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Clippers Are Just a Visiting Team

The people came Saturday night to the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, even though it was for the Clippers and the Sacramento Kings.

They showed up the way they have, almost inexplicably, all season for such a bad team.

They came even though they knew they would never be viewed as anything more than an occasional alternative. The Clippers announced the previous day that they would follow the Kings and Lakers into the new Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, meaning the Pond would never be their permanent home.

If buying a Clipper ticket is an act of good faith, this qualified for sainthood. It was one last demonstration of what that oxymoron known as Clipper management decided it could do without.

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The Clippers will have a home in a state-of-the-art arena come 1999. But all of those luxury suites do more for ownership than the players.

The Clippers’ agreement with the Staples Center does nothing to guarantee the players will get what they want the most.

“We just want to be in a place where we’re appreciated and get some fan support,” guard Darrick Martin said.

He happened to be standing in the one building in America where the Clippers are appreciated and do get some fan support. He had just witnessed the proof: An announced crowd of 14,257 gave up a perfectly good Saturday night to watch two teams with a combined 44 victories. That’s the very definition of unconditional love.

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There probably were not 14,000 people in attendance. But the crowd definitely reached into five figures, which is impressive enough and much better than the attendance figures at the Sports Arena, where “they tell you there’s 2,500, but it’s like 1,500,” said Clipper guard James “Hollywood” Robinson.

“This area seems to like basketball,” Martin said. “I have a lot of friends down here that tell me Anaheim is starving for a pro basketball team. I think it could work.”

We’ll never find out. Not with this team at least.

The Clippers averaged 13,435 fans for their eight games at the Pond this season, pulling in decent crowds even for worthless games such as the one Saturday, and for a game against the Latrell Sprewell-less Warriors on a rainy weeknight in December.

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They allegedly averaged about 9,000 per game at the Sports Arena.

Do the math. Or better yet, listen to the crowd. The players do when they’re at the Pond.

“You hear them say, ‘Hollywood, come on,’ “Robinson said. “That really gets you going.”

Could he see playing in Anaheim?

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“Most definitely.”

Of course, if the team moved out of Los Angeles then ‘Hollywood” would have to get a new nickname. What about something more Orange County, like “Disneyland”?

“Nah, nah, nah,” Robinson said.

We might need a new nickname for the arena, like the Staples Studio. This obviously has more to do with television than with fan support. TV dollars make the fans secondary. Fox is extending its tentacles even further into the L.A. sports scene and the Clippers are part of their battle with Disney for cable programming supremacy. Maybe the technical wizards at Fox can superimpose fans in the seats the way they superimpose advertisements on tennis courts.

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The Clippers will use the Pond at least through next season, and they might want to keep the option available to help alleviate the scheduling problems posed by housing three teams in the same building.

But now that the door has closed on the possibility of moving there, it will be hard not to think of the principal tenants of the Pond as the Mighty Ducks and the lame ducks. Will fans continue to come out now that they know their voices have been heard--and ignored?

The Clippers say their visits to the Pond were never more than an experiment to expand fan interest (or “grow” it, as the corporate types would say) and it’s an experiment that has worked successfully. The Clippers never flirted with Orange County, never teased or promised anything. They just listened to all of the arguments that made so much sense, then decided to stay in Los Angeles anyway.

It’s a major coup for Clipper owner Donald Sterling. So many teams have gone to war with local governments to get a new stadium built, and now he gets to use this one without attending a single city council meeting or spending one dime on construction costs.

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But do you know what it means in the long run? “The Clippers being in the shadow of the Lakers again,” Robinson said.

And any losing team that could pass up the fan support provided in Anaheim just doesn’t see the light.


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