SANTA ANA, Calif. — They can’t stretch out anymore.
Can’t put their foot on the unoccupied seat in front of them. Can’t show up 15 minutes beforehand and park wherever they like.
Can’t go see their favorite basketball team without everyone else in the office wanting to piggyback.
They are Clippers fans, and life is just a series of 24-second smiles.
Their team has won 11 consecutive games and has the second-best record in the NBA. Better yet, the Lakers are under .500.
The Clippers have spent most of their L.A. existence stuffed into the Lakers’ trunk, but now they have sold out 64 consecutive games at Staples Center and not only run better plays than the Lakers but make better highlights.
It is nearly as astonishing as the fact that any fans whatsoever are still around to walk beside them.
“Even now I don’t look at any game as a gimme,” said Dr. Jeff Paskil, an anesthesiologist from Tustin who has been a Clippers season-ticket holder since Staples came along in 1999.
“I know that no matter who we play, no lead is safe. But, sure, it’s been fun. This is one of the best teams in the league and the type of team you want to root for.”
Wayne Glass grew up in San Diego and sneaked into that Sports Arena to see World B. Free and Randy Smith. “Back when Donald Sterling sat there in the front row with that sleeveless look,” he said.
Now he lives in Anaheim and has braved the L.A. Sports Arena days to live in this unlikely here and now.
“Used to be, you’d go there and everybody’s there for the other team,” Glass said. “I was in the third or fourth row of my section, and every game, somebody would be standing up in front of me, cheering for the visiting team. Well, the first chance I got, I moved my seats to the front row of my section. Now, nobody gets in my way.”
The Clippers participated in the ambivalence. They used to actively promote the best invading players, including Lakers.
When John Ratliff, an entrepreneur from San Juan Capistrano, needed to give away his Clippers tickets, he did the same thing: “You want to see Dirk Nowitzki? He’s playing tonight.”
Because of that, Clippers fans became known as basketball connoisseurs. After all, the game itself was the only reason to go.
“I had Laker tickets, fourth row in the corner at The Forum,” Paskil said. “Then when they went to Staples, the Lakers doubled the cost and moved me 20 rows up behind the basket. That’s when I got Clippers tickets, and I began noticing that the fans really knew the game, that nothing got past them. They’re far more knowledgeable than Lakers fans. They’re there to see the game, not the celebrities.”
“Lakers fans, they’re not handling this real well,” Glass said. “They start telling me about their rings. I say, yeah, but that’s because you guys go over the salary cap. The Clippers never spent money. I saw guys challenge Donald Sterling to fistfights. But when they got Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, it’s changed. Those guys don’t like to lose.”
“It became a launching pad for stars,” Paskil agreed. “The Clippers always had these fantastic draft picks, like Elton Brand. When it came time to pay them, they went elsewhere.”
But a sports franchise relies on an iceberg of worker bees. Cedric Wilson is part of the Clippers’ season-ticket support.
“For a while there I’d say, well, should I keep buying these tickets?” Ratliff said. “And I’d talk to Cedric and he’d say, ‘I really think this is going to be the year.’ He is always so optimistic. That’s one thing the Clippers have done very well. They have these reps, like Cedric, who communicate with us, ask if everything’s all right, get us down on the floor to meet a Clipper before the game.
“The best way I can explain this is by what happens when I can’t use the tickets. I’d want to take my 8-year-old but he had homework, and I’d decide I wasn’t going, and I’d have to call 10 or 12 people. Sometimes there would be nobody who wanted them. And I’d say, look, get your homework and come to the game with me. You can do it during the timeouts.”
“Now it’s no problem,” Ratliff said. “One call. People are calling me. It’s just a fun time.”
Ratliff still wishes the Clippers had moved to Anaheim, after their “Pond packages” of years past. But this is a better stage for the Clippers to live the season beyond their dreams. For one thing, the Lakers have an unobstructed view.