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A banner day for the Clippers

When the Clippers covered the Lakers championship banners in STAPLES Center, the question wasn't so much why did they do it as why did it take so long?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The Clippers have been in Los Angeles for 29 years. They've played their home games in STAPLES Center for 14 years, and are now beginning their 15th season. Which makes this a banner year for the franchise -- at the end of this season, STAPLES Center will surpass the Sports Arena as the most frequently used home court in franchise history, which is pretty mind blowing when you consider how long it seemed like they were in the Sports Arena, and how it feels like just yesterday that they moved into STAPLES.

The franchise has come a long way, especially when you consider that when they were still the Braves, as recently as 1978, they played their home games in the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium -- which makes it sound like they were playing on a middle school campus.

Buffalo Memorial Auditorium Upcoming Events
November 4 -- Back to School Night!
November 5 -- Assembly: Fire Safety
November 6 -- NBA Basketball

Last year was literally a banner year for the Clippers -- or at least it could have been if they'd chosen to make it one. It was the first time ever that the team won any identifiable honor, finishing the regular season as the champions of the NBA's Pacific Division, the first Division title in franchise history. The Clippers chose not to hang their Pacific Division banner above their home court in STAPLES Center -- largely because it is not just their home court.

When the Clippers opened their pre-season home schedule, their first home appearance since the NBA Playoffs last May, the place looked a little different. The Clippers of course share STAPLES Center with another NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Lakers of course are one of the most successful franchises in league history. But when the fans arrived last week, instead of the gold and purple banners commemorating Laker championships and the retired jerseys of Laker legends, the south end of STAPLES was adorned with massive images of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and five other Clippers.

This caused a bit of a stir. How dare the Clippers dishonor the Lakers in this way?

But honestly, isn't the question really, what took so long? Why did the Clippers play 14 seasons on a home court that also serves as a trophy case for a direct competitor?

The fact is, STAPLES has been undergoing related changes for many years now. When it first opened, the seats on the lower level were purple -- one of the primary colors in the Lakers logo, but a horrible clash with the Clippers red and blue. (To be fair, the building's third major tenant, the LA Kings of the NHL, still had purple elements in their uniforms until last season, so the purple was arguably more than just a Lakers thing.) I honestly don't remember when the lower level seats were replaced with black -- they were apparently still purple in 2006 when I started the blog -- but it wasn't an accident.

In addition to that permanent change, the Clippers and Lakers and Kings have been adding temporary signage to the venue for their specific home games for years now. The arena facings display red and blue Clipper logos when Chris and Blake are playing, purple and gold Lakers iconography for Kobe and Pau. The most labor-intensive part of the changeover from a Clippers game to a Lakers game (or vice versa) is switching the court, but there are myriad changes taking place throughout the arena, inside and out. Covering the Lakers-themed banners and jerseys is just a logical extension of a process that was already in place.

Is it disrespectful to the Lakers? That question could not possibly be less relevant to my mind. Who really cares? What possible reason could the Clippers have for respecting the Lakers during Clipper home games? Is there a contractual obligation in their STAPLES lease to NOT cover the south wall of STAPLES? If not, then I say again, what took so long?

I suppose it's possible that no one ever thought about it as an option until new head coach Doc Rivers looked at the building with fresh eyes. It wouldn't be the first time that someone was too close to a situation to see something that seems obvious in retrospect. And certainly Doc brought up the idea at the right time -- if STAPLES previously felt hesitant to cross the Lakers, or the Clippers lacked boldness out of a general feeling of inadequacy, those are not issues today. The best team in STAPLES -- and almost certainly the one that sells the most beer, which is after all where STAPLES owner AEG makes it's money on game night -- now wears red and blue (baby blue on Sundays).

That end of the building, with a 40 foot tall DeAndre Jordan dunking on the crowd, looks freaking awesome!

There's another consideration in this debate, by the way. Yes, the Clippers covered up the Lakers championship banners and retired jerseys. But have you seen the result? That end of the building, with a 40 foot tall DeAndre Jordan dunking on the crowd, looks freaking awesome! It's the coolest part of the building during Clipper games, without a doubt.

I've been trying to think of an analogous situation in sports, and honestly, there just isn't one. The simple fact of the matter is, the Clippers and Lakers are the only team in the four major U.S. professional sports that share a home venue. [Note by Steve Perrin, 10/24/13 12:28 PM PDT ] That is if one completely ignores the New York Giants and Jets of the NFL who've shared a venue for decades. (The LA Galaxy and Chivas USA have a similar issue in MLS of course, with Chivas being in the Clippers role of less established franchise. It's worth noting though that the Clippers are an original tenant of STAPLES Center, calling the venue home just as long as the Lakers have, whereas Chivas moved into the Home Depot / StubHub Center a couple of seasons after it had opened.) The challenges of having a home court that isn't always your home court are almost completely unique to the Clippers and Lakers, and the Lakers obviously have always cast the bigger shadow.

Even where NBA arenas are shared with NHL teams, the basketball team is generally speaking at least on equal footing with the hockey team. The Avs have a championship in Denver, but the Nuggets do fine. The Stars and Mavs have both done well in recent years. Many iconic NHL franchises just happen to be in cities that have equally well-established NBA teams -- the Bruins and Celtics, the Red Wings and Pistons, the Rangers and Knicks are all happy co-tenants, with plenty of banners for each team to enjoy.

The closest I could come to the Clippers situation, where an NBA team feels like a guest on its own home court, is the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors play their games in the Air Canada Centre, which is owned and operated by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, who also own the Raptors. As you may have already guessed, the same entity owns the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, a franchise that was founded in 1917, 78 years before the Raptors. The Maple Leafs are named for the symbol of the entire nation, the emblem on the country's flag -- the Raptors are named for a dinosaur in a Steven Spielberg movie.The Raptors, like the Clippers, have only a single division title to celebrate in their franchise history. (By my reckoning, the Grizzlies and Bobcats are the only active franchises to have never won a division title.) If ever there were another NBA team that felt as much like a guest in its own house as the Clippers, it would be the Raptors.

I asked Adam Francis, managing editor of SB Nation's RaptorsHQ blog if the Raptors ever feel like an afterthought in the ACC or the Toronto sports scene:

Afterthought would likely be an understatement. The Air Canada Center is home to both the Leafs and Raptors, but it's the Leafs that get top billing in most fans' minds. The arena is pretty equally decorated so it doesn't feel like primarily the bastion of the Maple Leafs, but the perception is still that if you're going to the ACC, you're likely going for a Leafs' game. The Leafs also have many more banners of all types to hang from the rafters so I believe the only two for Toronto are the inaugural season banner, and their...ahem, Atlantic Division title from the Bosh era. Meanwhile, the Leafs have multiple Stanley Cup banners, let alone divisional and conference titles.

But let's face it, the Clippers situation is still very different. After all, they didn't cover the Kings banners and jerseys -- not just because it would have been more difficult with those items hanging in the rafters as opposed to against the wall, but because the Kings are not a competitor of the Clippers. There are 30 NBA teams and every year they compete with one another for the title. It goes without saying that the Clippers shouldn't be celebrating one of the 29 other teams in the league if they can possibly avoid it.

The NBA season opens in five days, with the Los Angeles teams facing each other in a Lakers home game. You can bet that the Lakers and their fans will make a big deal out of the banners on the south wall that night. And that's their right during Laker home games. Just as it's the Clippers right to ignore that other NBA tenant during Clippers home games.