Splitting L.A. Along the Half-Court Line

<i> Bob Baker is a Times staff writer</i> .

H aaaaaaaah!

Pardon my smugness, but after tolerating months of abuse I have, at last, been vindicated.

Oh, the abuse I had to take from my wife and friends--fool, sucker, boob. I was dismissed as someone dumb enough to have purchased stock the week before Black Monday.

All because I went to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena last summer and bought a package of tickets to 14 Los Angeles Clipper basketball games.


This is not just a sports story. This is a story of the line drawn between two parts of Los Angeles.

On one side are the Los Angeles Lakers and their sparkling Forum and their world championship and all they stand for: success, glitz, winning.

On the other side, at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Figueroa Street, are the Clippers and their rented old Sports Arena and all it stands for: losing, losing, losing.

The Sports Arena, which is closing in on 30 years of age, has lost almost all its tenants over the years, and its remaining pro team, the Clippers, had the worst record in the National Basketball Assn. last year.


My wife, who through marriage has absorbed so much about professional basketball that she recognizes most of the players and coaches and a half-dozen of the referees on sight, was the first to accuse me of idiocy.

I tried to explain. I used the Clippers’ line about how this year would be different because the team had three rookies who were taken in the first round of the NBA draft. But in truth, the reason was a little more quirky.

See, I love the Sports Arena.

I love the intimacy of the place. It’s not too pretty, not splashed up with all that bright yellow and orange paint like the Forum, not festooned with snack bars selling all sorts of exotic drinks and sandwiches that don’t belong at big-city sporting events. Simple colors, cramped seats. Plain, functional. It holds the event, rather than trying to dominate it.


I love the fact that the crowds are low, usually around 6,000. I love being able to walk over to the snack bar and get a hotdog during a timeout and know I’ll be back in my seat before the action resumes. I love the fact that you don’t have to wait in line to use the restrooms. I love the fact that the ticket-takers have enough time to say, “Enjoy the game,” point you in the direction of your seat.

I love driving down the Harbor Freeway and sliding down the King Boulevard off-ramp and remembering the excitement of more than 20 years ago, of being 17 and driving on a freeway for the first time, of heading from the San Fernando Valley into the wilderness of downtown, of walking inside the same building where only five years earlier John F. Kennedy had been nominated for President.

In those days the Lakers still played at the Sports Arena, and unlike today’s Lakers they were a Sports Arena kind of team. They had two stars, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but everybody else was a lumbering style of player, always a step behind, having to squeeze every ounce of talent out of himself to keep up. The fact that Laker teams of that era had winning records was as much a tribute to effort as ability.

The Clippers, too, are a Sports Arena kind of team. No slick stuff. Everything has to go right for them to win a game, and that gives their games a life-or-death quality that is a wonderfully refreshing contrast to Laker games at the Forum, which are too often runaways that leave you subconsciously rooting for the visiting team to keep things close.


The Clippers, like the Sports Arena, are a metaphor for the real world, a low-budget “Rocky,” a struggle against the odds.

My buddy John and I went to our first of 14 Clipper games last week. They played the slumping Washington Bullets and, after leading, fell behind and lost a close game. I went home and told my wife.

“I told you so,” she said.

Wednesday night the Philadelphia 76ers came in to the Sports Arena. The Clippers had not beaten the 76ers for seven years. On this night, in a brutal, awkwardly played, low-scoring game a world apart from the ballet one sees at the Forum, the Clippers came from behind. Eight thousand fans rose in a standing ovation during their comeback. With five seconds left they scored the winning basket.


I went home and told my wife.

“Haaaaah!” I said.

Meanwhile, during that same evening, at the Forum in Inglewood, the Lakers got the hell beaten out of them by the Portland Trailblazers.

Haaaaaa aa aaah!