Dustin Senella looked out over the floor of Staples Center during a recent Lakers game and didn't like what he heard.


"I could stand up and shout and be heard over that entire crowd," said the 24-year-old fan from Simi Valley. "The decibel level has fallen dramatically."


Sure, Jack Nicholson is back, but that's one of the few courtside constants. As the Lakers start the year without the glamour of Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, and with Kobe Bryant laboring under the taint of last year's rape charge, the season could well turn into a watershed not just for the team, but for five-year-old Staples itself.


The center is already dealing with the fallout from a labor dispute between the National Hockey League and its players that has led to a lockout, perhaps at the cost of the season. Also in the mix is the comparitively weaker draw of the Clippers.


"As soon as Shaq left, L.A. lost its spirit," Senella said. "Los Angeles is very capricious about their teams. When they're winning, (fans) are on their wagon."


Perhaps, but the Lakers have nevertheless sold out their first three home games at Staples as the team tries to match last season's 39 of 41 home game sellouts.


"(The fans) understand we have a young nucleus here," Bryant said after defeating the Atlanta Hawks last week. "But at the same time, they know there is the dedication and commitment that's something special. So I think everybody's excited. They're looking forward to this new season and to this new era."


If the full house at a recent Sunday evening Lakers game was a quiet one, the crowd the next night watching the long-suffering Clippers was anything but. And while that energy may have been due to the excitement of a double-overtime loss to the World Champion Detroit Pistons, the team still only drew 15,866 fans to the 19,060-seat arena.


If anyone is in a position to sense the different vibe at Staples, it may be forward Lamar Odom, a former Clipper who joined the Lakers in the trade that sent O'Neal to Miami over the summer.
Clipper fans, Odom said, are more rambunctious because they are hungrier for a winning team. The Clippers have posted one winning record since moving to L.A. before the 1984-85 season. "With the Clipper fans, they are fighting for their pride so they come out maybe a little more rowdy," he said. "You've got different personalities."

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