King Kobe: No changing of the guard in California

Travis Nicholson
August 24, 2011

Professional basketball is celebrated all over the world, but very few places can claim to be the true capital of the sport. The state of Indiana once considered itself worthy, but now is a fading basketball ancestral land. Springfield, Massachusetts, is an option to due to fact that the hall of fame is there, but a terrible option nonetheless. The five boroughs of New York City offer a rightful home for the game, providing no better option should my imaginary capital of basketball need to be a city, for some reason.

If the game was born in the Midwest and educated in the city, then like everyone else in show business, the NBA truly thrives in on the golden coast. California is the universal center of the basketball world.

The golden state is currently home to four professional teams, and sitting alone it is the eighth largest economy in the world. California is a prosperous place, and a spectacle of glitz and shimmer. As the NBA gets deeper in bed with the entertainment industry, the boundaries between the culture of professional basketball and the culture of Hollywood become increasingly blurred. Paparazzi arrive at Staples Center to photograph the players just as much as the celebrities who show up to watch their friends and husbands play.

In terms of Hollywood folklore, there are no sports franchises like the Lakers. Name another NBA franchise where the owner can’t get season tickets for his own team. Jerry Buss, owner of the Lakers since 1979 and one of the most respected owners of entire teams in the NBA, watches from a luxury suite because none of the contractual owners are willing to bequeath their highly-coveted courtside seats.

Jack Nicholson has been a regular at courtside for Los Angeles Lakers games for 25 years and is often visible, but Denzel Washington, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, Sylvester Stallone, Leo DiCaprio, A-list producers Joel Silver and Jeffrey Katzenburg, Penny Marshall, music producer Lou Adler, and fashion-forward individual James Goldstein all hold season tickets ‘on the wood.’ The mysterious “Yori” — of which little is actually known, amazingly given that we’re now used to knowing everything about everyone — sits in the seats beside Jack’s in section 102, mingling with various other impresarios and moguls. Spielberg, Rihanna and Jay-Z also show up on occasion.

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If you have the $100,000+ or so needed to pay for 41 home games and the inevitable playoff run, you’ll have to contact Laker management and fork over $100 to get on a waiting list. Beyond that, the other options are limited: either marry a Laker, a la Khloe Kardashian, or divorce Cary Grant and get his Lakers season tickets in the divorce, a la Dyan Cannon.

What is the point of this all this celebrity namedropping? For anyone living in or around Hollywood, having Lakers season tickets like these may get you on a list with the likes of the Katzenburgs and the DiCaprios, and there are fewer bigger status symbols in Hollywood. There isn’t this kind of demand in other Californian NBA markets. Being California, famous people inevitably show up and do amazing things, but there is not the purple and gold shine of the Lakers even though they may be in the very same building.

With the departure of Phil Jackson and a brutal second round playoff exit, there are serious doubts as to whether or not a core of Pau Gasol and Bryant’s tired knees can bring another late run into the playoffs.

With the possibility of losing one of their windows of opportunity for another championship compounding the troubles, the Kings, Warriors and Clippers may have the wiggle room needed to climb the Western Conference standings. If David Stern’s recent comments about NBA owners being overwhelmingly in support of revenue sharing are true, the financial climate could finally be right for a very real sea of change for three clubs that haven’t been able to challenge for second place in their own state (let alone compete for an NBA championship) in more than a decade.

Let’s look at the candidates. Often considered the worst franchise in pro sports is the Los Angeles Clippers. Donald Sterling is appropriately ridiculed as a terrible owner and manager, either unable or unwilling to make an attempt at anything beyond mediocrity. After years of terrible draft picks, terrible trades, shockingly huge contracts to such terrible players and the constant forfeiting of lottery draft picks, there is a consensus that things are actually on an upswing for the Clip.

This you can chalk up to Blake Griffin. Whether his YouTube success will ever rival any competitive success he has in the future NBA is unknown. Barring unforeseen terrible decisions on the part Clipper management, Griffin is in the perfect place for him to grow as a star. On his rocket-like trajectory to all-stardom he is bringing the Clippers organization with him but he can only do so much, and whether the owners care if they are coming with him is still an issue. In today’s NBA there is no moment greater anticipated than the half-second an alley-oop lob hangs in the air, and no greater spectacle than Blake Griffin dunking it home. In a city that thrives on the spectacle, the wow factor supersedes everything else, so if the Clippers can bank on this they have a chance to nip at Kobe’s heels.

Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan are notable pieces towards further relevancy in the NBA, but Griffin and Griffin alone will keep the Clippers afloat for a while. In the unpredictability of a post-lockout NBA, the improvements made last season from 29-53 to 32-50 may have even been the start of a Clippers renaissance. But I doubt it.

Equally young and Californian but considerably better run as an organization (though that isn’t saying much), the Warriors and the Kings are two franchises in limbo, waiting for their young stars to blossom into winners or bust into infamy.

On board to bring the Warriors back into the competitive ranks of the NBA is new head coachMark Jackson. He is the right person to make any sense of such a talented and unproven backcourt. Yet again, running a defense-first team with the scoring-minded Monta Ellis andStephen Curry will be daunting and perhaps akin to herding cats. After gaining 10 wins on the previous year’s total, the Warriors remained out of the playoffs with a 36-46 record. In the unlikely event they gain another 10 wins, this would still have them fighting for an eighth seed.

With even more room for improvement is the Sacramento Kings, whose 24-58 record is the worst in the state (and easily doubled by the 57-win Lakers). Fortunately, the Kings boast some of the most prized young talent in the NBA, such as Tyreke Evans, Demarcus Cousinsand Jimmer Fredette. More important to the fans of the team and the state of California is the fact that the Kings’ owners, the Maloofs, want to relocate to Anaheim. If former NBA player and mayor of Sacramento can raise the funds needed to build a new arena, then the Kings will stay, but if not then relocation to Orange County seems likely.

The team and the city have a year to work out a deal, and in that span the Kings will likely land another high lottery pick. The pieces are falling into place for future success and if played correctly the results could be impressive. This is not to say that your recently purchased Kings season tickets will give you the Hollywood swagger and status of Ari Emanuel (or evenGeorge Lopez), but you may be witness to the resurrection of professional basketball in the long shadow cast by North America’s shiniest and most spectacular franchise in professional sports.

There is the possibility that one day, just maybe, the Kings, Warriors or Clippers could contend for basketball supremacy in California. But as it’s only a possibility, it’s far from realistic. With such gaping holes in the landscape of professional basketball in California, the 16-time champion Lakers can rightly claim to be the home of basketball’s throne on the Pacific coast.

For now, California is still Kobe’s country.

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The Author:

Travis Nicholson

Travis Nicholson is a writer and graphic designer who started writing online in the 90s amidst a haze of bad haircuts and NBA Jam on the shores of Lake Erie.