The Lakers have the buzz. The Lakers have the momentum. The Lakers have the juice.
The Clippers have Marc Buhaj and his billboards.
In the final hours before the NBA’s free-agent frenzy, the Lakers have stolen the headlines with stirring salary cap maneuvers that could allow them to execute an improbable last-minute grab of one of the league’s available superstars.
But do not forget the Clippers. Do not count out the Clippers. They have been the leaders all season in the chase for Kawhi Leonard, and now they’re getting a meeting with Kevin Durant, and they could wind up with both, and while they can’t talk about it now, there’s somebody who can.
“The Clippers are still here,’’ said Buhaj, a Disney executive and season ticket-holder. “The Clippers will be heard.’’
He made sure of it. In the last week he stole a page from the Lakers playbook by digging into his pockets and arranging for six digital messages on three billboards located along local freeways in an attempt to woo Leonard and Durant to the Clippers when the bidding begins Sunday.
You might have seen the displays. They were on the 5, 91 and 215 freeways in Downey, Corona and Perris, the latter two locations a homage to Leonard’s Inland Empire roots. An estimated 100,000 drivers saw each board on each highway every day.
”Billboards are one of the last unavoidable mediums,’’ said Mike Cossota, sales manager for Lamar Advertising, which sold Buhaj the space. “You can’t turn them off. You can’t turn the page. You can’t throw them away. They reach all walks of life.”
One contained the name “Kawhi’’ on a California vanity license plate. Another showed Leonard’s photo alongside the phrase “King Of The North’’… with “The North’’ crossed off and replaced with “SoCal.’’
Another read, “Toronto Is In Canada.’’ And a fourth read, “Time For A New King In LA.’’
For Durant, one read, “Can You Believe The Knicks Tried To Woo Kevin Durant With A Lame, Cheap Billboard?’’ On the same billboard, the letters were later deleted from the original to form “KD TO LAC.’’
“I don’t think billboards will sway anyone one way or the other,’’ Buhaj said with a laugh. “But I want everyone to know that the Clippers have connected with us, L.A. is our home, and this is our team.’’
That always has been the Lakers’ message. They practically invented the billboard thing. Remember the “Stay’’ campaign for Dwight Howard? Even late this week, there suddenly appeared a Lakers billboard pushing for Leonard. It featured a photo of Leonard in a Lakers uniform with LeBron James and Anthony Davis that was captioned “#KaWhyNot.’’
In the bottom right-hand corner, there was an advertisement for a mobile car wash app. Last year’s James billboard was adorned with an advertisement for a law firm. On the Clippers billboards, Buhaj’s name is nowhere to be found.
”None of this is about me. Most Clippers fans don’t need their own audience; we go to watch the team rather than look at ourselves,’’ said Buhaj, who reluctantly agreed to an interview.
He said the difference in the billboard styles is one that is reflective of the difference between the two teams’ cultures. It is this difference that attracted him to the Clippers when he moved with his young family to Los Angeles eight years ago. He came at a time when the Lakers were beginning their downward spiral while the Clippers were beginning their rise.
Like an increasing number of new residents, he was not connected to the Lakers’ glory days, and in fact saw them in a much different light. He has seen how, in each of the last seven seasons, the Clippers have finished with more wins than the Lakers. Those numbers will never change history, but they will create loyalties.
“The way I see it, when you come to Southern California, you have two choices for a pro basketball team,’’ Buhaj said. “One team tells you about its jewelry and its ancient history. The other one has consistently put a good product on the floor. I chose the latter.’’
The Clippers know they’ll never convert traditional Lakers fans, so part of their focus is on the new and undecided fans, and it’s clearly working.
“You see a lot of new folks come to L.A., they’re not forced to take on the assumed exceptionalism of the Lakers. We can make our choices on what team is winning more, and the Clippers are winning more,’’ Buhaj said.
It is this slow shift in perception that has led Clippers owner Steve Ballmer to pour his riches into the team while working on plans to build a new arena in Inglewood. It is this shift that he hopes will help convince the likes of Leonard and Durant that the franchise is finally for real. One of his biggest selling points occurred this spring, when Clippers passion reached a peak as a scrappy team that should have been in the lottery pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round of the playoffs.
“When you see a team that just won’t quit, it inspires a lot of fans to not quit as well,’’ Buhaj said. “There’s something special about the culture that is being built there. On the court, behind the scenes, no clowns, no circus, just hoop. We’re appreciative of that, and I’m hoping free agents are appreciative of that.”
“In the last few years, Clipper fandom has enormously grown under the radar,’’ Buhaj said. “It’s time we need to be heard. It’s time that any potential players know we’re here, and we’re only about the team.’’
So for less than $2,000 — not as expensive as you thought, right? — Buhaj bought the billboards, but not for long. He arranged for the digital messages to disappear before Sunday’s free-agency period begins.
“I didn’t want them to be a sideshow,’’ he said. “The Clippers aren’t about that. They’re all about basketball. That’s the real message.’’
The Clippers can only hope that will be enough.