Doc Rivers pumped his fists in the air. The Clippers were on the brink of eliminating the Golden State Warriors in a hard-fought Game 7, and he wanted to share a moment with the crowd.
You’ll have to excuse the long-time Clippers fans who experienced a moment of hesitation instead. There was still time on the clock, after all, and if any team could allow an unprecedented five-point play at the buzzer, well, you know how the old saying goes: It’s the Clippers.
Please understand that's a conditioned response more than anything else. Seasoned fans of the team tend to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the other shoe to drop, having already been robbed of the innocence necessary for unbridled optimism.
Just in the past decade: Raja Bell’s corner 3 over Daniel Ewing, Shaun Livingston’s knee exploding in a million pieces, Elton Brand’s departure, Baron Davis’ failure to arrive, Neil Olshey leaving and Vinny Del Negro staying. How many times can you get your heart broken before you start to protect against it?
Time helps, of course, and the significance of each of those moments faded with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but one constant remained present during it all -- one Donald T. Sterling.
There’s never a bad time for racial prejudice to be exposed and extinguished, and the timing on Sterling’s comments coming out seemed to vindicate those who brought their umbrellas out even though the weather (of course) looked great. Any follower of Sterling’s past transgressions knew he was liable to do something incredibly damaging to the franchise just by being himself, and this was it, with the Clippers fresh off a win and looking like title contenders for the first time in franchise history.
While everyone with the Clippers bunkered down and waited out the ensuing storm, NBA commissioner Adam Silver did something that just about everyone associated with the team in any capacity had hoped for: He lifted the dark cloud, banning Sterling for life.
It’s fitting that it took the removal of a man clearly against equality for that to happen. Clippers fans never deserved Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling certainly didn’t deserve them, and now that the weight of trying to ignore such a deplorable figure has been erased, there’s a sense that only the most common roadblocks to an eventual title remain. Hamstring injuries, foul trouble, depth. The same types of things every other team is dealing with.
And while the resolution from Sterling’s ban won’t be nearly as tidy or be handled as quickly as some like to think, there’s reason now for organizational optimism where there wasn’t before, even as things are unsettled.
Sterling always held the power to veto trades and signings, which is something he didn’t take for granted even when he was the most uninformed basketball mind in the room, which was always. There are many successful franchises with a less-than-desirable person at the top, but he always hindered the Clippers from developing the trust necessary for something sustainable. Sterling also got to cut corners financially wherever he saw fit. He knew what things cost, but never what they were worth.
Current and former employees have had varying levels of success at getting Sterling to sign off on trades and to see the bigger picture, but it’s hard to ever feel safe working for such an unpredictable boss. The evaluation process for most positions was impossible to decipher, although it certainly seemed like merit usually fell well behind financial convenience and affability. Employees and a franchise subject to the whims of a man like Sterling could never really reach their potential.
A skeptic might say “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” when it comes to Sterling, but the bar is remarkably low here. The Clippers have certainly made great strides over the past few seasons, but historically this is still the worst franchise in professional sports. There are plenty of potential candidates who will be more qualified both as owners and human beings to replace Sterling, which is something the NBA has fortunately come to understand after allowing multiple offenses like this to slide for so long.
While it’s certainly possible that outside forces -- mainly Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder -- could dampen the excitement brought on by the first-round series win over Golden State and Sterling’s ban, the feeling derived from his departure is something that will live on well past the immediacy of a playoff series.
D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com and the executive editor of ClipperBlog. He has written about the Clippers for ESPN Los Angeles, NBC Sports, Bleacher Report and Clippers.com, the team’s official website.