Moving up without moving on
February, 26, 2014
By Brendan I. Koerner
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Getty ImagesAfter decades at the bottom, the Clippers' sudden rise is still tough to grasp for longtime devotees.When I swore fealty to the Los Angeles Clippers in fall 1984, at the start of the team’s inaugural season in my sun-kissed hometown, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to wait more than a few years to attend my first championship parade. My concept of the ebb and flow of basketball fortunes had been warped by the Los Angeles Times sports section, which had conditioned me to expect Lakers titles on a biennial basis.
By my naive third-grade logic, any franchise that alighted in L.A. had to be the Lakers’ equal in terms of talent and organizational prowess; otherwise, why would they have the temerity to challenge the city's most cherished team for the population’s hearts and minds? Surely the Clippers would have their turn atop the NBA's summit, perhaps once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally called it a career. And when the team inevitably earned its first ring, I would be the only kid at school who could claim to have been a true acolyte since Day 1. All those smug, conformist Lakers fans would marvel at my prescience -- including my dad, who once declared that the sweetest sound in the world was the snap of the net after a James Worthy jumper.
I didn't fully awaken to the folly of my plan until 4 1/2 years later, after poor Danny Manning's right ACL turned into mincemeat on a grim Milwaukee night. By the time that cataclysm occurred, I was already more than a bit bewildered by the Clippers’ obvious deficiencies on the court. In sharp contrast to the Showtime Lakers, who ran the break with such balletic grace, the Clippers played an ugly brand of basketball that featured lots of errant passes and boneheaded fourth-quarter fouls, punctuated by the more-than-occasional Lancaster Gordon air ball. The roster teemed with over-the-hill veterans who gasped for breath after every missed rebound, plus a smattering of overhyped greenhorns who seemingly lost all heart upon first setting foot inside the squalid Sports Arena. When Manning’s knee gave way just 26 games into what was supposed to be a Hall of Fame career, I knew for certain that I had mistakenly opted for a life of misery by casting my lot with the Clippers.
Yet I never came close to abandoning my ill-starred team, even though I understood that decades’ worth of heartache lay ahead. After a boyhood spent obsessing over sports, I understood that there are few archetypes more justly despised than the fair-weather fan. We must suffer the consequences of our bad choices, even when those choices were made before we understood all of the variables involved. To reject the Clippers just because they were a tragic punch line would be tantamount to begging the cosmos for special treatment. And no one respects the guy who’s always asking for mulligans when things don't go exactly according to plan.
Instead of turning my back on the Clippers, I learned to appreciate their minor regular-season triumphs and, more important, to take a peculiar pride in the absurdity of their tribulations. When owner-cum-supervillain Donald Sterling raised the possibility of making the players buy their own socks, for example, or allegedly asked a prostitute whether he should hire Alvin Gentry, I felt strangely elated. With such an odious character atop the hierarchy, the fact the Clippers actually managed to make the playoffs every once in a blue moon was arguably quite a feat. Or when questionable first-round picks such as Michael Olowokandi and Bo Kimble proved the conventional wisdom correct by flaming out, I could only congratulate myself for sticking by a team whose college scouting department was evidently staffed by utter dolts.
Having developed these coping mechanisms during 30 years of Clippers fandom, I now find it difficult to believe that Lob City is anything more than a mirage. We’ve been teased before, of course, notably during those few brief days when it seemed that free-agent signing Baron Davis might get the chance to feed Elton Brand in the post. When Brand opted to break our hearts by signing with the Sixers, no bona fide Clippers fan was surprised -- we accept that our lot in life is to have contentment snatched away from us at the last moment, much like Tantalus never quite being able to grasp that fruit branch in hell.
And so I fear that a sudden stroke of misfortune will doom this winning Clippers team that has brought me so much joy. Perhaps Chris Paul’s oft-repaired legs will permanently turn to Jell-O. Or Blake Griffin will suddenly forget all he's learned about playing with his back to the basket. Or Sterling will scare away a crucial free agent by once again saying something shockingly boorish or racist.
Yet a small part of me also feels nostalgic for the darkest of Clippers days, when there was a perverse sense of honor in adoring such an infamously dreadful team. It is easy to feel a special kinship with fellow Clippers fans who can recite chapter and verse about the frustrations of the Benoit Benjamin era; suffering unites in a way that success never can.
AP Photo/Lennox McLendonThe current-day Clippers' success and high-wire act can't heal all old wounds, for better and for worse.
Once, while traveling through Slovakia, I bumped into a fellow Clippers aficionado with whom I shared a long exchange about our infamous 1987 draft, when we somehow managed to convert three of the first 19 picks into Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman -- in other words, nada. I daresay the connection we made that day, as we commiserated over 30-cent glasses of red wine, was an order of magnitude richer than anything two Lakers fans could forge while discussing the glorious Pat Riley years.
The legions of new Clippers fans, who have flocked to the team as its style has evolved from plodding to dynamic, are a bunch that I regard with both suspicion and pity. I have no quibble with folks who will one day tell their kids that their Clippers love was sparked by the artistry of Paul -- I accept that most origin stories of fandom are less narcissistic than my own. But I suspect that a fair chunk of the new fan base will not see their commitment through to the grave, but rather just until the day that Griffin takes his talents elsewhere. Anyone who stops supporting my Clippers at that moment will miss out on plenty of emotional tumult, for better and for worse.
Alas, I needn't even bother worrying about whether my son will be a Clippers lifer. Though I made sure to dress him in a Brand onesie during his toddler phase, the boy has opted to pour his heart and soul into pulling for the Knicks. At least he’ll develop a deep understanding of how teams can be ruined by capricious owners.
Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of "The Skies Belong to Us." Follow him @brendankoerner.