Remember when Jack Buck screamed, "I don't believe what I just saw!" after Kirk Gibson's legendary home run in the '88 World Series? About four weeks ago, I found myself holding my mail and screaming, "I don't believe what I just opened!"
That's right, the Los Angeles Clippers were billing me for playoff tickets.
As a two-year season-ticket holder, I knew there was a chance, but still ... this was a bigger shock than Mischa Barton pretending she had never seen cocaine before on "The OC." Since moving to California in 1978, the Clippers have made a whopping three playoff appearances -- none since 1997. The franchise hasn't won a series since 1976, when they were known as the Buffalo Braves. They've won four playoff games in the past three decades, a stretch that featured two above-.500 seasons (43 wins in 1979, 45 wins in 1991). They made 19 lottery picks in the last 20 years (including two No. 1s, three No. 2s, two No. 3s and three No. 4s). By any calculation, the Clippers are the most ridiculed, least successful franchise in sports history. No other team comes close.
When I decided to purchase tickets, I never imagined that the playoffs would be part of the deal. I was more interested in seeing the other teams, catching Bron-Bron and Wade, yelling at the referees, hearing the conversations in the stands, seeing the body language of various players, meeting some of the other NBA junkies. But the lure of the Clippers quagmire sealed the deal. Nobody could match their legacy of failure and incompetence, their legendary cheapness, their staggering amount of bad luck. What kept the fans coming back? Why would anyone support such a miserable, hopeless franchise that steadfastly refused to spend enough money to compete? Why would anyone believe things could turn around?
Intrigued, I made the leap. And after finishing the 2004-2005 season, everything made sense. The Clippers were preying on two fundamental realities of the L.A. sports scene. First, an inordinate number of locals are loaded -- maybe more than any other American city -- and have the disposable income to support a crummy NBA team with the hope that things change some day. Considering that good Clippers tickets are half as expensive as good Lakers tickets (and much easier to get), that's a relatively smart investment. What if things DID turn around? Suddenly you have choice seats for a hot team in a hot sport, right?
The bigger factor: Something about this franchise sucks people in.
Maybe it's the underdog thing. Maybe it's the revolving door of young lottery picks with potential. Maybe it's the guillotine of bad luck hanging over this team. The Clippers are like the token hot-and-crazy chick that you shouldn't date, and you know it, only you can't help yourself. Take last season's team, which started out strong and got everyone excited ... and then bad things started happening. High schooler Shaun Livingston, the rail-thin rookie who could see the court like Magic, separated his shoulder two days after getting crunch-time minutes for the first time. Players started dropping left and right. They kept losing close games because stiffs like Rick Brunson and Marko Jaric were killing them at point. Their playoff hopes faded during a killer road trip in February, and that was that. Same old Clippers.
As last summer's ticket renewal deadline approached, I considered relinquishing them for a depressing press pass. But I kept remembering Livingston during that Houston game in November, when he took over down the stretch, when the 20-year season-ticket holder in front of me delightedly screamed, "We finally have a point guard!" If Shaun could just stay healthy, he was going to be special. Only Wade and LeBron had higher ceilings. I really believed that. How could I walk away from someone with a slim chance to become the next Magic? Would any true basketball fan walk away from a prodigy?
One more year. That was the decision.
Almost immediately, I regretted it. They drafted another high schooler (Yaro Korolev) over Danny Granger, who would have helped them right away. Two weeks later, Bobby Simmons (the heart and soul of last year's team) accepted a Godfather offer from Milwaukee. Even worse, there were rumors that Livingston's shoulder hadn't properly healed, that he was skipping Summer League, that he could miss a chunk of the upcoming season. And if I could have gone back in time and canceled that check for season tickets, I would have done it. The Clippers were losers. They would always be losers. By sending them money for tickets, I was just feeding the beast.
Nine months later? They're on pace for 48 wins, with an outside chance of breaking the franchise record for victories (49). They're looking at a 5-seed in the first round. They have an MVP candidate in Elton Brand. They're poised to replace the 2002 Angels, 2003 Lakers, 2004-05 Trojans and 2006 Bruins as The Bandwagon L.A. Team Du'jour. Some experts are even tabbing them as a potential sleeper this spring. That's right ... the Clippers. The Los Angeles Clippers.
My head is spinning.
Before you read the next section, you need to remember something: I'm a Celtics fan, not a Clippers fan. That will never change. The rules of sports bigamy aren't just clearly defined, I happen to be the writer who defined them.
During their home games, I root for the Clippers because they're the hometown team, because I like some of their players, because I want them to make the playoffs (so I can attend some playoff games), because you have to root for someone at an NBA game. That's really it. I never wear Clippers stuff. I never use the word "we." I don't watch their road games any more or less than I watch anyone else's road games. I don't read their newspaper coverage. I have never posted on one of their message boards. In short, I'm not like Bill Paxson in that "Big Love" show, and the Clippers aren't like Chloe Sevigny.
At the same time, I find myself getting a little attached -- not as a Clippers fan, but as a basketball fan -- partly because it's such a fun story, partly because I admire Elton Brand and Sam Cassell so much, partly because Livingston's unselfish talents are so extraordinarily rare. I'm also a sucker for a good story. And this particular Clippers team was on its way to another 30-win season last summer, right until four moments changed everything.
In reverse order ...
4. The MRI
Livingston's shoulder turned out to be OK.
(Big sigh of a relief. For a franchise that suffered through Bill Walton's feet, Marques Johnson's neck, Norm Nixon's knee, Derek Smith's knee, Danny Manning's knee ... let's just say that the Clippers don't have good luck with body parts.)
3. The Free Agent Signing
The Clips responded to Simmons' defection by quickly splurging on a replacement: a five-year, $42 million deal for Cuttino Mobley that did four things. First, they were throwing a bone to their beaten-down fans, whose expectations had sunk so low that even someone like Mobley -- a cagey veteran guard with 3-point range, but not an All-Star by any means -- was cause for celebration. Second, it told the players on the team that they were ready to compete. Third, it broke a dubious streak of sorts; the Clippers' last major free-agent signing was Walton in 1979 (yes, you read that correctly). And fourth, when my friend Strik broke the news to me, I was driving down Beverly Boulevard and nearly ended up rear-ending a Prius. True story.
2. The Epiphany
Unbeknownst to anyone, Brand made one of the craziest offseason decisions in recent memory: He decided that he hadn't reached his potential as a player.
At that point, Elton was a borderline All-Star living off a max contract, a guaranteed 20-10 every night, someone who worked his butt off and never bitched to the referees, indisputably one of the top 30 players in the league. There were some flaws in his game -- his low-post moves needed some work; he was carrying a little too much weight; he relied on his jump hook too much -- but things you wouldn't notice unless you watched him every night.
Well, Elton wasn't satisfied. So he worked on his low-post moves, honed his first step, got himself into phenomenal shape, transformed his body from "bulky" to "sleek." Now he's one of the best 10 players in the league, a guaranteed 25-11 every night, a work horse, a true franchise guy. He commands a double team at all times. He's better than every power forward in the league except Duncan and Nowitzki. By every possible calculation, he's the best player in Clippers history. And he's only 26 years old.
(Important note: Normally with the Clippers, just the fact that those last two paragraphs were written would have caused Elton's right ACL to snap in half. I guess we'll see how this plays out. But it had to be written.)
1. The Leader
And this is the biggie ...
Say what you want about Elgin Baylor (and I have), but the longtime Clippers GM swung the single most important trade of the summer: a sign-and-trade where Minnesota ended up with the incompetent Jaric and the Clips ended up with a No. 1 pick and Sam Cassell. It was a calculated gamble for a team that desperately needed leadership, experience, someone who wasn't afraid to take big shots, and someone who looked like E.T. Sure, Sam is a little crazy (or so they said), and he wore out his welcome a few times, but what's more reliable than a good player trying to prove himself in a contract year? In the words of Val Kilmer in "Heat," the bank was worth the risk.
Sensing one final chance at a big payday, as well as an opportunity to define his career, Sam grabbed the steering wheel from day one. He shouted to everyone that things were changing, that the Clippers wouldn't be pushovers anymore. He started working on Brand, telling him over and over again that Brand was their horse, that he needed to carry them, that they would only go as far as he took them. During the team's first official practice, when they were scrimmaging full-court, Mike Dunleavy stopped the proceedings for a water break. Everyone went to get a drink except Cassell and Mobley, who remained on the court to shoot free throws together. The next time, it happened again. And the next time. They never said a word, just kept shooting those free throws. Within a few days, nobody was getting water during water breaks; everyone remained on the court.
See, it's the little things with Sam. We always hear the whole "This guy's a winner, he's teaching them to win" refrain with sports, but I watched it actually happen with Sam and the Clippers -- little by little, game by game, week by week, month by month. Baby steps. Almost like watching my little daughter. From the first game in Seattle, Sam made this team his own, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a couple of dagger threes, followed by Sam skipping around the court doing his "I have giant testicles!" dance, then screaming in the postgame interview, "I told you! I told you this was a different team! This ain't the same old Clippers anymore!"
That Seattle game set the tone for the season: Sam casting his shadow over everyone and everything. There's nobody in the league quite like him. He knows everyone on every team, every referee, every coach ... he's like the old guy in the sports movie who shows up at the playground and starts jawing at everyone, only everyone starts smiling because they know it's finally time to start playing some ball. He's constantly working the crowd, the officials, even other players. He's always up to something. During one game against Minnesota, Sam found himself fighting for a loose ball with KG -- whose intensity during games is almost bordering on homicidal at this point -- and it seemed like KG was going to punch this Random Clipper Who Dared To Battle Him. Then he realized it was Sam and kissed him on the forehead.
I always believed Sam was underrated in the past, but now I'm starting to wonder if he was the most overlooked good player of the past 15 years. The proverbial raps on Sam: head case, complains too much, bitter about being underpaid, can't guard anyone. Maybe there was some truth to all of those things, especially last season in Minnesota. But this was also a guy who won two rings in Houston with Hakeem (making some huge shots for Rockets, by the way), then happened to lead FOUR OTHER TEAMS that just "randomly" came together while he was there. Two went from the lottery to the playoffs (the '97 Nets and '06 Clips), the other two made the conference finals (the '00 Bucks and '04 Timberwolves).
Can we still call it a coincidence after the recent Clippers resurgence? Probably not. Some guys just know how to win. It's in their blood.
I wasn't the only one who could see it. Over the summer, the Clippers switched my seats to a section filled with season-ticket holders from 1984 ... including a jovial guy named Dave, who never misses a game and ended up becoming my resource for Clippers history. I learned from Dave that Larry Brown's first season (1991) remains the highlight of the past 20 seasons, the one time they looked like a real basketball team. I learned that Mo Taylor was the single most selfish Clipper of all time (with Michael Olowokandi ranking a close second). I learned that nobody choked at the end of games like Lamar Odom, that Andre Miller mailed in the second half of his one season here, that they never should have gotten rid of Earl Boykins and Brent Barry. Poor Dave could write a Ph.D dissertation on losing. During the T-Wolves game in December, Dave glanced at Minnesota's bench and noticed Olowokandi, Jaric and Troy Hudson, then joked, "Three former Clippers, no wonder they stink!"
On opening night, Dave was raving about Cassell like a proud father. "We never had anyone like him before," he kept saying, his eyes practically bulging out of his head. "Never had a good point guard except for Mark Jackson, never had anyone willing to take a big shot. Sam LOVES TO TAKE BIG SHOTS! He would have been worth 12-15 wins last year!"
For someone like Dave, who suffered through two solid decades of heartbreak and abject failure, Sam was a gift from the Hoops Gods. Forget about the clutch shooting and ballhandling; the 36 year-old Cassell coaches everyone on the floor, pumps other players up, cheers the subs from the bench, directs his teammates like a traffic cop. It's quite possible that he's the best coach on the team (and yes, I'm including Dunleavy). During one game in New York, when Chris Wilcox allowed his man to jump over him for an offensive rebound, Sam started screaming so angrily from the bench that one of the officials T'd him up, never imagining that Sam was chewing out one of his own teammates.
On the court, Sam never stops dipping into his bag of tricks, almost like an old boxer or an aging wrestler. Sometimes he dribbles upcourt, notices a defender innocently running back to the other end, then lurches into the guy and flops to the floor (always drawing a foul). He almost always goes left when he drives -- at least seven out of eight times -- and just when his guy decides, "All right, this guy always goes left," Sam crosses over and breaks his ankles. When the defense over-rotates, he careens into the paint and draws the center toward him, then lofts a scoop shot right over his outstretched hand. Best of all, he always knows precisely when to take those killer 3s that can swing a game; invariably, he even makes them. There's a reason Sam Cassell is the only player in the league who does the Testicle Dance.
Of course, Sam won't get mentioned in the MVP voting, and during home games, the crowd chants "M-V-P! M-V-P!" for Brand when he's shooting free throws. That's all fine. We don't have statistics to measure the way Cassell transformed the team's work ethic (starting with that first practice), the confidence he provides in crunch time, all the little things he does for Brand (getting him the ball on pick-and-rolls in the right spot time and time again), or the dramatic effect he's had on Livingston (currently playing the best basketball of his life). Replace Sam with Jaric and they would have blown some close games in November and December, then the wheels would have come off when Corey Maggette got injured. That's what would have happened. Thirty-five wins. Instead, they're on pace for almost 50.
Was Sam Cassell one of the 10 most valuable players in basketball this season? You tell me.
Meanwhile, with everyone finally healthy, the Clippers seem to be hitting their potential. Nobody in the league has a better eight-man nucleus; nobody has more options down the stretch; nobody can give you more looks. They have rebounders, ballhandlers, outside shooters, defenders, you name it. Three nights ago, 24 hours before the Clips destroyed the Suns in Phoenix, they came back from 22 down to beat Denver at home. I was sitting next to Dave and his son, a college senior who has been coming to Clippers games since he was little. Just like me with the Celtics. One difference though: I watched five championship teams before I turned 17. This kid has never seen the Clippers win a playoff series, and he hadn't even attended a playoff game since he was 12.
So when they started coming back in the third quarter, and Livingston turned into Magic for about nine minutes -- just a virtuoso performance -- and the crowd started getting into it, I found myself telling him, "See, this is what the playoffs are like." I couldn't help myself. This WAS what the playoffs were like.
In the fourth quarter, Sam took over the game -- a nifty reverse layup on the break, a floater in the lane, an outrageous fallaway turnaround -- as the crowd went bonkers. Now they were leading. With a little more than a minute to play, Carmelo found himself so frustrated by Quentin Ross (the Clippers' version of Bruce Bowen) that he punched the ball into the stands after a hard foul, earning an immediate ejection. Delighted, Sam traipsed over to the Nuggets bench, trying to determine who would shoot Melo's free throws for him, eventually settling on Reggie Evans (who missed both as Sam waved his arms to incite the crowd). Sam and the Clips ended up winning by two. Last season, they would have lost.
But that's not even the point. This could have been any 50-win team protecting their house against a good team .. it just happened to be the Clippers, and we just happened to be at the Staples Center, and the last 30 years really didn't matter anymore. For Dave and thousands of other season-ticket holders who kept mailing in their checks and hoping things would change some day, they finally lucked out. Things changed. The Clippers are finally for real. Just like that bill for playoff tickets.
And normally, that would be enough. But I want them to win one playoff series, and not just because I want to keep going to playoff games. I want them to win for the people in my section, for the fans who kept following them through thick and thin, for the people like Dave and his wife and son. I want more people to know about Cassell and Brand, two of the great stories in the league right now. I want to see how many e-mails I get from readers comparing Chris Kaman to Hulk Hogan. I want to see if Livingston raises his game on a bigger stage. I even want to see Elgin break out one of his multi-colored "Cosby Show" sweaters for the second round of the playoffs.
Most of all, I want them to win a series for everyone who works for this team, the long-suffering souls who endured all the Clippers jokes over the years, all the "What the hell are we doing?" phone calls after another non-trade or nonsensical draft pick, all the petty slights and head-shaking disappointments that come with working for a crummy organization that never stops sucking the life out of you. I have gotten to know some of them over the past two years; watching them respond to the increasing possibility of real success this season, they're all starting to look like Locke on "Lost" when he realized he could walk. When you go from rooting for "the worst franchise in sports" to "the sleeper in the West," and it happens so fast, you find yourself worrying more about what could go wrong then what's going right ... well, you tend to look that way.
Out of anyone, those people deserve to see the Staples Center rocking this spring. Better late than never, I say.
Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.