Eye-rolling about L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s notorious lack of investment in his NBA franchise will have to be scaled back a bit this year: Game-day introductions to your 2006 Clippers are now accompanied by fireworks. That’s right. Fireworks. If you’re going to argue that The Donald’s stable mates at Staples Center might have chosen something more dramatic than a few Roman candles and industrial-sized sparklers, then brother, you’re clearly not a Clipper fan. These folks are loving the show. Hell, more than half of them are actually in their seats when the player introductions begin for this home opener against the Atlanta Hawks. When’s the last time that happened at a Laker game?The largest cheer belongs to four-year Clipper vet and respected pick-and-shovel power forward Elton Brand, but special attention is paid to the team’s two newest acquisitions: sharpshooting guard Cuttino Mobley and journeyman (and two-time NBA champion) point guard Sam Cassell. Indeed, as the crowd quiets for the national anthem, someone shouts loudly, “We love you Sam Cassell!” This is followed quickly by a slightly less loud, “Yeah! Alien Head!” It’s probably not the nickname Cassell’s friends use, but it’s also probably more accurate than whatever his friends use. The Donald’s investment in Cassell and Mobley is even more impressive than the fireworks. Along with Brand and the injured Corey Maggette, they give the Clippers four starters who can safely be considered respectable veterans — which is at least three more than the Lakers can claim. The rest of the roster is stacked with intriguing young talent like Shaun Livingston and James Singleton. Anticipation in Clipperdom is running high. “We beat the defending conference champions to open the season Wednesday night,” says Keith, a four-year season-ticket holder who makes the rush-hour slog from Ventura for most home games. Keith became a Clipper season-ticket holder after discovering that, for the price of a 10-game package of Laker games, he could get an entire season’s worth of Clipper games, and in a decent section of Staples Center, to boot. His wife, Laura, a kindergarten teacher, has taken to trying to convert the Laker-fan spawn in her class each year.Carl, a seven-year season-ticket holder, took an even more circuitous route to Clipper fan-hood. “I originally got ’em because it was the only way to see Jordan play when he came to town,” he explains. “And then they moved the team to the Staples Center, and I kind of wanted to check this place out. And then I kept ’em because of the All-Star Game being here a few years back. Somewhere along the way, they grew on me.”That’s a familiar refrain among Clipper fans, and as the game gets underway, it’s clear that this year’s team has even more than usual to grow on you. Mobley is everywhere, crashing boards, diving for loose balls and making big dunks. Cassell runs the floor, directing traffic and setting up monster dunks for backup center Chris Wilcox. The Hawks, a young, raw team, can barely keep pace. The Clips are up 56-to-40 at halftime. When I suggest to Carl that he’s probably seen a lot of peaks and valleys in his seven years watching the team, he corrects me: “I’ve seen some valleys, and I’ve seen sea level. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a peak yet.”Halfway through the third quarter, an usher happily fulfills the request of a father looking to move his wife and three kids from the nosebleeds into Keith’s and Carl’s section for the remainder of the game, once she has determined that the seats are vacant. The family watches the rest of the game like true fans should: rapt, cheering and exchanging high-fives with each Clipper basket.I ask the usher if she often allows seat changes. After making sure I can’t read her name tag, she smiles and shrugs. “Sure. It’s not like it’s a Laker game.”By the end of the third quarter, the Clippers have a 25-point lead, and no one in the section can remember the last time they blew out an opponent like this. The starters are benched for the fourth, and the rookies — untested, undisciplined, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch — manage to keep the lead in the double digits until the final buzzer: Clippers, 92, Hawks, 77. “We’re 2-and-0!” says Carl. “We ain’t been 2-and-0 in, like, thirty years!”

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