This season, Los Angeles has two NBA title contenders and four of the top 10 players in the league — and they all play in the same arena. How do two distinctly different franchises present themselves in the same building?
Inside the Staples Center visitors’ locker room on Nov. 17, the Atlanta Hawks lick their wounds after being thrashed for the second straight night. After falling by 49 points to the LA Clippers the night before, the Hawks lost by 21 to the Los Angeles Lakers just 24 hours later.
That’s two beatdowns by two title-contending L.A. teams in the same venue, but for all the similarities, Hawks swingman Evan Turner notes the differences in the crowds.
“You’ve got LeBron there, so there’s a type of awe,” Turner says of the Lakers environment. “Wherever he goes, there’s going to be something. So that adds to the crowd being more excited and on edge.”
But, Turner says, the Clippers’ vibe is markedly different.
“The Clippers hang their hat on being blue-collar,” he says. “That’s what I notice. That’s not a bad thing.”
Thunder guard Chris Paul, who knows L.A. well, having played six seasons for the Clippers, cites similar contrasts after his Oklahoma City Thunder squad drops back-to-back games to the L.A. teams a few days later.
“It’s always two different energies when you play against the Clippers and you play against the Lakers,” Paul says. “The lighting is a lot different. You’ve got your monotone man for the Lakers, who does the intros and all that. It’s just always a different energy.”
Instead of keying in on differences, former NBA superstar Dominique Wilkins, who now works as a team analyst on Hawks broadcasts, points out that the Clippers and Lakers are finally aligned.
“Completely different organizations, but the same type of atmosphere now,” he says.
“Now, you’re talking about an atmosphere that has excitement from two teams in the same city. I don’t know when that’s happened — not in basketball. It’s pretty amazing.”
Some 70 feet apart in the hallway of Staples Center sit the entrances to the locker rooms for the Lakers and the Clippers.
The Lakers’ entrance appears first in the hallway, and it can be tight when dozens of media members crowd around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. In the middle of the room is James’ locker, which occupies the left stall of the center wall. Next to his is an empty stall. To the right of that is Davis’ locker.
Once the media enter after a game, one of the two stars will speak while the other either soaks his ankles in an ice bucket or receives postgame treatment, though the preferred rhythm for the duo is for Davis to speak to the media first and James to follow.
Farther down the hall, the Clippers’ locker room appears. Their entrance is typically curtained off to prevent looky-loos from sneaking a glimpse as the door opens and shuts before and after games.
Once inside the doors, an entrance to Doc Rivers’ office is immediately to the left. Down the corridor, past a break room with a sliding door, is the Clippers’ semicircle locker room.
It’s minutes before tipoff, and the lights are off inside Staples Center. But don’t worry: There is plenty to see.
Laser beams shine in all directions, and a huge, white curtain, with parts of the pregame hype video shown on it like a massive theater screen, falls to the floor once the video is over.
Then, a familiar baritone voice fills the arena. Longtime Lakers PA announcer Lawrence Tanter goes through his unique pregame introductions.
“And now, celebrating its 60th year in Southern California, 72nd year in the NBA, this is the franchise with 23 Pacific Division titles, 31 Western Conference titles and 16 NBA titles. The home team, your Los Angeles Lakers.”
Compared to those of pretty much all other teams around the league, Tanter’s pregame introductions are understated. They are out of a time capsule from a prior generation. But that’s befitting of a franchise known for its history.
At Clippers games, everything is … loud. The pregame routine is at a noticeably higher decibel than it is at Lakers games.
From the music before and during play to the in-game hype crew talking during timeouts, the Clippers do their best to entertain fans from the moment they take their seats. Clippers games start like Lakers games do: lights down and laser beams flickering across the court and lower bowl.
But then the Spirit Clippers Dance Team rolls drums onto the floor and begins beating them to a song while sparklers are set off into the air.
Lakers pregame is pure tradition. For the Clippers, pregame is a party.
When LeBron James chose to come to L.A. in the summer of 2018, unbeknownst to him, he had a little piece of home waiting for him at Staples Center: The Lakers’ home court — the actual 94-by-50 expanse of hardwood — is provided by Robbins Sports Surfaces, the company that installed the court on which James played home games during his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Lakers have a long-standing relationship with Robbins, which boasts on the company’s website that its hard maple courts are the “industry’s most advanced and only biomechanically tested floors.”
The NBA requires that each team change its home court every 10 years, but the Lakers make sure there is constant upkeep in the meantime.
“Every year we send it out to get repainted,” Montoya says. “Every other year, we send it out to get resanded.”
When the Lakers choose to change their look — a decision that comes from the very top, through controlling owner and president Jeanie Buss — they have to notify Robbins well in advance.
“They actually go out, and they physically choose and pick the wood,” Montoya says. “So when you get a new court, you have to tell them way ahead of time because it takes a while for them to actually pick and choose which [pieces to use].”
The Clippers turn to Horner Sports Flooring for their home court. It’s also maple and has a matching high-gloss polyurethane finish coat. But the aesthetic, like much of the rest of the game presentation, is very different.
The Clippers’ court has just three colors of paint on it (black, red and white), while the Lakers’ has four (red, white, purple and gold), yet another category in which the Lakers can claim they lead the Clippers.
About an hour before the Clippers begin their 49-point demolition of Atlanta, NBA superfan and millionaire Jimmy Goldstein is going through his typical game routine: posting up along the baseline and watching players go through their warm-ups.
Goldstein is in his signature, unique sort of rock-band look: a shiny, black, leather jacket and a flamboyant hat made of what looks like snakeskin. Goldstein is almost as much of a fixture at NBA games here as the Lakers banners that hang high above him. He says he has been a Lakers season-ticket holder for 58 years and a Clippers one for 35.
He attends more than 100 games each season, and he travels from city to city during the postseason to go to as many playoff games as he can.
Through all the decades, one thing has remained constant: Friends ask him to take them to Lakers games — not Clippers games.
“It’s ridiculous,” Goldstein says while standing near his Clippers’ front-row baseline seats, where his name is spelled out on the floor. “And in recent years, the Clippers have been much better than the Lakers. But the Lakers have that aura about them.”
“Lakers,” actor Chadwick Boseman said in November on “The Bill Simmons Podcast” when asked which tickets he prefers to land through Hollywood connections. “They just treat you better when you go, as a star. It’s the truth. It’s the truth. They just treat you better. … They’re more celebrity-friendly.
“It matters that you have the banners up, you have championships up there. There’s a culture. And it’s a thing to sit at a Lakers game.”
When Staples Center opened its doors in 1999, the arena was tailor-made for the Lakers: the purple seats, the sleek suites designed for corporate and celebrity hospitality, the grandeur befitting one of the NBA’s most hallowed brands. The Clippers were merely coming along for the ride. They ranked last in the league in attendance for several seasons running but secured a sweetheart lease that would allow them to be the stepchildren at Staples for six years. The Clippers would play a bunch of less desirable 12:30 p.m. PT starts and compete beneath the Lakers’ 11 championship banners and the retired jerseys of Lakers legends.
During the first 20 seasons at Staples, the Lakers and the Clippers rarely contended at the same time. The concrete had barely set before the Lakers ran off three straight titles while the Clippers remained doormats.
By the time the Clippers assembled a roster that won at least 50 games over a steady stretch, the Lakers were in decline, going seven consecutive seasons without a playoff series win. If there were ever going to be a true intra-city rivalry between the two teams, they would have to align their fortunes. The 2019-20 season offers that moment.
With Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George joining LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Lakers and the Clippers have made Staples Center the seat of power in the NBA. The two teams seem destined for their first postseason meeting.
The Clippers will likely move to their own building in 2024, but in the five seasons between now and then, the long-awaited sustainable rivalry looks to be a reality at last.
By Kevin Arnovitz, Baxter Holmes, Dave McMenamin, Ramona Shelburne and Ohm Youngmisuk