Commentary

Clippers' 30-year climb to relevance

Donald Sterling bought the team in 1981, then decades of punch lines. Not anymore.

Updated: January 13, 2012, 1:44 AM ET
By Mike Downey | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Los Angeles Clippers tickets? Clippers tickets??? For a Christmas gift? C'mon. Can't be. Wow, just what I never -- I mean always -- wanted! How did you know? I mean, I never expected Santa to bring me a pair of Clippers tickets. A pair of Lakers tickets, sure. (In the $1,000 to $10,000 range, or Best Available.) A pair of Dodgers tickets, you bet. (For $1,000, a McCourt would personally deliver them to your door.) A pair of Angels tickets, any time, any date. (I'm going to Pujolsland!) But a box of gift-wrapped Clippers tickets, well, what can I say except thanks from the bottom of my seat? Since, as you know, Santa's all-time Top 3 Least Popular Gifts have traditionally been: (1) Lump of coal, (2) Fruitcake, (3) Clippers basketball.

Clippers 30 Years illustration
Rob Booth/ESPN.comIf owning an NBA franchise has its ebbs and flows, there has been a lot more ebbing than flowing.
Not anymore, baby. I am stoked. I am jazzed. I can feel the heat. I am bullish on this team. Color me … well, whatever colors the Clippers colors are. (I seem to recall men in red, white and blue, but I could be confusing them with the Pistons or 76ers or Bozo's Circus or somebody.) I cannot believe what is happening in L.A. in this, The Year of Our Commissioner David Stern 2012. It is hip to Clip. It is cool to go to Staples Center to see them and actually admit to friends that you did. In terms of excitement, Southern California usually ranks the Clippers somewhere just above a Seniors 65 & Over surfing competition and just below a Lindsay Lohan bail hearing. Lakers hot, Clippers not -- that's the law, and we obey. One hot, one not. One is our Robert Pattinson, the other our McLovin.

And then, kaboom. (Or Kazaam, for all you Shaquille O'Neal-film fans.) The worm turned. The flip flopped. Night became day. Nook became Kindle. B became A. Things happened. Blake Griffin became a Clipper. He hurt a leg. Then the leg got better. He dunked over a Kia. A late start hurt the NBA. Then it was time to play ball. The Lakers made a trade and got Chris Paul. Then came the Stern word, like the soup guy from "Seinfeld": "No, no Chris Paul for you!" A stunned bunch of Lakers reeled as if they had been clipped by a Kia. A few days later, the Clippers made a trade and the commissioner issued a new commandment, declaring himself totally OK with it, the official bearer of Paul, saying let thy games begin.

Well, we all know what happened after that:

• The Las Vegas line on the Clippers' winning the NBA championship went to "Hmmm, It Could Happen" from its previous "LOL Hahaha OMG Stop You're Killing Me!"

• Clippers season-ticket sales soared into the hundreds from their previous Somewhere Near Zero.

• Box-office workers at Staples Center stopped saying to customers: "You want two tickets to WHAT??? Are you sure you're not here for hockey?"

• Donald T. Sterling took out a big ad in the paper, reading: Donald T. Sterling, Quite a Guy!

• The team offered 10 percent off to any fan who could provide proof that he or she bought a Clippers ticket between 1984 and 2009.

• Longtime fan Billy Crystal began work on "Forget Paris II: Clipper Slickers."

• Networks took the Clippers off their Timberwolves/Wizards/Cavs don't-televise list.

I'm so excited. And I just can't hide it. Because, if not from the beginning, exactly, I have been following this poor little starving creature of a basketball team for a long, long time. I have been with the Clippers through thin and thin. I can name 10 to 20 players who have played for them. I attended a Clippers game on Christmas Day once. As God is my witness, that is the truest sentence in this story so far. I saw them lose to the Spurs on Dec. 25, 1992, on a day when San Antonio's new coach, John Lucas, was giving thanks for his other victory, a personal recovery from substance abuse, by saying: "Miracles happen. I'm living proof of that."

As miracles go, a Clippers championship would be a Red Sea parting, Danica Patrick Wins Another Race kind of thing. The unexpected times 10. Because, let's face it, compared with these guys, the Cubs are the kings of the world. Do you know how long the Clippers franchise has been in the NBA? Forty-two years. Do you know how many playoff games it has won? Twenty. How many playoff series it has won? One. How many division championships it has won? None. A sighting of the Clippers in an NBA Finals would be like finding life on Mars, like finding Kim Jong-Il's kid on "Dancing With the Stars." I rate the likelihood of the Clippers landing a championship up there with a pilot landing a jet on the Hudson.

I remember so many bad teams, bad games, bad dreams. I remember …

[+] EnlargeDonald Sterling
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesIn 30 years of ownership, Donald Sterling's Clippers have made the playoffs four times and won one series. In the same span, the Lakers have won nine NBA titles.
(Harp music. Flashback.)

• San Diego, Calif., the season of 1978-79. I cover the Chicago Bulls to make a living. This is pre-Jordan … the Bulls are not too good. I see the San Diego Clippers take the floor … not too bad. Swen Nater, who will top the NBA in rebounds with 15.0 per game. World B. Free (not his real name), who will average nearly 29 points per game. Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks, Randy Smith … a scrappy little ballclub. I see maybe 4,000 fans in the stands. I see a mascot in a giant chicken costume give them a laugh. (You stay classy, San Diego.) I see a Clippers team on its way to a record of 43-39 … unaware that another 13 years will go by before this team has a winning season again.

• May 4, 1981. Irv Levin sells his team to Donald Tokowitz Sterling. The former is a producer of Hollywood films. One was called "Hell to Eternity" (1960). One in his future will be called "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985). Little does he know how apt these titles will be with respect to this team. Mr. Sterling is a real estate mogul in L.A. He knows a fixer-upper when he sees one.

• The year is 1984. Stuff is happenin'. Johnny Carson hosts the Oscars. L.A. hosts the Olympics. The team of Reagan and Bush whips the team of Mondale and Ferraro 49 states to 1 (plus D.C.). Chris Bosh is born. Carmelo Anthony is born. Prince Harry is born. LeBron "King" James is born. Oh, and a little team now known as the Los Angeles Clippers makes its debut in the NBA. In its previous incarnation as the Buffalo Braves, it lost 397 of 556 games. In its San Diego years, it lost 306 of 492 games. In its new L.A. home, surely it can't do worse. (Insert usual Shirley joke here.)

• 1985: The first NBA "lottery" is held. The Clippers went 31-51, so they could use a Lotto luck. I am a Los Angeles sports writer now and can't wait to see how my Clips upgrade their lineup. Aha, by drafting a big fellow by the name of Benoit Benjamin, eh? I see. OK, I am sure they must know what they are doing. I personally might have gone for one of those other lads still available -- you know, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Charles Oakley, Joe Dumars -- but perhaps Benoit will become this team's Kareem. I mean, how bad could he be?

• November of that year: I go to a Bulls-Clips game. Derek Smith of the home team looks good to me. "He's the most underrated player in the NBA," I am told by a young Bulls player, Michael Jordan. I can't figure why Golden State cut this guy. "I felt like a man with a terminal illness," Smith says, but now he feels much better. And maybe the Clips will get much better.

• April of '86: Clips go 32-50, and Derek Smith wants to be on some other team. The team hires a new director of basketball operations. His name is Elgin Baylor and he used to be a Laker and now he will go head-to-head against the Lakers' general manager, Jerry West, his old teammate. "I always could beat him," Baylor says. I see bad days ahead for the purple and gold!

• October 1987. I go see the new coach, Gene Shue, who has been hired because the Clippers have just racked up a record of 12-70. In his living room, Shue has a giant shoe, must be Size 30EEEE or larger, Air Bob Laniers or whatever, plus an autographed ball. The autographs are all from ex-Lakers. "Why not take from the best?" Shue says. I can see he's pumped. He has three first-round draft picks (Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf, Ken Norman) and high hopes. "Look at our team three years from now and let's see if the Clippers are for real. This team has a chance for a run of 10 years or more, like the Lakers." I, too, am pumped.

• 'Three Years From Now,' 1990. I am at Mr. Sterling's house in 90210, the former Cary Grant estate. It is his "Farewell to the Lottery" garden party. "This is the last one there will ever be!" vows our genial host. I see A-list stars everywhere I look -- Chuck Connors, Erik Estrada, Chad Everett, Gabe Kaplan. (OK, maybe B-minus.) Gary Grant, who is a Clipper and not to be confused with Cary, gets up and promises the guests: "We will be in the playoffs!" My suspicion is that this quote will become notorious.

• I turn the clock back to June 1989. (It is my flashback, and I can do what I want.) Glen Rice is available in the draft. Glen Rice has been drilling jump shots for the University of Michigan and, depending on what book authors you believe, is possibly a future Republican vice presidential nominee, as well. "Please take Glen Rice," Gary Grant pleads publicly to his own team. His team takes Danny Ferry. Danny Ferry takes an offer from a team in Italy instead. Glen Rice goes on to score 18,336 points.

• November '89. Ferry's rights go to Cleveland in exchange for Ron Harper. "I'm dead" is Harper's reaction. He believes he has gone from Cavalier to cadaver.

• May '90. "There were seven coaching jobs available in the NBA, and I got the best one, no doubt about that," says Mike Schuler, new coach of the Clippers, whose last four squads have gone 12-70, 17-65, 21-61 and 30-52. (Clearly almost as good as the Lakers now.)

• April '92. Schuler out, Larry Brown in. They make the playoffs! Oh, man, is L.A. thrilled, particularly given that riots after the Rodney King situations have ripped this city apart. I go to Anaheim for a game because it's not a good time to be playing games downtown. I meet Billy Crystal. He tells me: "I never miss a Clipper playoff game in Anaheim." I like Billy a lot. I also like Doc Rivers, who helps the Clips beat the Jazz before a packed (uh, well …) house of 7,148. "This one was for everybody -- blacks and whites and greens!" Doc says. Ron Harper chimes in: "Gave people a chance to see something besides people in L.A. being shot and beaten and killed." I can see the ads now: Don't Call the Cops, Call the Clips!

• One week later. Game 5, Salt Lake City, winner takes series. Clips go up 14-2. Salt Lakers can't believe eyes. Alas, a Utah rally and that's that. Jazz men are impressed. Tyrone Corbin: "Those guys in the future are going to have a lot of players on the All-Star team." Coach Jerry Sloan: "You are looking at one of the best teams in basketball in the next couple of years." Boston Celtics dynasty, you are so yesterday.

• Dec. 21, 1993: "We stink, point blank," Ron Harper tells me. "We just played Charles [Barkley] on Saturday in Phoenix. He comes up to us before the game and says, 'We know that we're gonna kick y'all's a-- tonight because y'all's used to it.'"

• Dec. 9, 1994: I am watching the Clippers leading the Lakers -- on the Lakers' home court -- by the score of 40-18. Chick Hearn does the play-by-play in disbelief. "This is not an April Fools' joke, folks," he says. I watch Malik Sealy and Pooh Richardson and Loy Vaught take the Lakers apart. Sealy says with a laugh: "If we go 66-0 the rest of the way, maybe you'll write about that. Ha ha ha!" He says this because the Clips had just lost their past 16 games in a row.

• Oct. 17, 1999: Staples Center opens. (Not "The" Staples Center … you don't say The Madison Square Garden or The Wrigley Field.) I write in that day's L.A. Times: "Bruce Springsteen is to be the first featured attraction. Bruce will do his music for an hour or two, then defeat the Clippers in a game all by himself, one against five." As you can tell, the team is still more Born to Lose than Born to Run.

Paul
Paul
Well, my arms and legs are tired now from all this flashbacking. I have followed the Clippers from a safe distance, like a storm chaser behind a tornado. If my math is correct, going into this season, this professional (cough) basketball team has been in 3,330 games and lost 2,123. I have often felt in my heart of hearts that you could win more NBA games than that by replacing the Clippers with any five TV personalities from ESPN.

Ah, but now … well, now that volcano is about to erupt. Their motto is Griffin & Paul & That Ain't All. I can see Stern handing Sterling the trophy. I can see hundreds of thousands of L.A. fans in the street peacefully. I can see basketball fan Sarah Palin out there somewhere, saying: " You'd have won a lot sooner if you'd gone with Glen Rice!" I can see celebrities at courtside, a thousand bucks a seat, watching the Clipper Girls dance, and a world in which everybody everywhere wants to change his or her name to World B. Free.

Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune sports columnist.

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