Tuesday, January 17, 2006 | Maybe, just maybe, San Diego basketball’s Curse of the Bamboozler has been lifted.

The sport hasn’t been this much fun to watch in our town since Irv Levin brought the Buffalo Braves here reborn as the San Diego Clippers for the 1978-79 season. That first year the Clippers were 43-39 with World B. Free, Swen Nater, Randy Smith and Kermit Washington.

Those were fun times at the old Sports Arena. The Clippers averaged nearly 10,000 fans a game – a respectable number in the NBA’s pre-Magic Johnson/Larry Bird/Michael Jordan days.

But then Levin sold the team to Donald T. Sterling – the bamboozler – prior to the 1981-82 season. Sterling proceeded to run the franchise into the ground as prelude to using the excuse of low attendance to hijack the team and move it to Los Angeles for the 1984-85 season.

But look around San Diego basketball these days.

San Diego State, an NCAA team in 2002 and NIT entry in 2003, and the University of San Diego, an NCAA team in 2003, are within reach of returns to the postseason.

Both schools play in beautiful facilities – SDSU’s Cox Arena and USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Or as Bill Walton, San Diego’s Mr. Basketball, would say, “Basketball cathedrals.” When Duke’s No. 2-ranked women’s team played at USD last month, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors – Coach G – said the JCP reminded the Blue Devils of Duke’s venerable Cameron Indoor Stadium.

SDSU, which won last week at Utah for the first time since 1982 and beat UNLV Saturday to exorcise last year’s collapse against the Rebels, is tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference.

Did you see that decisive follow-up dunk that SDSU’s Marcus Slaughter put down after a missed shot against UNLV at Cox Arena? I’m used to seeing other teams beat the Aztecs that way.

USD stumbled in its West Coast Conference openers, but the Toreros went 10-3 during the non-conference schedule.

Did you see USD’s Nick Lewis score 29 points when the Toreros beat Fresno State in the Toreros’ half of the second annual San Diego Slam at Cox Arena last month? That was a big-time performance.

Have you looked around at the new breed of high school players coming out of San Diego?

La Costa Canyon’s Chase Budinger, a 6-foot-7 forward bound for Arizona, is ranked the No. 1 prospect in California and 10th best senior in the nation. And Hoover point guard JayDee Luster and Crawford forward Tyrone Shelley are ranked among the top 25 juniors in the nation.

All three played games Monday in the Martin Luther King Shootout, a triple-header at Hoover’s gym. I don’t know when San Diego assembled more local prep talent under one roof.

Budinger also is a strong candidate to be named to the McDonald’s All-American High School All-Star game that will be played March 29 at Cox Arena. Greg Oden, the No. 1 high school player in the nation from Indianapolis Lawrence North High, calls Budinger a great player he hopes to play with in the McDonald’s game.

Budinger is leaving town for the Pac-10 and Arizona, but SDSU and USD are both keeping local talent home.

The Aztecs’ Mohamed Abukar, a 6-foot-10 junior forward from Rancho Bernardo High, transferred home after a wayward trip to Florida. He’s one of those explosive big men we usually only see in San Diego on TV.

SDSU’s Richie Williams, a true freshman from Steele Canyon High, is a 5-9 point guard who makes players around him better.

USD’s Gyno Pomare is a redshirt freshman 6-7 center from El Camino High with a Bill Russell-like wingspan.

Players like Abukar, Williams and Pomare have been coming out of San Diego for a long time. But they didn’t stay home.

Even if SDSU and USD earn postseason berths far from San Diego, the NCAA tournament is still coming to town. The NCAA awarded San Diego a sub-regional this year after SDSU staged a successful sub-regional in 2001. The NCAA liked how San Diegans filled the seats for games with schools that didn’t bring many fans with them. At other sub-regionals empty seats show up on TV.

Some people will tell you San Diego is a bad basketball town, but they don’t know about the Curse of the Bamboozler.

If Irv Levin had sold the Clippers to an owner who wanted to stay in town, building a new basketball arena in the late 1980s or early 1990s would be have been a political wrangling warm-up to what John Moores and the Padres weathered to open Petco Park in 2004 and the Chargers and the Spanos Family are enduring now to approve plans for a new football stadium.

San Diego sports fans, then and now, only come out to see a winner. The Clippers didn’t win here because Sterling sabotaged them. At long last, with SDSU and USD on the rise, the Curse of the Bamboozler may be lifting.

Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at

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