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Lakers vs. Clippers: The Story Behind the NBA's Most Fascinating Non-Rivalry

The Lakers will meet the Clippers on opening night, and chances are the words “Battle for L.A.” will be bandied about liberally. When that happens, Clippers front office types will blanch—they know there’s no battle, let alone a Battle. They’re still light years behind the Lakers when it comes to the city’s hoops affections. (How else do you explain new Clips Kawhi Leonard and Paul George getting booed in their new town at a Rams game and an MMA event, respectively?)
But the fact that anyone is remotely suggesting that the teams are on something approaching equal footing—even if only in the service of hot takery—would have seemed impossible 35 years ago, when the Clippers first invaded the Lakers’ territory. 
Their first meeting as co-Angelenos came on Nov. 24, 1984. At 9–5, the Lakers were in the process of rebounding from a 3–5 start, their worst in years. That early season funk had been very much out-of-character; the Lakers were in the midst of a run that would see them reach the Finals nine times in a 12-year stretch. The Clippers, on the other hand, were 4–9, which was very much on-brand.
The irony is that the Lakers had inadvertently pushed the Clippers down a path of despair—and the Clippers played a substantial role in the building of the crosstown Showtime-era dynasty. For nearly four decades, the franchises and their fortunes have been inextricably linked through a series of dealings Shakespearean in their complexity, drama and, perhaps above all, farce.
The whole thing started years before that fall night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, in 1978, against the Lakers’ actual rival, the Boston Celtics.
A Beverly Hills–based movie producer named Irv Levin owned the storied Boston franchise, which had fallen on hard times. (Trading for Robert Parrish and drafting Larry Bird shortly thereafter would fix that.) What Levin really wanted to do was own a team in California, but he knew the league would never let him relocate the Celtics. So he engineered a deal to swap franchises with one of the league’s most moribund outfits: the Buffalo Braves, who were in the process of losing a turf war over their home arena with the Canisius men’s basketball team. Levin and Braves owner John Y. Brown—a future governor of Kentucky who had made his fortune building up KFC after he bought it from Col. Sanders—consummated the deal in July of 1978, and San Diego was home to an NBA team, which was renamed for the ships that sailed through San Diego Bay.
The Clippers weren’t the first team to try their hand in San Diego. The Rockets had been admitted to the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1967. Despite putting together a roster that included Elvin Hayes, Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy, the team failed to win games or draw fans. In June of 1971—on the same day San Diego State named him Alumnus of the Year—local owner Robert Breitbard sold the team to a group that relocated it to Houston.
Presumably unaware of any of this, the ABA granted an expansion franchise to the city the following year. An orthodontist named Leonard Bloom got the team, which was all well and good with just about everybody except Peter Graham, who ran the 14,500-seat San Diego Sports Arena and wanted the team for himself. As a result, when the Conquistadors began play—with future Hall of Famer K.C. Jones on the bench—with three home games in three nights, they did so at San Diego State’s Peterson Gym, a facility so rundown that not even SDSU played there. Capacity was 4,200. The Q’s drew 5,230 fans to the three games, though it should be noted that since the place had no turnstiles (or concession stands), there’s a good chance that number was significantly inflated.
The next year the Conquistadors spent $600,000 to hire Wilt Chamberlain as player-coach, but the Lakers sued to prevent the 37-year-old Big Dipper from taking the court. He remained as coach, though Wilt—who was 45 minutes late for his introductory press conference—was known for skipping games for reasons such as book signings to promote his autobiography. After two-and-a-half more seasons (and a name change, to the Sails), the franchise folded.
The third time was not a charm. Despite Levin’s assertion that the previous failures were due to the fact that they were played in “another era,” the apathy of fans in the 1978–79 season was still noticeable. The Sports Arena was usually around half-full at best, and on some nights less than 2,000 fans were in attendance—despite the fact that the team went on a 15–1 run late in the season. But the Clippers suffered a crushing blow on March 23, 1979—a 156–119 loss that sent the team into a tailspin that would result in them losing six of their last eight games and narrowly missing the playoffs. The team that pummeled them: the Lakers. After the game, the Lakers’ coach, who might be familiar to Clippers fans these days, added insult to injury. “Honestly, I did not feel like we that played well tonight,” groused Jerry West.

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