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The Christmas Angel

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You'd think I'd be used to it by now.  You really would.

I was in the Target yesterday and of course the Christmas merchandise is starting to appear (because, you know, it's only THREE MONTHS AWAY!)  Anyway, that's not the point of today's rant.  Among the various and sundry tasteful and sacred items celebrating the birth of Christ was a purple and gold stocking with a Lakers' logo on it.

No Clippers' stocking mind you, despite the fact that the color scheme would be much less jarring (a purple stocking, really?)  But like I said, I should be used to it.  Despite the fact that the Clippers really are an NBA franchise, and they really are based on Los Angeles (sometimes I wonder), playing games in the same building as the Lakers, it's barely easier to purchase Clippers merchandise in LA than in any other city in the US.  

It is of course a function of being the 'other' team, but it still hurts.  And it's not just about sucking.  Denver sucked for years, but if you walked into a Denver Target during basketball season you could always get some Nuggets crap if you wanted to.  (Over there, behind the Avs jerseys.  Maybe that was a bad example.)  

But right in that same Target yesterday was a shining beacon of hope.  The North Star hopefully guiding our Clipper ship to a new world.  An Angels stocking.  And perhaps more significantly... No Dodgers stocking.

Now, if you didn't grow up in LA, this may not strike you as odd.  But trust me, it is.  When I was a kid, I read the LA Times' Sport Section every day.  And the LA Times covered the Dodgers and the Lakers on the front page, above the fold, every day, while the Angels and the Clippers were relegated to the back pages, barely warranting more ink than the out of town scores.  Sure, on a slow news day, or when the team was winning a little, they'd sneak onto the bottom of the front page.  But it was always short-lived, and the Angels and Clippers would always fall back into the bowels of the paper sooner or later.

As a youngster, this always bugged me.  As it happens, I have a thing about symmetry that borders on clinical OCD.  I won't let the ClipperWife empty the dishwasher because she just puts the dishes in the cabinet - she doesn't do it the RIGHT WAY.  So growing up, this asymmetrical news coverage drove me up the wall.  The Dodgers and Angels are both Major League Baseball teams.  They're both from the Los Angeles area.  The Los Angeles Times exists to cover news in the Los Angeles area, and the sports section exists to cover sports.  Why would the two teams be treated so differently?  I could understand if one team was winning and the other wasn't.  But although the Dodgers were good in those years, they weren't significantly better.  It seemed as though they should get about the same coverage provided their record was about the same.  But that was far from the case in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

What I didn't understand of course was the economics of newspapers.  The papers devoted ink to the things their readers cared about.  I wanted the newspaper to be a public service.  I didn't realize it was a business.

I concluded, in the case of baseball, that it was because the Angels weren't really from Los Angeles, they were from Orange County.  And I suppose there might have been something to that in the 70s.  But the Times has always been a paper for the entire southland, and certainly by the 80s their OC circulation was massive.  So it should not have mattered.  

In the Clippers/Lakers case, it was easy enough to attribute the disparity to the relative success of the two franchises.  When the Clippers moved to LA in 1984, the Lakers had won titles in Minneapolis AND in 72, 80 and 82 in LA.  The timing of the move was particularly bad - the Lakers had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy (just to name the Hall of Famers) and challenged for the title year in and year out.  The Lakers won three more titles in the Clippers first four seasons in LA.  The Clippers on the other hand were among the worst teams in the league, managing a high water mark of 32 wins in their first seven seasons in LA.  It was the 80s, and I wasn't really a kid any more, but anyone could have understood why the Lakers got more coverage.

The historical correlations were similar for these LA sports franchises as well.  The Lakers/Dodgers were the storied clubs from colder climes, relocated to sunny California about the same time (Dodgers in 1957, Lakers in 1960).  The Clippers/Angels were the expansion team - no tradition, no titles, little success of any kind to speak of.  The Lakers/Dodgers boasted multiple trips to the Finals/World Series and multiple championships.  It was easy to see why the city had always been, and would always be, Laker Purple in the winter, Dodger Blue in the summer.  There just wasn't anything the Clippers or the Angels could do about it.

And then it changed.

LA is now an Angels town.  T-shirts, car adornments, press coverage and of course post-season play all skew red.  And it happened seemingly overnight.  Obviously the Angels World Series win in 2002 is the watershed event in this paradigm shift, but if you had told me before 2002 that the Angels would be easily the most popular baseball team in LA by 2005, I would have said you were crazy, World Series win or no World Series win.  Today's LA Times has a good article about the change in management and philosophy that took the Angels from doormat to powerhouse, which was good timing considering my stocking-based epiphany.

For ClipsNation then, the Angels are the blue print (or should it be red print?)  It is possible to take over a town from an entrenched rival.  You have to do things the right way, and you have to have sustained success at some point, but it is possible.  Of course, it also helps if your rival loses its focus as the Dodgers have of late.

Looking back, it makes the summer of 1993 that much more painful.  In their first seven years in LA, the Clippers had averaged fewer than 25 wins per season and never made the playoffs, while the Lakers averaged an astounding 61 wins and won three titles.  But in 1991 with Magic's HIV diagnosis, the Lakers fell on some relatively hard times, while simultaneously the Larry Brown Clippers made a playoff run.  In 91-92, the Clippers won 45 games to the Lakers 43, and the next year the Clippers won 41 while the Lakers won 39.  The Lakers' slide continued into 93-94, when they managed only 33 wins.  But a parsimonious house-cleaning for the Clippers left them starting over, and a 27 win season returned them to laughing-stock status.  Meanwhile Jerry West was still the Lakers' GM, and the arrivals of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant a couple seasons later slammed the door shut on any chance the Clippers had of stealing some spot light.

The current iterations of the Lakers and Clippers seem to present a new opportunity.  Kobe Bryant will continue to generate news, but there's plenty of trouble in the purple halls of Staples Center, and there's no Jerry West to save them (much to Kobe's chagrin).  Of course, this time fate may have wrecked the Clippers ship, with the duel devastations of injuries to Shaun Livingston and Elton Brand.  

Still, there is that Angels stocking hanging in the Target.  It can be done.  Some day this could be a Clippers' town.  If Kobe and Mitch continue to do their part, the opportunity will be there.  

Now I have to go do some Christmas shopping.  Only three months left!