First Game in L.A.
November 1, 1984
Jim Lynam (NBAE/Getty)
It was just about idyllic.
The Clippers, who relocated to Los Angeles after six years in San Diego, were entering the larger L.A. market and trying to etch themselves into the sporting landscape of a town already fixated on prominent franchises like the Dodgers, Raiders, Lakers, and USC football.
After splitting their first two road games of the 1984-85 season, the Clippers returned to Los Angeles to face the New York Knicks in a home-opening extravaganza, complete with fireworks, balloons, spotlights during player introductions, and an appearance from Mayor Tom Bradley, who tossed the ceremonial jump ball.
Most importantly, they topped it off with a 107-105 come-from-behind victory.
“The Jim Lynam coached team opened with a pair of road games before the gala home opener against the New York Knicks at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena,” Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler said. “More than 12,000 fans were on hand and following a colorful fireworks display, they were treated to a classic opening game.”
With smoke still hovering in the rafters, the Clippers trotted out a starting five of center James Donaldson, forwards Bill Walton (who was nursing a sore ankle) and Marques Johnson, and guards Norm Nixon and Derek Smith, while the Knicks started center Pat Cummings, forwards Ken Bannister and superstar Bernard King, and guards Trent Tucker and Rory Sparrow.
New York was without 7-footers Bill Cartwright (broken leg) and Marvin Webster (hepatitis) as well as rookie Ed Wilkins (ankle), who had scored 24 in his pro debut a few nights earlier.
It was Walton who scored the first Clippers points in Los Angeles, as the center who was the toast of the town as a collegian at UCLA tipped in a Donaldson miss just 16 seconds into the game to give L.A. an early 2-0 lead.
Just 17 seconds later, Walton fouled Bannister as he went up for a shot, and the Knicks forward drained both free throws to tie the game and record the first opponents points in Los Angeles Clippers history.
The teams exchanged baskets in the early minutes and as the first quarter wore down, the Knicks half-court trap forced 10 Clippers turnovers. King had seven points and Cummings and Tucker scored six apiece as the Knicks took a 28-26 lead.
Despite an atmosphere that rivaled an early-round playoff game, the Clippers could not sustain much offensive consistency. The turnovers were compounded by Donaldson picking up three quick fouls, which shifted Walton over to center and brought Rory White off the bench.
The sloppy play continued in the second quarter. Both teams finished the half with 15 turnovers and neither possessed more than a five-point lead. Still, Nixon drilled a 17-footer and White made one of two free throws to close the half. And 24 minutes into their first game in Los Angeles, the Clippers led 53-50.
King scored 14 points in the first half on 6-of-11 shooting, routinely beating Johnson. In the locker room, the Clippers made an adjustment that helped slow the All Star forward.
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“He [King] works the heck out of you,” Johnson said after the game. “He’s so tough offensively, and they go to him 60-percent of the time, so it wears you down. He got me in foul trouble in the first half, so Bill [Walton] came up to me at halftime and asked if he could give it a try.”
Even with Walton guarding King, the Knicks scored 15 of the first 21 points of the third, taking control midway through the quarter. As the Clippers continued to sputter, New York shot 70 percent en route to 35 points and a 10 point lead.
In the fourth quarter, though, everything changed.
Walton held King, who finished with a game-high 25, to six points. The Clippers finally figured out New York’s trap, due to Nixon’s 21 points and 11 assists and key contributions on offense from Walton, White and Junior Bridgeman.
And as the crowd re-entered the fray, the Clippers, according to Knicks coach Hubie Brown got “every bounce.”
They sliced New York’s lead in half in 90 seconds, and regained the lead, 92-91, with 8:05 to go. Still, the Knicks, somewhat remarkably, withstood the surge.
After several empty possessions on both ends, Johnson, who was playing with an injured finger on his shooting hand, made a jumper in the lane to give the Clippers a 102-99 lead.
King responded with a jumper of his own and it went back-and-forth from there.
With 14 seconds left and the Clippers clinging to a 106-105 lead, Walton missed a 20-foot baseline jumper. Johnson grabbed the offensive rebound, but was tied up by Sparrow. Johnson won the jump ball and White was fouled with seven seconds left.
He made the first free throw, but missed the second.
King got the rebound and called timeout as fireworks exploded over the Knicks basket. The officials convened and ruled there was a second left in the game. Following a timeout, New York inbounded to King, who fired a 30-foot, 3-pointer, missing badly off the backboard.
The fireworks had run out. But the charged up crowd had more than enough energy to make up for it.
"We should have won the game; the effort was there," said Brown told the Daily Breeze. "It was fate. The Clippers were destined to win here tonight."
The Knicks were whistled for 37 fouls leading to Los Angeles’ 35-of-49 shots from the line. New York was just 12-of-21.
But it also helped that the Clippers had seven players score in double-figures. White and Bridgeman combined for 26 points off the bench, while Smith had 19 with eight rebounds and Johnson had 13. Walton and Donaldson scored 14 points apiece and grabbed 22 of the Clippers’ 44 rebounds.
The win moved Los Angeles to 2-1 on the young season. But, more than an early-November victory in a long NBA regular season, the game served as an arrival, a welcoming party in a new home.
Jack Nicholson was there. So was “Dancing Barry,” a usual Lakers’ sideshow. Bradley’s presence offered a sense of validation. But the tremendous turnout of what amounted to a relentless band of new Clippers fans arguably provided more.
The 12,018 in attendance surpassed their 3,000-fan average in San Diego and the sale of 9,000 advance tickets assured the largest opening-night crowd in team history.
“After playing before 3,000 fans a night (in San Diego last season), this felt great," Clippers guard Norm Nixon told the Daily Breeze."I tried not to be distracted by all the festivities, but I thought the crowd was exciting. The crowd had an effect on us. They were very excited. I loved it."
It seemed that the city of Los Angeles loved it as well.
San Diego Tribune writer Barry Bloom wrote that fans at the Sports Arena were “stoked” to see the Clippers. The Los Angeles Times said the game, “no doubt was the way owner Donald T. Sterling envisioned” it.
Lawler called it “historic” and “memorable.”
And then-Clippers General Manager Carl Scheer told the San Diego Union, “The whole thing was better than I expected. The game, the excitement, the fans. It was like a Portland crowd or a Raider crowd. It looked like a cross-section of L.A. society, from every sphere, and that's exactly what I wanted."
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