Column: Clippers, not the Celtics, have become Lakers’ most-hated rival

LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard chase after a loose ball.
The Clippers have surpassed the Celtics in terms of being the Lakers’ biggest and most-hated rival in the eyes of some fans. The teams play again on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was growing up in Los Angeles, the Lakers’ biggest rival was the Boston Celtics. The Clippers may have been an intercity rival but they were an afterthought after moving to L.A. from San Diego in 1984 in the midst of the Lakers’ “Showtime” era.

But as Flea sat at Staples Center this week, he looked up and prayed for his Lakers to defeat the team that has arguably become their biggest rival.

“On Sunday, dear lord, dear basketball gods, crush the … Clippers!” Flea said. “Beat them! Beat them!”


Flea’s plea echoes what most Lakers fans feel going into Sunday’s game. The Celtics will always be the Lakers’ most historical rival, but the Clippers have become arguably their most disliked one if you listen to their fans.

The Lakers and Clippers have always had a geographical rivalry but it has never translated into much on the court.

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While the Lakers won 10 championships and played in 16 NBA Finals from 1980 to 2010, the Clippers had just two winning seasons and just one playoff series win. And while the Clippers advanced to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, the Lakers have missed the playoffs the last six seasons and haven’t won a postseason game in seven years.

That reversal of fortune has helped ignite the rivalry among a Lakers fan base frustrated by the Clippers’ success. Lakers fans often call the Clippers their “little brother” and in this sibling rivalry, the little brother has beaten the big brother in 25 of their last 30 meetings, including their first two this season.

“The Celtics are our biggest rival but we hate the Clippers just as much if not more than the Celtics right now,” said Gary Martin Zelman, who is known as the “Lakers Sign Guy” to most fans. “Their fans are always trying to compare themselves to us. I found myself recently rooting for the Celtics to beat the Clippers as crazy as that sounds. I think the torch has been passed on to the Clippers. I think most Lakers fans would rather beat the Clippers than the Celtics at this point.”

More than 65% of Lakers fans in a recent poll of about 7,000 said they disliked the Clippers more than the Celtics. The major turning point in the feud occurred in 2011 when former NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and later approved a deal for Paul to the go to the Clippers. It was the first time a star player the Lakers wanted ended up on the Clippers instead.


Lakers forward Anthony Davis is guarded by Clippers forward Paul George during the Clippers' win on Christmas Day.
(Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

Two years later, the Clippers hired Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics to a championship over the Lakers in 2008, and one of his first orders of business was to cover up the Lakers’ championship banners and retired jerseys during Clippers home games with pictures of Clippers players.

Rivers initially got some pushback from a Clippers organization that had never previously embraced the rivalry with their hallway neighbors at Staples Center.

“They told me, ‘We can’t do that, they would be mad at us,’ ” Rivers said. “That was their response, and I said, ‘OK, so? They’re the opponent. The opponent should never be happy with you.’ ”

While the flames of the rivalry were mostly fanned by the fan bases as the Lakers struggled, it became the most intriguing rivalry in the NBA over the summer when Kawhi Leonard spurned the Lakers and signed with the Clippers. He was joined by Paul George, who one year earlier had also decided not to sign with the Lakers or even take a meeting with them.

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The Clippers welcomed the two local products with a commercial that stated, “Driven over given. Streetlights over spotlights. The right way over the easy way. That’s L.A. our way.” The Lakers were not mentioned but their fans made their own connection.

“People here in Los Angeles are so protective of the Lakers so the fact that the Clippers have made some moves and want to make this a Clippers town with their ‘L.A. our way’ marketing, Lakers fans take offense to that,” said lawyer Jacob Emrani, a longtime Lakers season-ticket holder and sponsor. “We don’t like the Celtics but the hatred for the Clippers is greater because it’s in our face every day. They’re in our city and in our building.”

Even the Clippers’ attempt to leave Staples Center for their own building has added a new layer to the rivalry.

Of all the municipalities Clippers owner Steve Ballmer could have picked to build their new $1-billion home, he picked Inglewood, which was where the Lakers played from 1967 to 1999. Not only is the arena slated to be built down the street from the Forum, but Ballmer is in advanced talks to buy the Lakers’ old home, which means he could one day decide to demolish it.

“Lakers fans wish they would just move somewhere else,” Emrani said. “But that’s not going to happen and as long as the Clippers are in Los Angeles and making moves, they’re going to be our biggest rival.”