OUR LITTLE SECRET

The job description is about exploring new territory, taking readers where few have gone before.

Sports columnists have written from villages in Alaska, deserts in Saudi Arabia. Sports columnists have written about basketball in Belize, tennis in Tonga, golf in Guam.

Me, I went to a Clipper game.

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It is 7:10 p.m, and I am pulling off the Harbor Freeway at Exposition.

It is 7:20 and I am in my seat at the Sports Arena.

Well, it's not exactly my seat. The first thing to understand about Clipper games is, nobody sits in his own seat.

You buy a ticket and search for a spot where you can drape your legs across the row in front of you, and your arms across the row behind you.

This search takes about 10 seconds.

"Festival seating," chirped Michael Brennan, a truck driver from Garden Grove spread across four top-row seats Thursday night.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The idea for this column came earlier this season, while working a Clipper game against the Seattle SuperSonics at the Sports Arena.

Don't know what the official attendance was, but the little agate line underneath the box score in the next day's newspaper should have read, "What, a couple of dozen?"

There were so many empty seats that it looked like one of those camp games played in the Forum before Laker games.

And this was a night featuring the defending Western Conference champions.

The Clippers have finished last in the league in attendance for three consecutive years, and four of the last five. Last year they averaged 10,111, or more than 7,000 behind the league average.

Everyone in town knows this.

But even knowing it, the first thing that strikes visitors to Clipper games is, "Gosh, there's nobody here."

The second thing is, "Professional basketball within easy reach? Is this a great deal or what?"

That is what we decided to find out.

Twenty minutes before the start of a game against the San Antonio Spurs and potential Hall of Famers David Robinson and Dominique Wilkins, I pulled in line for parking. There was one car in front of me.

One minute and seven bucks later, my car was safely ensconced around the side of the Coliseum.

From there, I walked to the arena along a quiet sidewalk beneath swaying trees, alone, moments away from a big-time sports event yet surrounded by the ambience of a small Midwestern town on a lonely night.

Complete with the pathetic figure on the corner.

That would be the Clipper ticket scalper.

He stood motionless, leaves gathering around his heavy tennis shoes, dust forming on his flimsy jacket, his expression fixed with the sallow cheeks of one who has gone far too long without human contact.

Oh, I thought, the challenges facing this man! The mountain he must climb!

The lone scalper did not insult the fans by asking them if they needed Clipper tickets. Nor did he bring his own intelligence into question by offering to buy their Clipper tickets.

No, this was scalping with a twist.

"New seats!" he desperately said to two figures moving quickly past. "Anybody want some new seats?"

Moments later, after standing in a two-person line to buy the cheapest ticket, $10, I walked inside and was baffled by the scalper's claim.

New seats? He must have meant, different seats. Because there is not a new seat in the 16,021-seat house.

Some are brown, some blue, some red, but all are old and faded. You sink into them and from somewhere deep, the smell of old popcorn is released.

Ten minutes later, I figured it out.

This is not an NBA arena in the middle of a hip-hop, 1996-97 season. This is an old movie house on a Saturday afternoon in 1965.

The video screen is grainy. The public address announcer--"Malik S-e-e-e-e-e-ly"--is corny.

The workers are unfailingly polite, saying, "Welcome," when you walk through the uncrowded entrance, and "Next in line, please" when there is a line of more than one at the concession stands.

And the seats tell stories.

From an upper section Thursday came the tale of Encino attorney Bobby Abrams and his son, Evan.

Abrams was able to stretch out over so many empty chairs, he fell asleep during the first quarter. He awoke to tell of how he purchased a Clipper ticket package for his Evan's recent Bar Mitzvah.

Where else could they spread out and watch big-time basketball and talk life and not be bothered by elbows in the side or soft drinks down their backs?

"This is a whole other world here," Abrams said. "This is like what sports are about. Kids and family. It's nice."

Across the arena, another upper-deck section, another story.

Barry Mack danced around an empty aisle while his wife, Tanya, held their infant in her lap. They took up four seats, counting the room needed for Mack's moves.

Who was winning? Who cared? Like many others here, they are not Clipper fans, they are basketball fans. They cheer plays, not players.

"Where else can you enjoy it like this?" Tanya Mack asked.

And where else can you get so close for so little?

By the middle of the second quarter, with my $10 ticket, I had moved to midcourt, 25 rows behind the front-row seat of owner Donald Sterling himself.

The ushers look the other way, except, understandably, if you are trying to move courtside.

And who needs to be there?

Because of the small number of fans, from almost anywhere here you can hear shoes squeak, coaches talk, and halftime performers gasp in mock suspense.

Another thing to understand about Clipper games: Great, old-fashioned halftime shows.

This night featured a woman throwing bowls on her head while riding a unicycle as tall as a telephone pole. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Sterling posed with her, and even the cynics smiled.

"This is like, small college stuff," said Greg Flynn, a warehouse manager from Santa Ana. "It's probably embarrassing for the players, but it's fine for the fan."

Walk into a Clipper game as a cynic, and you will walk out thinking like this man.

Thinking that surely, in this day of $5,000 personal seat licenses and $200 imitation jerseys, there is a place in sports for people who want to celebrate the game.

Indeed, Sterling cost himself as much as $80 million by not moving to the Pond of Anaheim this summer. Indeed, this team will probably never win as long as winning doesn't seem to be his top priority.

But if he wants keep the Clippers in the Sports Arena, and keep a little corner of this billion-dollar sport accessible to people who don't want to do anything more than relax and watch a doggone basketball game, then you know something?

We should shut up and let him.

It is 10:10 and I am walking out of the arena.

It is 10:20 and I am on the freeway, wondering if charm carries an expiration date, preparing to write a column I hope nobody reads.

At the Turnstile:

Average Home Attendance Through games of Dec. 12

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1. Charlotte 24,042 2. Chicago 23,807 3. Portland 20,380 4. New York 19,763 5. Utah 19,560 6. Toronto 19,390 7. Orlando 19,387 8. Phoenix 19,023 9. San Antonio 18,040 10. Sacramento 17,317 11. Detroit 17,309 12. New Jersey 17,246 13. Seattle 17,072 14. Washington 17,001 15. Lakers 16,533 16. Houston 16,285 17. Vancouver 15,883 18. Boston 15,810 19. Philadelphia 15,635 20. Minnesota 15,480 21. Dallas 15,314 22. Milwaukee 15,085 23. Indiana 15,046 24. Miami 15,010 25. Cleveland 14,879 26. Golden St. 14,838 27. Denver 12,189 28. Atlanta 10,587 29. Clippers 9,372

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