It was a scorching summer day in south Los Angeles, the perfect time for a blacktop basketball team to pave its way into the heart of a city.
Outside the gym at the Green Meadows Recreation Center, kids played hoops on four blacktop courts, families picnicked under giant trees, a woman pushed her belongings in a shopping cart, and loud music thumped from atop the trunk of a sagging car.
Inside the gym, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was rearranging his two new stars to make a statement.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were holding up their new Clippers jerseys with the numbers “13” and “2.”
Rivers made them switch places so the numbers read “213.”
Rivers grinned. The area code was clear. The message was unmistakable. Leonard was coming home. George was coming home. In one of 204 city courts that the team helped renovate, the Clippers were rolling out a refurbished, championship-style basketball team that feels like home.
“Pretty cool,” Steve Ballmer shouted earlier. “Pretty damn cool.”
It was all pretty hot, the Clippers celebrating their latest acquisitions Wednesday in a news conference/pep rally that, besides the usual screaming owner, also featured cheering children, an inspirational video and the unveiling of a giant outside mural featuring two of the top 10 players in the NBA wearing Clippers uniforms.
Yeah, Kawhi and PG-13 are really here. The Moreno Valley and Palmdale products sat next to each other on the stage, both wearing jeans and T-shirts and sneakers; both dressed in the hoops credibility that this organization’s recent landmark moments have always lacked.
Lob City always felt hokey. That introductory Ballmer news conference was a circus. Blake Griffin dunking over a car was weird. Chuck the Condor is dumb.
This feels real. This feels like it could have some traction. This feels like a city is going to start paying closer attention.
“We’re going to make it happen … L.A., our way,” George said.
For once in this cursed organization’s history, this way feels like the right way. With two of the league’s two best two-way players added to a selfless team that pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games in the playoffs, it feels as if people are going to love this way.
“We’re here to celebrate not only just the Clipper brand … this feels more like a movement to me, it really does” Rivers said.
It is a movement out of the shadows and into the buzz. It is a movement out of Staples Center and eventually into a new arena in Inglewood. It is a movement fueled by local fans, particularly younger ones and newer ones, who have grown weary of the drama-filled Lakers.
Let’s face it, that’s all some of you want to know, right? Can these Clippers ever capture the majority of eyeballs from the Lakers? The reasonable answer, the 16-championship answer, is no. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have their moments, that those moments won’t eventually add up, and the local NBA world could slowly turn. Maybe it’s turning already.
Shannon Williams, the Green Meadows coordinator, said kids hanging out at his center were especially interested in coming inside and seeing Leonard and George on Wednesday because they are the ones being imitated on the city playgrounds.
“These new-age players coming up now in street ball, they like being PG and Kawhi, those are players they can relate to because they’re both from L.A.,” he said. “The older generation, age 40 and up, they know about Showtime and the Lakers, but for this new generation, the YouTubers, the millennials, it’s all about the Clippers right now.”
I asked Leonard and George about exiting the shadow of the Lakers and both said something that you never hear at a Clippers news conference.
They mentioned the Lakers by name. They were clearly neither in awe or fear of their stranglehold.
“I mean, as far as last few years, as far as a basketball standpoint, the Clippers have been better,” Leonard said. “But it’s the media, they’re going to get the attention, they’re the Los Angeles Lakers, they’ve been winning championships for a long time.”
Leonard said he wasn’t even thinking about them.
“I don’t feel like we’re focused on that. … I just want to win,” he said, adding, “If we go to the championship and win and still don’t get no coverage, that’s fine with me.”
George was more pointed in his apathy for the elephant in the room, saying, “I think the Lakers are the Lakers. We’ve got our own identity. We’re chasing something else. We’re not looking at the Battle of L.A. We’ve got bigger things in mind, bigger goals to accomplish.”
As for the shadow, he said, “None of that really means anything. At the end of the day, we want to be holding the trophy, that’s all that matters. We’ll build our legacy, we’ll build our Clipper Nation up along the way.”
Despite a belief that has driven some Lakers fans crazy while watching their team consistently fail in its pursuit of PG-13, George said, “I grew up a Clippers fan.”
Despite the belief from some Lakers fans that Leonard wanted to join their team and stroll to a title, he said he prefers doing it the hard way, saying he came to the Clippers for “the opportunity for us to build our own, to make history, they haven’t been to a Finals, haven’t won a Finals, that was something big and exciting for me to make my decision.”
Listening to them talk, it was clear they joined the Clippers because they were everything the Lakers are currently not: championship coach, steady front office and a culture not driven by stars.
Watching them talk, it is still pretty amazing they are Clippers, even now, even to the greatest of basketball minds.
“To hear that we got both of them, I was completely shocked, completely shocked, I had no clue,” Clippers guru Jerry West said. “These are real basketball players.”
Blacktop players, as Rivers calls them. A 213 team, as their uniforms would indicate. On a scorching summer day in south Los Angeles, a movement began.