Root, Root Root For The Losers

The Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's perennial doormat, may not be ready to compete against the stellar Los Angeles Lakers on the floor. But the Clippers, who play in the Staples Center, just like the NBA champs do, are aiming to take on Shaq, Kobe et al. for the affections of L.A. basketball fans. This season the Clips have launched an ambitious new marketing campaign that casts its players in stark contrast to the league's prototypical self-promoting, sneaker-and-soft- drink-selling stars. Its TV ads, titled "Believe," are a tribute to old-fashioned values like loyalty and teamwork--and, above all, a paean to the fans. Various Clippers, exhibiting a defter touch than they've ever shown on the court, proclaim: "I believe in you, the basketball fan"; "I believe me and the guys are ready to play for you"; "I believe you deserve more than 100 percent."

This novel tack has been enhanced by full-page newspaper ads and ubiquitous bus posters. And while the team can't boast about its record--its 15-67 mark last year was the mirror opposite of the Lakers'--it is hyping some numbers: its cheap seats are just $10, less than half of what the Lakers charge for the same chairs, and, unlike Laker tix, readily available. The Clippers are also featuring a host of new promotions, like 2-for-1 season tickets and a family package of four tickets and Big Mac dinners for $48. And the players hope to back up the bargains with some top-dollar performances. Laid-back L.A. is "a fair-weather town," says new Clipper Sean Rooks, a reserve center who played with the Lakers for three seasons. "If we can pull off some wins, we can get the fans behind us."

For the Clippers, that has always been more easily said than done. The team boasts just one winning season in its 16 years in L.A. The last three have been particularly dismal, as the Clippers have won just 20 percent of their games. Still, the new ads' optimism is not an entirely laughable notion. The team has assembled some dazzling young talent, most notably Lamar Odom, 21, a 6-foot-10 Magic-like do-it-all, and Darius Miles, 19, the latest high-school hotshot to leap straight into the NBA. "This team had a bad rep, but a lot of us young guys are coming in with a new attitude," says Corey Maggette, 21, a former Duke star and another first-year Clipper. "We're not worried about what happened last year, just what we can do from this point on."

While the team hasn't yet jelled, it did put together a two-game winning streak recently, which doubles its longest last season. And so far, L.A. fans seem willing to give the Clippers another chance. The team says single-game sales are up 300 percent compared to this time last season. And the surest sign of success is that Hollywood is beginning to take notice. Actor Jamie Foxx, who played the brash young quarterback in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," says he's popping for a pair of courtside seats (a steal at $325 per ticket, compared to $1,350 for Jack Nicholson row at Laker contests). "Those brothas got flava," Foxx says. But will the Clips prove to be just the flava of the week or a taste that lasts?