From the Sports Arena to Staples Center to Inglewood

Hall of fame broadcaster Ralph Lawler shares his thoughts on the Clippers every week on The Sporting Tribune.

This week’s Q&A is being replaced with an excerpt from Ralph Lawler’s new book “Bingo! 40 years in the NBA.” Lawler will participate in a book signing in the Team LA store at Arena prior to Saturday’s Clippers-Spurs matchup.

Below is a select portion from Chapter 14: “From the Sports Arena to Staples Center to Inglewood.”

(Pages 161-162) IN 1967, THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS fled the L.A. Sports Arena for the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. Their former home was less than ten years old, but would be without an NBA tenant until the Clippers moved north from San Diego in 1984. The Forum was still the far superior venue; the Sports Arena had not aged well.

Ten years into their almost-unnoticed launch in the City of Angels, the Clippers experimented with a limited number of games each season at the flashy Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. It was home to the NHL Ducks and hungry to attract an NBA tenant. The games were generally well-received there. I went with owner Sterling and team president Andy Roeser on an up-close inspection of the property in 1997. The locker rooms needed to be upgraded to NBA standards, but that was about it in this squeaky clean, five-year-old building. I lived in Orange County at the time, and I was excitedly anticipating the possible move. It seemed almost inevitable in the months ahead; the team and the arena were in serious negotiations, and the NBA was very supportive of the move. Everybody wanted to see it happen. Except, in the end, Donald Sterling. Some believe he simply did not relish the commute from Beverly Hills. I think it was more simply that it was not Los Angeles. In any case, the Clippers crossed Anaheim off their wish list, and the club seemed destined to stay in the musty Sports Arena for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, I made a detailed twenty-page proposal to the team to renovate the old building. It was a great place for fans to watch the game. I touted old-style wooden bleachers at one end of the court, with cheap seats for raucous fans. There would be a historic-style scoreboard and live music, and even the season tickets would have a 1950s look. If you’ve been to the Pacer’s Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, you have an idea of where I was heading. It would feature spacious and sparkling new locker rooms for the Clippers, and a more antiquated space for the visitors. Everything would be done to make this a palace for the Clippers, but a dreaded dungeon for the opponents. Frankly, I thought it was rather brilliant. But team president Roeser saw nothing but dollar signs. I’m almost certain that the owner never saw or heard anything about it.

Meanwhile, early in 1998, the L.A. Kings of the National Hockey League were building a new arena in downtown Los Angeles. It would house the Kings and the Lakers in a gigantic, luxurious new facility. Before too long, it was announced that the Clippers would join the Lakers as Staples Center tenants. That would mean three winter sports teams in need of a total of 123 regular season dates for home games, plus pre- and post-season. It simply seemed unimaginable. Somehow, they figured it out, but it was often at the expense of the Clippers, who received third choice for the prime calendar dates. Roeser called and asked me to join him on a visit to view the new building’s construction. We went to the Civic Center to peer into a giant hole in the ground. Amazingly, the building opened in the fall of 1999, just eighteen months after breaking ground. The Clippers wound up playing the first NBA game at Staples Center. Sterling got a better financial deal with Staples than he’d been offered in Anaheim, and he kept his team in Los Angeles. Score another one for DTS.

The move to Staples Center did not pay immediate dividends for the Clippers, but it did add a layer of legitimacy to the franchise that had been languishing largely without notice in the City of Angels for fifteen years. The first season was a certifiable disaster under Chris Ford. They won only eleven of their first forty-five games before Ford was dismissed and replaced with assistant coach Jim Todd. The 15–67 final tally marked one of the worst seasons in franchise history…

(page 167) In 2014, Steve Ballmer purchased the Clippers, and soon learned the perils of playing not second, but third fiddle when it came to scheduling at the Staples Center. Originally, he’d had no intention of building his own arena; Staples Center appeared to be one of the jewels of the NBA. I’m so thrilled that the team broke ground in 2021 for the Intuit Center in Inglewood. It will be right there next to the magnificent SoFi Stadium, and it’s going to be the spectacular hub of sports and entertainment in the city, a true basketball arena.

Team president Gillian Zucker, who often joined us on the road in my final couple of years with the team, was also scouting arenas. She wanted to find out why the buildings in Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City were so loud. She wanted to see the new ideas displayed by recent buildings in Sacramento, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn. They left no stone unturned. The new Clipper building will blow everybody away. Sound gets swallowed in the high ceiling at Staples Center, but that will not happen in the new Clipper home when it opens in 2024.

It will be a beautiful place, but hellish for rivals. It will also be a magnet for free agent players. The new arena is a true game-changer for the Clippers. It will be much like the Barclay’s Center that has given the Brooklyn Nets new life in the Big Apple. The Clippers will have their own home court, and it will be the envy of teams throughout the land. And you know . . . it likely never would have happened if Sterling had moved the team to Anaheim. Ballmer probably would not have bought the team, and he certainly would not have paid $2 billion for it. I would say that things are turning out pretty well for the Clippers

“BINGO! 40 Years in the NBA” is the memoir of legendary Los Angeles Clippers and sports broadcaster Ralph Lawler. It is available for purchase at book retailers nationwide.


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