So long, cardboard cutouts. A chance at history deserved these full-throated cheers.
Three days after California reopened amid the pandemic, Staples Center was rocking at full capacity for the first time in 15 months and the Clippers rewarded their sold-out crowd with a 131-119 comeback win over the Utah Jazz that sent the tortured franchise to the Western Conference finals for the first time.
From those sitting courtside to fans with their backs against the farthest wall in the nosebleed sections, the win was a cathartic moment to exorcise demons built up through decades of ineptitude. After the game, giddy fans broke out in spontaneous “Let’s go Clip-pers!” chants on the concourse and again in Star Plaza where statues of Lakers greats loomed overhead.
Many may have suspected the reigning NBA champions would have been the first to play in front of a packed crowd at Staples Center after the pandemic relented, but it was instead the city’s longtime second fiddle that stole the spotlight Friday.
“We’ve been living in the Lakers’ shadow for a long time,” said Jairo Maravilla, who watched the game in the arena’s highest row with his two children and girlfriend. “Respect to the Lakers, honestly, but we can finally do something this year.”
For Steve Rice, who has cheered for the team since the 1980s, this is the franchise’s best team ever. It’s the way the pieces fit together around two stars with Southern California roots. It’s not about ego. It’s about the players’ desire to be Clippers.
“That’s huge,” Rice said. “It’s not just someone who came here for only one particular reason like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in a contract year, then move on.’ It’s huge for us that these guys want to be here and we root for that.”
Rice inherited his love of the Clippers from his grandfather, a Minnesota native who turned on the Lakers when they bolted to L.A. He remembers going to games in Anaheim when they were relocated because of rioting in 1992. He waved a white towel in the crowd.
Friday’s sold-out crowd featured blue T-shirts reading “playoffs our way” draped over each seat. Fans used paper fans as noisemakers and waved LED bracelets in the air as starting lineups were announced. The crowd booed when the Jazz ran onto the court and jeered star guard Donovan Mitchell with chants of “o-ver-ra-ted” as he shot free throws.
Rice was wearing a Paul George jersey and a black and yellow California license plate around his neck that read “Clpship.” He took it off his car the same way that friend Vladimir Bilik unscrewed his front plate that reads “LA RWay.” The plate from Bilik’s wife’s car went to his son Boston.
Bilik and Rice were digital fans in the NBA's bubble, sat among cardboard cutouts in a half-full Staples Center before restrictions ended and traveled to playoff games. It felt surreal to return to Staples Center with limited capacity when every available seat was marked by a sticker.
But even when the crowd was capped at a few thousand, it sounded full, Bilik said, especially during the Clippers’ Game 4 win over the Jazz last Saturday.
The noise returned Friday during the Clippers’ furious second-half comeback.
Despite the support of their fans, the Clippers fell behind by 22 by halftime. Marisol Arredondo, who became a Clippers fan when she met Maravilla, acknowledged she was worried.
“But you gotta keep hope alive, right?” she added standing outside Staples Center. “And they came back. Strong.”
With enthusiasm at a low simmer during the third quarter, Clippers forward Nicolas Batum waved his arms to pump up the crowd. Less than two minutes later, Terance Mann knocked down a corner three that got the Clippers to within seven points. The noise as fans rose to their feet and cheered was thunderous.
Seemingly no one sat down for the rest of the game.
The resilient effort without star Kawhi Leonard exemplified what Ramon Aguilar believes is the identifying characteristic of this team.
“Usually our Clippers team, when it gets hard, we crumble,” said Aguilar, who attended the game with his wife and five kids. “It just seems like this team, it has heart.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.