It was the last Monday before Christmas in 1891 when Dr. James A. Naismith, looking for a way to keep his charges at Springfield College in Massachusetts fit as a fiddle through the cold New England winter, hung a pair of peach baskets at opposite ends of an assembly hall and gave birth to basketball.
Naismith’s humble game of 13 original rules (none of which allowed dribbling) has since gone global, spawning an entire ecosystem of gyms, parks, and backyard hoops.
But there can be only one sun around which the basketball solar system orbits. A place where dominance is found at the highest levels. Where hoops culture runs thick from the roughest street courts to pristine palaces of gleaming hardwood. Where icons reign and history is rich.
A place 2,900 miles from where the game was invented, where hostile weather wouldn’t have been an issue, even in December.
That place is Los Angeles, the undisputed basketball capital of the world.
Disagree? Take a gander at L.A.’s eye-popping résumé.
Let’s start with the gold standard: The Los Angeles Lakers, who’ve reached the finals 25 times and won 11 titles since migrating from Minneapolis in 1960. Heck, the five championships they’ve banked since 2000 alone would rank third in NBA history. The list of roundball luminaries donning the purple and gold reads like the credits of an Oscar-bait movie featuring every available A-list star stuffed into the cast: West. Wilt. Baylor. Kareem. Magic. Worthy. Shaq. Kobe. Gasol. (Meanwhile, actual Oscar bait could do worse than the Hollywood talent regularly found courtside at Staples Center, all identifiable by one name, like Brazilian soccer stars—Jack. Leo. Denzel. Dustin.)
Sure, the surfing may be choppy this year on the heels of the Lakers’ most disappointing season in franchise history. They have a better chance of missing the playoffs altogether for just the third time since 1976 (!!!) than raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy. None of this prevented the NBA from giving them a schedule with the maximum number of nationally televised games, nor will it squelch conversation about which superstar will eventually take the torch from Kobe Bryant.
Because the Lakers, the NBA’s best, longest-running, most successful entertainment program, always matter.
THE CLIP SHOW
L.A. has also finally patched the crack in its NBA dominance with an amazing reclamation project.
For decades, the Los Angeles Clippers seemingly existed only to offset the Lakers’ shine and provide ready-made punchlines. Back when the Lakers had Shaq, the Clippers had Michael Olowokandi, one of the worst No. 1 draft picks in league history. (According to Kobe, back in 1996 the Clippers told him he had the best pre-draft workout they’d ever seen but said “the city of Los Angeles wouldn’t take us seriously” if they selected a 17-year-old. The irony is staggering on several levels.) The Clippers have forever been a gun with a never-ending supply of bullets aimed at their own feet.
Not anymore. With the Lakers now under construction, the Clippers will not pardon their dust. The 2013-14 campaign is a full-scale “Championship or Bust” affair. Chris Paul is the league’s best point guard, and with All-NBA power forward/dunk savant Blake Griffin by his side, the two will form a formidable inside-outside duo for years to come. The team will be led on the sidelines by Doc Rivers, owner of a 2008 title ring with the Celtics and source of unassailable gravitas, who wrangled his way out of Boston at the end of last season to join the Clips. Fifteen years ago, that scenario would have required either damning photos or tranquilizer guns and duct tape. No longer basketball’s Siberia, the Clippers are now a hot landing spot, capable of leveraging all the perks synonymous with playing in L.A.
No, these aren’t even your older brother’s Clippers anymore, much less your daddy’s.
Look around the NBA beyond the Lakers and Clippers, too—the place is infested with young L.A. talent: James Harden. Paul George. Kevin Love. Russell Westbrook. Brandon Jennings. Brook Lopez. Jrue Holiday. Klay Thompson. Kawhi Leonard. And don’t forget Paul Pierce, the Inglewood High product still averaging almost 20 points per game at nearly 36 years old. (And thankfully, he’s not in Boston anymore, so L.A. can start rooting for him again.)
That’s just the men, by the way.
You could sculpt a roundball Mt. Rushmore on the women’s side using only Angelenos. Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson? Both locals. Then there’s Lisa Leslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time WNBA MVP, eight-time WNBA All-Star, who while playing for Inglewood’s Morningside High once scored 101 points ... in a (bleeping) half. And if Leslie’s not the greatest woman ever to pound a Spaulding, then it’s Riverside’s Cheryl Miller, a Hall of Famer who completely revolutionized the game in the ’80s, putting women’s basketball on the map.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Sparks are owners of two WNBA titles (with a shot this year for a third) and 12 playoff appearances, making them one of that league’s marquee franchises. Ever the progressive city, L.A. has bridged any basketball gender gap by promoting the dominance of both.
If it were just the pro game driving the city’s hoops résumé, L.A. would stillhold a place of envy. But wait—as they say in the infomercials—there’s more!
Begin in Westwood with UCLA. Set aside for a moment the Bruins’ incredible success, with 11 national titles and 18 Final Four appearances. No easy task, but give it a shot. Forget about the luminaries who have worn the uni. Again, easier said than done when talking about Bill Walton, Reggie Miller, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Ann Meyers, not to mention Love and Westbrook (for you kids with no appreciation of history). Ignore the greatest of them all, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, who was so good the NCAA outlawed dunking in an attempt so obviously designed to slow him down it was commonly called “the Alcindor Rule.”
Forget even John Wooden, the godfather of college coaches whose Pyramid of Success inspired millions but who was still so humble he lived for decades in the same postage stamp of a two-bedroom apartment. Put all of it aside, if you can. But even the buildings at UCLA command respect.
THE HOLY GRAIL
UCLA’s legendary Men’s Gym, now known as the Student Activities Center, is a basketball institution in and of itself. Magic Johnson began using the space for summer workouts back in the day, and it has since become one of the premiere pickup locations for pros, collegians, and elite high school ballers alike. Everyone from Jordan to Kobe to Pierce has taken part, all with the hope of holding down the famed center court, which has been referred to as “The Holy Grail.”
It’s a spectacle so grand you’ll never notice UCLA’s outrageous parking fees.
And that’s not the only place in L.A. where the crème de la crème lace ’em up. The 2011 NBA lockout suddenly put a spotlight on the Drew League, as waves of NBA players (including Bryant and Harden, who combined for 90 points in a mano a mano battle) descended upon Watts looking to stay sharp. But this summertime pro-am, established in 1973, was a hotbed of top-level pro, college, and high school talent long before casual fans got the memo. Dennis Johnson, Michael Cooper, and Baron Davis were regulars, along with Raymond Lewis—an L.A. streetball legend in the conversation with Earl “The Goat” Manigault for the “greatest who never made it” crown. This summer, headliners included Harden and former teammate Kevin Durant, but guys you’ve never heard of kill it here, too.
And the Rest ...
Of course, we’re not blind. There are other places across the country where a strong basketball culture thrives. As regions, Indiana and North Carolina are incredibly impressive. The Hoosier State has a slew of high-quality college programs, from stalwart Indiana University to March Madness darling Butler. Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird are Indiana products, which by itself is enough to earn the world’s eternal gratitude. Indiana even has pop-culture contributions with Hoosiers, one of history’s great basketball movies, and that legendary Converse commercial where Bird and Magic go one-on-one in French Lick.
Carolina? UNC and Duke have eight national titles between them since 1980, thanks to legendary coaches like Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. Icons both, but more so than Wooden? At best, it’s a wash. The state has pumped out an impressive crop of pros, including James Worthy, CP3, John Wall, and that Jordan guy people love to make a deal over. Yes, MJ is the greatest of all time, but have we not noticed the mess he’s made of pro hoops in Carolina as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats?
Which gets to one major problem for both regions: Huge contributions at the grassroots, far less success at the highest levels. (Kentucky is in the same boat.)
New York vs. Miami vs. Chicago vs. L.A.—the epic battle of the big basketball cities? Please. South Beach hoops never dented the national consciousness until Pat Riley, who guided the Showtime Lakers to four titles in the ’80s, parachuted in to play puppeteer for the Heat. The 2006 title was a direct result of Shaq’s arrival from the Lakers. The two-time defending champions will spend the upcoming season facing speculation that LeBron James will leave next summer and join (wait for it …) the Lakers. In many ways, Miami is L.A.’s spinoff show.
Chicago is a roundball giant, but it doesn’t trump New York. Bringing us to …
A never-ending sea of blacktops and smack talk, many view it as the unquestioned streetball Shangri-La, and not without cause. Courts like Rucker Park and The Cage (the best named court on the planet) are known worldwide, breeding grounds for generations of players. On the other hand, if you’d like to play outdoors all 12 months of the year, head west. (White Men Can’t Jump wasn’t set in L.A. by accident.) If you’d like to play year-round next to the beach surrounded by beautiful women, head specifically to the famed Venice Beach courts. New Yorkers swear up and down they’re the tougher set. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But history proves L.A. is doing something right.
And while Madison Square Garden remains the Mecca of all basketball houses, worthy of a pilgrimage, its hosts haven’t matched the hype for quite some time. After Ewing, Spree, and Grandmama reached the Finals in ’99, the Knicks quickly devolved into a mismanaged circus of a franchise spending money more irresponsibly than Nicolas Cage. The current roster led by Carmelo Anthony is New York’s best in years—super fan Spike Lee hasn’t had it this good since Summer of Sam was in theaters—and that makes them only about the fifth-best team in their conference.
A busy offseason for the Nets in hipper-than-thou Brooklyn elevates New York’s pro prestige. Barclays Center is state of the art, and brash gajillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s disdain for the NBA’s salary cap and luxury-tax thresholds is amusing. More ammo for the Apple but not enough to win the war. L.A. trumps New York at the pro level, and college, too. So many great young NBA players are products of L.A., and the New York pipeline isn’t what it once was.
There was once a time when New York was indeed the Capital of Basketball, but capitals can change. Ask a Canadian, Australian, Brazilian, or Philadelphian. Pinpointing the exact moment isn’t easy. There wasn’t some elaborate flag ceremony with heads of state and a marching band. (Though had the band played, it would have been USC’s, long a staple at Lakers games.)
Just as people have migrated to Southern California, seduced by the siren song of sun and surf, so too has the soul of basketball.
And it’s not relocating again anytime soon.
Check out the November 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands October 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.