action verb hasn't so much been manhandle as mastermind. Jackson has his team winning by--quite suddenly--not having Kobe score. (The poor guy was averaging just 23.0 points against the Suns, hardly a day's work during the regular season, when he averaged 35.4.)
Taken together, the two scenarios have created a little confusion, at least in L.A., where the Lakers' brilliance has been as yawningly routine as the Clippers' ineptitude. When one franchise has given its fans Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and titles in groups of three while the other has served up Benoit Benjamin and a playoff history that takes up a half page in the media guide, and then both get into the playoffs alongside each other--well, it can be too much. It's O.J. fleeing the police during an earthquake.
The Clippers, for their part, are pretty cool with all this. They are mostly young, largely oblivious to the social hierarchy of the last three decades. They don't presume that their first playoff series win since 1975-76, when they were the Buffalo Braves, will rewrite local basketball history. "Same breath as the Lakers?" says Cassell, the Clippers' talking machine. "Wow! One year won't do it. We don't have a guy who can score 50, just a bunch of guys who need each other. Same breath? Wow! They've got Kareem, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson--need I say more?" Cassell, whose playoff experience is as valuable as his shot, actually does say more, but that's for another story.
This humility is in contrast to Lakers pride, which takes the form of offhand arrogance. When this correspondent phoned both p.r. departments, seeking game credentials, he received a quick and unidentified callback from one of them, granting his request. "Now is this the Lakers or Clippers calling?" this correspondent asked. There was a long, overly dramatic sigh on the other end. "The one with nine trophies."
Let's not call it arrogance, just pride. But that pride is so ingrained in Los Angeles that to be anything but a Lakers fan--take in a game, glad-hand a movie exec or two and beat it out of there with five minutes left--is surely a symptom of some form of pathology. When you buy a Clippers ticket it's not so much because you like the Clippers (or even that it's all you can afford) as that you hate the Lakers. TV actor Frankie Muniz (the Clippers' rather downscaled version of Lakers railbird Jack Nicholson) is a die-hard, having ground his baby teeth while watching the exploits of Loy Vaught and Terry Dehere. "I despise the Lakers with a passion," says Muniz, who put off a move to New York so that he could remain courtside for his team's unprecedented run. "I would rather the Clippers win one game all year if it meant the Lakers would lose all their games."
The purple-and-gold don't do anything in particular to provoke this hatred, except to win, be exciting and attract a glamorous and well-heeled bunch. Their crowds, of course, are an awards ceremony unto themselves, a self-congratulatory confab of celebrity that has everything but a red carpet and Joan Rivers. The star power at any Lakers game can be quite impressive, with Salma and Pam rubbing ... shoulders, but for the playoffs the dial jumps somewhere between People's Choice and Golden Globes. When the Lakers finally got back home last Friday after splitting games in Phoenix, they were greeted by Charlize, Cindy and Jack. The kind of people who score courtside seats at $2,200 a pop don't require last names.