After the Patriots and Red Sox won titles within a nine-month span, I found myself without any remaining challenges as a fan. I had climbed every mountain. I was like Garry Shandling after the final "Larry Sanders" show, at a complete loss for how to top what just happened. So I decided to go the Jack Morris route. I became a hired gun. I brought my winning résumé to a franchise that always loses.
That's right ... I became a Clippers season-ticket holder.
Only one outcome would be more improbable than the Sox winning the Series: The Clips winning a series. For the past 25 years, they've been a punchline, the sports version of a joke about Michael Jackson's nose. Over that span, they finished over .500 just twice. They made the playoffs only two times -- in consecutive years, no less, during the fondly remembered Larry Brown Era -- and didn't advance past the first round either time. They have a losing all-time record against every team in the league. You could make a pretty good case that World B. Free was the third-greatest Clipper ever. I mean, the tortured history of the Clippers is a whole other column. You can't imagine more bad things happening to a team that wasn't good in the first place.
When I decided to purchase tickets, two things were appealing. First, the chance to see the other NBA teams. That's why most people purchase season tickets to the Clips. And second, the chance to become part of history. Seriously, have you ever met anyone who owned Clippers season tickets? It's like being one of the original cast members in "Cop Rock." Something to tell the grandkids about some day. I couldn't have been more excited about it. Wasn't possible. After I left Kimmel's show to return to ESPN, my friend Paul joked that I would inevitably end up having a kid with all my newfound spare time. "Are you kidding me?" I responded. "I'm getting Clippers tickets!" This was a lark. Like buying a Vespa or something.
Well, something happened along the way: The team turned out to be pretty good.
Now I'm not sure what to do. The rules of sports fan bigamy are pretty clear -- you may remember my column about this two years ago -- and I have been extremely careful not to violate any of them. I'm a Celtics fan. When Boston comes to town on December 13, precisely 100 percent of me will be rooting for the Celtics. This will never change.
At the same time, I'm watching a sports movie in the making. The Clippers -- the freaking Clippers! -- could make the playoffs. They may even win a round. And I'm trying to remain as detached as possible, like a philandering husband who keeps coming back to the same one-nighter. I pretend it doesn't mean anything, but it probably does. I make excuses, but none of them fly. I refuse to watch their road games, almost like the husband refusing to see his floozy in public. I won't wear any Clippers gear. I never use the word "we." I'm not a true fan and don't pretend to be. I keep telling myself these things.
And then I find myself touting Bobby Simmons' virtues to a friend, or gasping in frustration after hearing about Shaun Livingston's kneecap, and ... well ... I wonder a little, that's all. Can you passively follow the Clippers on a day-to-day basis -- or any team -- without that team eventually infecting your bloodstream? And what happens if they pass the Lakers by next spring, and I'm attending the first Clipper playoff games in 11 years? Can I still keep a comfortable distance without becoming too attached?
That's the big question. Every sports fan jumps on a bandwagon from time to time. It's human nature. We like rooting for underdogs. That's why there were four "Rocky" movies, that's why Daniel LaRusso is a household name, and that's why I can name the starting five from "Hoosiers" in 2.3 seconds. Now I find myself holding season tickets for the biggest underdog in professional sports, right when they're showing signs of potentially pulling a Hickory High. I never expected any of this.
I never remotely expected any of this.
In the middle of August, I headed into the Staples Center to have lunch with some Clippers executives. After helping me find tickets, I think they wanted to feel me out. Leading the charge was their VP of communications, Joe Safety, who looks like the guy who screamed "Goddammit, Maverick!" in "Top Gun." Since he was wearing a 1979 Pirates ring, I liked him immediately. You know how I feel about championship rings. After so many years with the Clippers, he's like an overprotective father of the town slut -- he's heard every possible joke, doesn't trust any writer's motives until they prove him wrong, and that's that.
My job was to convince them that I was playing this straight: I simply planned on following the team for the season. If I wanted to hang out with Shaun Livingston one day, I expected help. If I wanted to get blood tests with Bobby Simmons to see if we were related, I expected the team to help me. I wanted to be treated like any other member of the press. But since they knew about my column, and how I like to make fun of everyone and everything, they didn't entirely trust me.
There was also the Elgin Problem.
You know Elgin Baylor as the longtime general manager of the Clippers. Blessed with a kind face and a happy smile, almost like the grandfather in a UPN sitcom, he's the Hall of Famer who sits with the other embarrassed GMs during the lottery every spring. I have made many jokes about Elgin over the years. He's an easy target. This is a man once described by TNT's Reggie Theus as "a veteran of the lottery process" ... and he meant it as a compliment. During last June's draft, I slammed Elgin for trading down two spots -- from No. 2 to No. 4 -- and passing up a sure thing (Emeka Okafor) for a high school point guard (Livingston), adding that, "Having Elgin Baylor run your team must be like getting in the car with my mom at night, when she's careening off curbs and saying things like, 'I can't believe how bad my eyes have gotten' and 'We shouldn't have ordered that bottle of wine.' Just constant fear."
Well, Elgin wasn't too happy about that one. Much to my surprise, he reads more Clipper-related articles and columns than one would think. When he found out I was coming for lunch, he wasn't pleased. Coincidentally, he ended up in the Staples cafeteria at the same time we were eating; one of my lunch partners asked Elgin at the salad bar if he wanted to join us. Elgin glanced over at our table, noticed me sitting there and growled, "That guy's an (expletive)." Only he used a seven-letter expletive, placing most of his emphasis on the first three letters. For instance, let's pretend the word was "Bassbowl." Elgin would have said it, "That guy's a BASS-bowl."
(Needless to say, this was one of the highlights of my career. It wasn't just what Elgin said, it was the way he said it. I'm almost positive I can put this on a résume. And honestly? I can't blame him for thinking that. He's one of the greatest NBA players ever. I'm just a schmuck with a column. You could make a very good case that I AM a bassbowl.)
Other than that, the Clipper guys were pretty cool. On this particular day, they were still steaming about Kobe Bryant's contract, the latest groin-kick for a jinxed franchise. For most of June and July, free-agent Kobe and his agents led the Clippers to believe he would sign with them. He wanted a fresh start. He wanted a new team. Or so he said. And Team Kobe kept saying the right things, to the point that the Clips gave away two fringe rotation guys (Melvin Ely and Eddie House) to clear extra cap space for him. On July 14, the night before the big announcement, Kobe changed his mind and stayed with the Lakers. To this day, the Clippers don't know what happened. They have their theories, none of which I feel comfortable printing here. But you couldn't help them for feeling betrayed. Whether they should have trusted someone with Kobe's track record is another matter.
Here was the biggest irony: Not only did Kobe stab them in the back, he pushed Shaq out of town ... and Shaq ended up getting traded to Miami for Lamar Odom, the erstwhile Clipper who stabbed the team in the back the previous summer. Hailed as a Magic Johnson-type talent as a rookie, the moon-faced Odom evolved into a coach-killer and repeat drug offender, an emotional head case with a shady entourage, someone who received more chances over the years than Breckin Meyer. When his contract expired in the summer of 2003, Odom lobbied behind the scenes for a fair offer. He said all the right things. Even went from cubicle to cubicle in the Clipper offices, telling employees how much he wanted to stay.
Then Pat Riley and Miami fell into some extra cap space. Suddenly Lamar had an outrageous offer in his hands -- six years, $60 million, twice what the Clippers were offering -- and if that wasn't bad enough, now he was bashing the franchise to reporters and playing the "please, just let me go, don't match the offer, I just want the nightmare to be over" card. As always with NBA players, money talks. Throw in the way Lamar subsequently turned his career around in Miami -- suddenly in shape and clean, playing with a purpose -- and you would be hard-pressed to find an Odom fan remaining in the Clippers offices.
Now he was returning to Los Angeles in the Shaq deal, the second-best player for the Clippers' big brother in town. And this isn't just any big brother. Even the Michael Corleone/Fredo Corleone relationship was more balanced. At our lunch, when Joe Safety said the words, "Even when we do the right thing, we end up getting screwed," he wasn't kidding.
It's one thing to be bad. It's another thing to be bad and have bad luck. If this were Vegas, the Clippers would be the guy who lost 10 grand in the sports book, then got robbed outside the casino for another three. Only this would happen year after year. You couldn't ask for a stranger franchise to follow on a regular basis. I knew that. The Clippers people knew that I knew that. That was my angle. It would have been foolish to pretend anything otherwise.
We shook hands and headed our separate ways. We were off to a good start. Well, except for me and Elgin.
But here's the thing: Old Elgin turned out to be right about Shaun Livingston. And I have never been so happy to be wrong.
"We finally have a point guard!!!"
Those orgasmic words came from a regular in my section during the Houston game recently. So what if the guy was wearing goofy glasses and a Livingston jersey? You couldn't blame him for being pumped. Livingston had just saved a possession by taking Ty Lue off the dribble, then banking one of those MJ-like leaners off the glass, a play that an 18 year-old shouldn't make in anything other than his dreams. The Rockets called timeout. The fans rejoiced. You could feel that wave of nervous excitement passing through the arena, like a bored teenager ruffling through the attic of a broken-down house, then finding a box full of perfectly-kept baseball cards from the 1950s.
Wait a second ... is this for real?
Everyone felt that way. Playing in just his 10th NBA game, Livingston was earning crunch-time minutes against a playoff-caliber team. This was unprecedented -- even experienced college point guards have trouble adjusting to the various nuances of an NBA game. Now here was Livingston, a college freshman under any other circumstances, making the leap straight from Peoria, Illinois. Only three Clippers ever had a chance to be special. The first was Danny Manning, who promptly blew out his knee. The second was Odom, who blew out a neverending supply of bong pipes. Livingston made three.
Two days later, he dislocated his kneecap. Out for two months. And I finally knew what it was like to be a Clippers fan.
This was crushing news. Just crushing. Within 20 minutes in the first exhibition game, I realized that Livingston's progress would overshadow everything else with my first Clippers season. I love basketball. I am fiercely protective of anyone who plays it the right way. Stumbling across someone like Livingston as a rookie ... I'm not sure you can put a price on this. He sees the court like Magic did. In time, he could have the same defensive impact that Scottie Pippen once did. He would rather make a nice pass than an open jump shot. There's simply nobody else in the league quite like him. If you hated what you watched last summer in Athens, if you care about this league at all, then you need to move Livingston up a few notches on your Fan Priority Scale.
For diehard Clipper fans, Livingston represented something else: Hope.
I wasn't prepared for how many regulars attend these games, people who have been following the team since the '80s, mostly locals who couldn't get Lakers tickets and settled for the next-best (and considerably cheaper) option. Deep down, they're all clinging to the same pipe dream -- the day when the Clippers supplant the Lakers as the best basketball team in Los Angeles -- and turn their tickets into prime real estate. There's also something about tortured history that bonds everyone, like the siblings in a family with dysfunctional parents. They've heard all the jokes. They've rationalized the team's failures in their own ways. But they keep coming back. At least with the Red Sox in the pre-Schilling days, you could point to the swollen payroll and all the near-misses over the years. The Clippers fans have nothing. They may as well have amnesia like Jason Bourne.
(Quick tangent: Last summer I ventured to the Clippers offices to meet some of the employees. Like any other NBA team, the walls were covered with pictures of the team ... only the other teams proudly display photos from the great moments in franchise history. With the Clippers, they have to use current photos of Mike Dunleavy screaming out a play, or Elton Brand slamming a rebound home. You can't even imagine. They may as well be the Bobcats.)
So how would you describe the atmosphere at Clippers games? Quaint. Respectful. Supportive. The team doesn't bother blasting scoreboard prompts or fake crowd chants; a boisterous fan named Darryl in Section 107 starts "Let's go Clip-pers!" chants that echo through the arena. He's good enough. On a game-to-game basis, it's the most positive, laid-back crowd I have ever experienced. Like sitting with 15,000 soccer Moms, all of us watching their kids running around.
When the boys started the season by waxing Seattle by 30 points, the fans seemed pleasantly surprised. This was a likable team made up of hard-working guys who kept their mouth shut and kept plugging away, younger veterans like Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Marko Jaric, Chris Wilcox, and most notably, Simmons, a defensive stopper who inexplicably learned how to make 20-footers over the summer. After being burned by an endless supply of players whose reputations proceeded them -- unreliable head cases, potential free agents gunning for their own stats, smack-talking showoffs looking to make a splash -- the team wisely moved in a new direction after an unhappy experience with Andre Miller two years ago.
Frankly, I'm not sure what took them so long. Since owner Donald Sterling refuses to overspend for non-superstars (a lively subject for another column), why not build around one or two hard-working stars (like Brand and Maggette) and a host of young players with something to prove? That's precisely what the Clippers did. In a league where teams routinely change 50-75 percent of their roster from year to year, they kept their nucleus together and handed them a decent coach (Mike Dunleavy) to boot. That continuity gave them an enormous advantage in November, almost like a marathon runner that already knows the course.
With the Clips carrying a 5-3 record into a "road" showdown with Kobe and the Lakers, everyone in Los Angeles prepared for the first wave of "Here come the Clippers!" stories. Of course, they lost by 12. That weekend, they were robbed against the Rockets on a phantom call on McGrady, leading to Marko's classic quote, "If we want to be more serious, we need to close out these games and move forward -- otherwise, we're going to struggle in the bottom of the league all our lives."
(Note: Leave it to the most up-and-down guy on the team, someone who prompted the Sports Gal to ask during one game, "Why does he always look hung over?" to question the team's ability to be serious. You have to love the Clippers.)
When an excellent Phoenix team rolled through them 24 hours later, Times columnist JA Adande (an L.A. native) sent me an ominous e-mail: "The Clips are getting that familiar sinking feeling about them again." He had been warning me this would happen. I didn't believe him. One day later, Livingston injured his knee in practice. The Hoop gods were aligning against them again.
During any other season, they would have folded. But the Schedule gods intervened. For some crazy reason, the Clips received the next four days off, followed by easy games against the Nets and Warriors, then an improbable seven-game homestand. In other words, there's a decent chance that the Clippers -- repeat: the Los Angeles Clippers -- will be something like 13-7 in 12 days.
They're on pace for the franchise's best record ever. Other than San Antonio, they're the best defensive team in the Western Conference. Brand, Simmons and Maggette never take a night off and always seem to crack 50 points between them. And Dunleavy has been coaching like Gabe Kaplan during the last 60 minutes of "Fast Break" -- he's even managed to turn Rick Brunson and Mikki Moore into serviceable bench guys. Like a poor man's version of last year's Pistons team, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Maybe that's all you can ask for.
Needless to say, the diehards have been beside themselves. Watching it from afar, I couldn't help but feel a little jealous -- this was something I experienced with the Patriots on a smaller scale. Few things are more rewarding, as a sports fan, then supporting a perennial loser as it finally starts turning things around. It's like losing your virginity all over again. And I know, I know ... it's the Clippers. Bad things always happen to the Clippers. They're a punchline for a reason.
But that's the beautiful thing about sports: You never know.
During Monday's upset over Cleveland, fans were jumping out of their seats like it was a college game. OK, I exagerrated that a little. But people were standing a few times. With Maggette nursing a sprained ankle, my bro Bobby played the best all-around game I've seen all season, putting the clamps on LeBron (only 22 points, no open looks) and doing everything but telling Dunleavy what flavor of gum LeBron was chewing. He's the heart and soul of the team. As they were putting the Cavs away in the final two minutes, Brand missed a jumper and Ilguaskas hauled down the rebound ... only Bobby came flying from behind to tip it loose to a teammate. The guy couldn't have been playing any harder. It wasn't possible.
Almost on cue, the crowd stood up and cheered -- partly for Simmons, partly for another unexpected victory, partly because they couldn't believe what they were seeing. And I was right there with them. Maybe I'm a Celtics fan, but I can appreciate good basketball when I see it.
I just never thought I would see it at a Clippers game, that's all.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.