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IN HIERARCHY L.A HOOPS, LAKERS ALWAYS SEEM TO REIGN

Imagine the state of basketball in Los Angeles right now if Kobe Bryant didn’t have a sudden change of heart.

He was almost a Clipper, you know. Well, at least that’s the impression he gave the Clippers. Six years ago, right after the Lakers shipped Shaquille O’Neal to Miami, and with Kobe exploring free agency, he met with the Clippers and everyone left that afternoon thinking it was a done deal.

You know why car salesmen never want a customer to leave the lot without signing the papers? Because of the very real possibility the customer will never step foot on the lot again. And that’s what happened when Kobe met Lakers owner Jerry Buss the next day. He never saw the Clippers again.

When Kobe left the Clippers hanging, it all but guaranteed the Clippers would remain second-class citizens in the city they share with the league’s glamour franchise. In that brief moment, when Kobe essentially told the Clippers “I’ll get back to you,” the chance of a historic tilt in L.A. looked possible. And then Kobe, as he often does to teams on the basketball court, ripped the Clippers’ hearts out.

Last night the teams met at Staples Center, where all the Laker banners and retired numbers hang. The Clippers claimed victory and a temporary sense of satisfaction, although nothing changed overnight in the big picture.

Nothing lasts forever, and yet you wonder if there will ever be a lengthy role-reversal in L.A. In just about every other metropolitan area with two teams in the same sport, the pendulum manages to swing occasionally in each directions. Both the Athletics and Giants have shared success in the Bay Area. Same for the Dodgers and Angels in Southern Cal. Even the Mets won a pair of World Series and paraded in New York, infuriating spoiled Yankee fans.

But basketball in L.A. has been monopolized by the Lakers ever since the Clippers moved from San Diego a quarter of a century ago.

Is Jerry Buss just luckier than Donald Sterling? Or does he just know how to hire better people? Both are probably true. Would Buss be hailed as a great owner if he never had Jerry West picking the talent all those years? Well, hiring West made Buss a great owner. But what about the Gail Goodrich trade made with the New Orleans Jazz prior to Buss becoming owner that allowed the Lakers to draft Magic Johnson? Would Buss’ reputation as owner be completely different without that stroke of good fortune?

And remember: Shaq came to L.A. from Orlando mainly because of the entertainment possibilities in addition to the money. Once again, though, it reflected well on the Lakers and by extension, Buss.

Buss did make one decision that clearly showed how shrewd an owner he is: He chose Kobe over Shaq when the two had to be split up. Actually, maybe his best choice was buying the Lakers instead of the Clippers.

Sterling had Elgin Baylor as his general manager for decades and had crummy luck with injuries. And when Sterling’s team had the No. 1 pick overall, Magic Johnson wasn’t on the board; Michael Olowokandi was. And Danny Manning, who quickly came up lame, as did Shaun Livingston and now Blake Griffin, out until the end of the month. And when Sterling finally decided to pay big money to players, it went to Baron Davis and Corey Maggette and also Elton Brand, who left the Clippers for Philly right when the Clippers had just signed Davis.

The first season the Clippers played in L.A., 1984-85, the Lakers won the championship. And they’ve been winners ever since, for the most part. The Clippers, meanwhile, won plenty of trips to the draft lottery.

Only four times did they finish with a better regular-season record than the Lakers, and for two weeks in the spring of 2006, L.A. belonged to the Clippers. The Lakers were eliminated by the Suns in the first round while the Clippers advanced to the next round and pushed Phoenix to seven games. For the Clippers, it was the summit of their existence in L.A. and their one shining moment in any comparison with the Lakers. And it would be fleeting. Kobe eventually got Pau Gasol, Brand eventually skipped town, and the status quo returned to L.A. basketball.

While it’s hard to imagine the Lakers sinking to the Clippers’ level as long as Kobe is healthy and bloodthirsty, the Clippers do have intriguing young talent. Assuming Blake isn’t injury-prone or cursed, he could become a star and a staple on the front line for many years. Chris Kaman is having a career year. There’s Eric Gordon and Al Thornton and, because tradition is hard to break, another lottery pick coming soon.

The Clippers are still spending their days and nights and years looking up to the Lakers, but keep this in mind: Kobe can opt out of his contract this summer. Would he cross the street and kick the tires on the Clippers’ lot again?

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