LOS ANGELES It's almost summer in Southern California and the car antennas are in full bloom with purple and gold.
That can mean but one thing: the Los Angeles Lakers are in the hunt for an NBA title.
Lakers fans may appear to be a laid-back bunch much of the year, but that changes when the team lands in the NBA finals especially against the Boston Celtics. Lakers pennants go up on car antennas from the streets of Beverly Hills to the barrios of East L.A., and names like Magic and Bird and Wilt and Russell return to the public lexicon.
"They're two legendary teams with legendary players," said John Kuderna, who in middle age has been around long enough to witness more than a few of the 11 classic Celtics-Lakers finals. But not long enough that he couldn't still arrive at the Staples Center in full Lakers uniform, from gold-and-purple home jersey to matching shorts, two hours before Sunday night's Game 2, being played 3,000 miles away.
There he was, with thousands of fellow raucous faithful, watching on television from the courtside seats that movie stars like Jack Nicholson, Dyan Canon and Tobey Maguire usually occupy, as the Lakers fell 108-102 to the Celtics in Boston's TD Banknorth Garden. It was disappointing but he was still counting on his team to "eke out a hard-fought victory."
Kuderna rattled off the names of Laker greats present and past: Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Then, in true polite Lakers' fan fashion, he even gave a shout-out to one of the baddest of the Beantown boys, the great Celtics forward Larry Bird.
It's that type of respect that has some outsiders thinking Lakers fans aren't true die-hards.
"I don't know about that," said Eddie Shanteri of Los Angeles. "Everywhere I go with my Lakers pennant on my car, people honk at me. And they smile."
The difference is they're smiling.
In Boston, it seems, nobody smiled when Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke suggested Paul Pierce faked his knee injury in Game 1 to fire up his team. They sent Plaschke e-mails saying they hoped he'd die of cancer and threatening to desecrate the graves of his relatives.
But there's a reason for that kind of rabid fandom, the guy who threatened Plaschke's family grave, later told him.
"There's not much else to do around here ... either it's too cold or too hot," said Boston baker John Marsinelli.
Almost every spring, while much of the rest of the country is digging out of its last snowstorm, Angelenos dust off their Lakers' pennants.
They probably had to dig deeper this year, having stowed them away after their team ended its three-title run in 2002 and then, after losing to Detroit in the finals the next year, traded away Shaquille O'Neal and immediately became a less than ordinary team.
"They were so bad at times they could make you cry," said Shanteri, 21, as he held hands with his wife, Anna, before Sunday's game.
Older Lakers fans could tell him he didn't know the half of it.
Game 7 was tied in 1962 when Frank Selvy of the Lakers took the last shot in regulation. The ball seemed to bounce into the hoop and then back out and the Celtics won in overtime.
"I've always wondered if Frank Selvy had made that shot ... would that have helped change the course of history of this thing?" West, the Lakers' beloved Mr. Clutch, once asked.
Instead, the Lakers went on to lose seven more NBA finals to the Celtics before winning their last two meetings, in 1985 and 1987.
"That was the greatest NBA finals for me. Remembering Kareem popping in sky hooks in Boston in Game 6, beating the Celtics," recalled longtime fan and freelance writer Scott Paul.
Now, both teams are back and Lakers' fans are putting more than their hearts on the line.
On Monday, ticket brokers were asking as much as $56,000 apiece for courtside seats to Sunday's possible Game 5 at the Staples Center. By contrast, said Don Vaccaro, who runs TicketNetwork.com, comparable tickets to the Boston home games were going for only $8,000 to $10,000.
"The Celtics are still building back their fan base" after many disappointing years, he said.
The Lakers' fan base, on the other hand, never left. Even if it doesn't get quite as worked up.
"My brother went to school in Boston and I remember his college roommate telling me when the Lakers beat the Celtics in '85, she was so upset she threw up," Paul recalled Monday. "I wouldn't throw up."