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Sporting Nirvana

Is this a great time to be an LA sports fan or what?

Los Angeles has long taken grief from those who live east of it as some kind of wasteland when it comes to sporting events. A lot of that comes from the fact that we lost not one but two NFL franchises within a year, but the fact that whenever an East Coast team plays at Dodger Stadium there are usually more fans of the visiting team probably plays a role as well. Now I could hold up the pathetic records of those two football teams or the even more disgusting effect that the McCourt ownership had on the Dodgers as reasons why the people stayed away from the games, but the perception is what it is. But that’s all about to change …

All of sudden, LA’s sports franchises are all playing out of their minds. The Kings and Lakers are making title runs in the playoffs. The Dodgers have the best record in all of baseball. Heck, even the long-laughable Clippers are in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in … ever? The poor fans are losing their minds trying to decide which games to attend, even when they’re close to each other (and more on that in a minute). How in the Harry Carey did this happen?

Kobe and the Lakers are struggling to survive ...

You could argue that it started last year, when David Beckham finally validated that big contract by helping to lead the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup. But it really goes back further than that. Blake Griffin … Andrew Bynum … Clayton Kershaw – these guys don’t just step off the bus in LA. Intelligent scouting – and a little luck – made sure that the LA clubs had the people on hand to lead the revolution. But you still have to execute …

No one is surprised to find the Lakers in the playoffs – hell, it’s the LAKERS. But to see the Clippers matching them victory for victory is a treat, especially for those who suffered through the last two decades of mediocrity. That mediocrity has over the years garnered the Clips a number of lottery picks, but it wasn’t until Griffin arrived that any of those picks were justified. Even he had to go through a year lost to injury before blowing up last year. But it was luck in the form of a petulant David Stern that really set the Clipper table for this year’s playoff run. When he voided the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, opting instead to ship him to their cross-arena rivals, you could practically feel the ground shift under Staples Center. Streaky at times as they sought to find their rhythm in a strike-shortened season (and to overcome the quirky decisions of coach Vinny Del Negro), the Clippers stayed in the middle of the pack before securing their playoff spot and a series with Memphis, whom they defeated in a tough 7-game series. The Lakers, meanwhile, had their hands full with the Denver Nuggets, a team that stretched Kobe and Co to seven games as well. Both LA teams survived, but were forced to move forward dog-tired to a second round matchup with considerably more potent opponents.

... while another LA team is on a mission.

Over at Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers are off their best start in decades, but if you try and tell me you saw this coming, I’m calling BS. Sure they have the defending Cy Young Award winner Kershaw and the should-be-defending MVP Matt Kemp, but this is the exact same team that couldn’t shoot straight last season. Sure, they had a soft schedule to start, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, mid-level starting pitchers brought in to fill out the rotation, have both pitched like they want Kershaw’s award. Kemp, meanwhile, has started this season even hotter than he ended the last, as improbable as that sounds. We’re only a month and a half into the season, and the team is as far above .500 as they were by the end of last year. No one else in the division seems to be stepping up, and the coast would seem to be clear for a Dodger playoff run.

Yes, halcyon days indeed – but there are dark clouds on the horizon. The Galaxy’s attempt to defend their title has been a bust, despite the surprising decision by Beckham to re-sign for another season. Both the Clippers and Lakers face difficult second round series, and if the Lakers’ thorough ass-kicking last night by the Thunder is any indication, the end of the road for both teams could be in sight. Over in Dodgertown, Matt Kemp is nursing a sore hammy that is threatening to put him – and most of the team’s offense – on the DL. The Blue Crew followed their amazing home start with a road thud, only winning half their away games so far this year.

If there is a bright star in the LA sports sky, it’s got to be the Kings. Unlike the other teams in town, the Kings were actually expected to compete this year for the NHL’s Stanley Cup. They had an established star in Anze Kopitar, a solid keeper in Jonathon Quick and new leadership in the offseason acquisition Mike Richards. But they stumbled out of the blocks, scoring fewer goals than any other team in the league, leading to the midseason firing of their coach. Normally, that would be the end of the line for a team, but much like my beloved Florida Marlins in 2003, the team rallied and jelled late in the season. They squeaked into the playoffs, but were clearly at the top of their game as they ambushed both the first and second seeds in the first two rounds. As I write this, the Kings are in the process of blowing out the league-owned Phoenix Coyotes in Game Two of their series. Assuming they wrap up the win, they’ll only be two games away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals since the Great One-led squad lost to the Canadiens in ’93 (remember Marty McSorley and Stickgate? I do … grr … ). An epic run to say the least.

One interesting side note to all the playoff excitement in the City of the Angels. LA has invested a lot of money (mostly private capital) in the region of town just south of downtown referred to as “LA Live“. That’s where you’ll find the Nokia Theater and Staples Center and, eventually, the new Farmers Field football arena. This weekend, if the schedules stay as planned, the area’s gonna get a workout like never before, as the Lakers, Clippers and Kings will all have home playoff games – sometimes on the same day. Add to that the Sunday afternoon finish to the Tour of California, the largest professional bicycle race in the country, and you’re going to have thousands of spectators competing for parking, real estate and air. Sports nirvana could quickly become sports armageddon – but that’s why we love it so much!

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