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Column: Why are Lakers fans rooting against Clippers? Ignore them, but why openly hate them?

Clippers guard Rajon Rondo vehemently reminds his teammates to raise their hands on defense.
Clippers guard Rajon Rondo vehemently reminds his teammates to raise their hands on defense before losing to the Phoenix Suns on an alley-oop dunk with less than a second left in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One of the strangest phenomena in American sports occurred again Tuesday night, further laying bare the darkest depths of a city’s sports soul.

A professional basketball team located in downtown Los Angeles — with Los Angeles in its name, Los Angeles on its home jerseys and 37 years of Los Angeles history on its résumé — dramatically lost an important playoff game in the final second.

And all over Los Angeles, people celebrated.

The gritty hometown Clippers were stunned by the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, yet roughly 90% of this city’s basketball fans jumped for joy.

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“First I laughed,” screenwriter Andrew Ungvari said. “Then I cheered.”

Amy Nicholson, a film critic and co-host of the popular “Unspooled” podcast, was watching the final seconds on her phone when her boyfriend kindly asked her to shield it from him.

“Don’t tell me anything about the game unless the Clippers lose,” director Adam Egypt Mortimer said.

Soon thereafter, she told him the Clippers had brutally, devastatingly, chillingly lost.

“Oh, good,” he said.

Maybe, not so good?

Reflecting on the 104-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night that put the Clippers in a familiar position.

Those stories are happening nightly in all corners of a city that has become littered with divisiveness during what should normally be a unifying potential championship run.

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It’s all because most Lakers fans, even though their team has long since been eliminated, are still openly rooting against the Clippers.

They’re not simply ignoring them, which would be completely understandable. They’re not casually dismissing them, which would also seem reasonable.

No, instead, they are actively booing and jeering them, which makes much less sense.

There are fans of a 17-ringed organization outwardly wishing for the demise of a franchise that has never even made an NBA Finals.

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There are fans of the most popular team in town loudly hoping for the elimination of a team that barely registers a blip on the Los Angeles sports radar.

Because there are so many of them, their distaste fills the atmosphere and commands the narrative and further cement one of the NBA’s stranger truths.

Even after overcoming countless deficits to fight their way to within eight wins of a championship, the Clippers are more respected nationally than locally, and it’s not even close.

You can see it on social media, where Ungvari, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, recently wrote, “I would root for the Clippers against the Celtics or against the Nazis. That’s it. That’s the list.”

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You can hear it from local radio personalities who openly brag about disliking the Clippers while begrudging their every success.

Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne shoots over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr.
Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne shoots over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

You could have witnessed it at Staples Center recently when workers were actually overheard joking about the Clippers possibly being eliminated early, as if mocking them was more important than cheering for another pay day.

You would eventually hear it at Dodger Stadium except the Clippers, even if they won the title, probably would never go anywhere near the place. The last time they were there during the Lob City era, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were roundly booed.

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As far as the majority of Los Angeles is concerned, the Clippers might as well be the Sacramento Kings, and with each win it becomes more awkward.

“It’s very peculiar … the fans are very vocal, downright nasty, vulgar, profane,” said former longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler, who deals with haters daily on his Twitter feed. “Any time I say anything positive about the Clippers, I get an avalanche of people saying, ‘You guys haven’t done squat!’ But I never said we did.”

Alvin Michaelson, a criminal defense lawyer and Clipper season ticketholder for 34 years, likens the attacks to the constant mugging of a perceived invader.

“This the Lakers fans’ turf, they’re like a gang,” he said. “When we’re out of it, I don’t mind rooting for the Lakers: Who doesn’t like LeBron James, who doesn’t respect him? But Laker fans will never root for the Clippers.”

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The Clipper invasion has particularly irked Lakers fans in recent years, both in the standings and on the streets.

The Clippers have won 28 of the last 35 games between the teams since the 2012-2013 season and have not lost a season series to the Lakers in nine years. Under owner Steve Ballmer, the Clippers also have gotten serious about selling their brand to the city, clearly positioning themselves as the anti-Lakers with slogans like, “Street lights Over Spotlights,’’ and “We Over Me” and “L.A. Our Way.”

The rivalry intensified when the Clippers covered up the Lakers banners and retired jerseys at Staples Center, and then when it appeared stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both played the Lakers for fools before signing with the Clippers.

“The Lakers never started anything, then the Clippers began this marketing campaign, really did some things to get under people’s skin,” said Ungvari. “If you win you’re going to grow a fan base, you don’t have to go after other people’s fans to do it. Don’t come into my house and try to convert my kids without my permission.”

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Lakers fans were particularly outraged when Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, a former Lakers champion, spoke up for a town united.

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue leads an animated huddles during a break in the action against the Phoenix Suns.
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue leads an animated huddles during a break in the action against the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I know the Lakers are out and there’s a lot of Lakers fans here, but once the Lakers are gone, if we are not playing the Lakers, you should be cheering for the Clippers,” he said recently. “It’s all one city.”

One city? Not here. Not now.

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“I even cringed when I heard Phoenix fans chanting, ‘Beat L.A.’ at the Clippers,” said Ungvari. “It’s like hearing somebody chant, ‘Beat L.A.’ when they’re playing the Angels.”

But here’s the difference. When the Angels won the 2002 World Series, most Dodgers fans either ignored them or admired them. They didn’t openly root against them.

When USC football or UCLA basketball is chasing a national title, the other school also usually ignores them or admires them. They rarely openly root against them.

This Lakers fans’ hate smacks of an insecurity that should be beneath them.

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“To the Laker fans getting their nose out of joint, I say, ‘C’mon, how many championships do you have, we have nothing but admiration for your success, we would just like one banner to go with your 17,” Lawler said. “If they are that insecure, they need to sit down with a shrink and figure that out.”

The Lakers fans’ hostility is actually making the Clippers fans feel warm and fuzzy.

“It’s a compliment that they’re coming after the Clippers,” Michaelson said. “It means we’re no longer irrelevant.”

When Deandre Ayton reached over the rim to dunk for the Suns’ win over the Clippers, several players immediately argued that the play was illegal.

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Ungvari agreed that Clippers fans should be thrilled.

“Wouldn’t you want to be hated by your rival and know that it would burn in their soul if you win?” he said.

Still, this all seems so silly. The Lakers are done, the Clippers are still alive, they’re also Los Angeles, and they’ve had a wondrous couple of weeks that should make this city proud.

If you can’t cheer for them, why can’t you just ignore them? Rooting against them feels like you’re rooting against your city, and that just seems weird.

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Listen to Nicholson, who, like her boyfriend, is a diehard Lakers fan. Listen to her perspective. She has loads.

“I think it makes Laker fans look insecure … we can’t let them have this one good year when we have a lot of good reasons why our team isn’t still here?” she said. “We just won. How petty do we have to be? How much more ego stroking do we need? It makes us look like the bully in an ‘80s movie.”

You don’t need to give the Clippers your applause or even your attention. But, seriously, what would it hurt to give them something they haven’t really had in 37 years here?

What would it hurt to give them their moment?

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Clippers-Suns finals schedule
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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