- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of audio tapes from Donald Sterling's racist rant being released online, setting in motion a series of events that would lead to him getting banned for life from the NBA four days later and forcing him to sell the Clippers four months later.
It was not exactly the kind of anniversary the Clippers were in the mood to celebrate as they prepared to play the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their first-round series on Sunday.
“I had no clue what you were talking about when you said the one-year anniversary,” Chris Paul said. “I think that shows you how far behind us that is.”
“That’s in the past,” Doc Rivers added. “We’ve gone through it.”
While the Clippers aren’t interested in rehashing the nightmarish memories of Sterling’s final days as team owner, Rivers did use the anniversary of his eventual ouster to highlight how far the organization has come over the past year.
“We want to be a great organization,” Rivers said. “We’re learning. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve done a lot of good things, too, and that’s all part of it. We have new ownership and a new president [Gillian Zucker], we have new everything. It takes time. Organizations grow. They’re not made overnight.”
Of course, one of the biggest differences between Sterling and Steve Ballmer, who purchased the team for a record $2 billion in August, is that outside of the occasional viral video of him getting overly excited courtside, Ballmer has given the team no reason to comment on him as the owner. For as loud and boisterous as he was as the Microsoft CEO, he has been a relatively low-key owner. Following his introductory news conference last summer, he has addressed reporters only a handful of times this season.
"We've had no controversy,” Rivers said. “It's been a controversy-free year for the most part except for our play. It’s nice. It’s just a well-run organization. We and particularly Gillian and Steve have gotten involved in the community more and I think that’s what we should do. I’ve pushed it and now you don't have to push it. It's been great. That’s the one thing I’d point to that’s been the biggest difference.”
The Clippers have also begun the process of reaching out to former players, coaches and front-office members that previously wanted nothing to do with the team after leaving the franchise. Under Sterling, the Clippers were more of a pit stop than a destination. Rivers has taken it upon himself to try to change that.
Earlier this season, the Clippers honored their longtime play-by-play announcer, Ralph Lawler, and welcomed back over a dozen players and coaches, including Corey Maggette, Norm Nixon, Gary Grant, Olden Polynice, Pooh Richardson, Keyon Dooling, Derek Anderson, Cuttino Mobley, John Williams, Lamond Murray, Marques Johnson, Brian Taylor and Gene Shue. It was the first step toward building an alumni network for a franchise that was notorious for burning bridges and occasionally engaging in legal battles with former employees.
“We don’t have a big alumni yet but we’re building it,” Rivers said earlier this season. “We’ve had so many guys. I [reached out to] every single player my first year here and invited everyone to come whenever they wanted. We’ve got to build something here. When I took this job, that was one of the goals, and a main goal. We don’t have any history. We have to build our history. We have to bring ex-people back, not just players, but coaches and front-office guys and honor them. We have to do it. I think it’s important.”
Elgin Baylor and his wife were invited guests and sat courtside next to Ballmer for last Tuesday’s Game 2, and Baylor received a standing ovation following a video tribute. Baylor, who was the Clippers’ vice president of basketball operations for 22 years, had not attended a Clippers game since 2008 when he was relieved of his duties and later sued the team and Sterling for employment discrimination.
“That was awesome. That was great bringing Elgin Baylor back,” Rivers said. “I thought we did two things very well that night except for the game. Not only the fact that we brought Elgin back but we didn’t show a Clipper highlight tape. I think it was really important and a classy touch that we showed him playing for the Lakers. Elgin Baylor was L.A. He wasn’t just a Clipper, he was a Lakers legend. It was nice to see him in the building and it was nice for the fans to welcome him back.
“We have to do more of that. We don’t have a history like other organizations and we have to try and grow one. The night we brought Gene Shue back was great. We need to bring the Buffalo Braves back. We need to do a lot of things and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
In addition to rebranding the team in the offseason with a new logo and new uniforms, team sources said the Clippers are also looking at ways to connect with their Buffalo Braves past. The team has discussed having a night where they bring back and honor former players and coaches while wearing throwback uniforms. They have also considered retiring their first player jerseys by honoring Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith. McAdoo is a Hall of Famer who won the franchise’s lone league MVP, while Smith still holds the franchise records for points, assists, steals, field goals, minutes played and games played. He also won the franchise’s first All-Star Game MVP in 1978.
The Clippers currently have no retired jerseys hanging up at Staples Center and have chosen to hang their two division championship banners from 2013 and 2014 up in their training facility and not in the arena they share with the Lakers, Kings and Sparks. That could soon change but Rivers believes the first jersey the team will retire probably won’t belong to a player.
“When I first took this job, I said I was trying to find a way of building some tradition,” Rivers said. “I was like, ‘Let’s hang some jerseys up of retired players.’ And then I started looking at the rosters and the only guy that came up was Ralph [Lawler]. So he will be the first whenever we get around to retiring someone’s jersey. The first one will be a microphone or a mustache for Ralph.”
Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of audio tapes from Donald Sterling's racist rant being released online.