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Thursday, February 15, 2001
Play Skool

By by Chris Palmer

For a gallery of photos from this story, click here.

The Timberlands are a necessity. So are the oversize Sean John jeans and the platinum necklace with the three-inch, diamond-studded letters that dangle in his lap. The black do-rag on his head keeps his cornrows from fraying so his mom won't have to redo them too often.

Every night starts off the same. Darius Miles and the boys coordinate on two-way pagers and matchbox-size digital phones. "What y'all tryin' to get?" one of them says. "Don't make no difference to me," another responds. Somehow they always end up at The Cheesecake Factory, at this corner table, yucking it up as if laughing gas came with the breadsticks. This is where young friends go when they're hungry. They've got the pockets to buy the best bubbly in the house, but only two of them have the proper ID in those pockets to order it -- and that just happened this past November.

Together is fun. Together is cool. Together is a way of life if you're D Miles and the boys: Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling, Corey Maggette and Lamar Odom.

Nine months ago, when Miles announced he was skipping college to enter the NBA draft, he was met with the usual skepticism. How can you expect an unpolished 18-year-old to survive the NBA grind? That class wasn't offered at East St. Louis (Ill.) High. "His teammates will have families," said Miles' mother, Ethel. "What will Darius do?" AAU coach Larry Butler agreed. "Who is Darius going to hang with?" he asked. "Where is he going to go? Who is he going to talk to?"

When the Clips became the first NBA team to draft a high school player with a pick as high as No.3, those fears were only amplified. One of the losingest franchises in pro sports history, the Clippers might as well be a black hole. They have a .320 lifetime winning percentage and their playoff history fits onto a single page in their media guide. No one exits this locker room unscathed.

What will Miles do?

Well, these days it's best to travel with some boys from back home. You know, the posse phenomenon. But unlike his predecessors, Miles doesn't have to foot the bill. Richardson, whom the Clippers drafted with the 18th pick, is his best friend. Dooling, taken 10th by Orlando and traded to L.A., had played AAU ball against Richardson since the age of 13. The talented-but-unproven Maggette, who arrived as part of the Dooling trade, battled Miles and Richardson on the Chicago high school circuit for years.

Mix that talent in with the 21-year-old Odom, a 6'10" wing with Swiss Army knife versatility, and Miles had his support group. And the Clippers had one of the NBA's greatest collections of young talent. Ever. Their youthful exuberance has transformed the team. On media day last October at Staples Center, Richardson discovered a pair of Super Soaker squirt guns in the trunk of Miles' Escalade. A Matrix-style shootout ensued, with the two players dousing everything in their path. Miles ducked into a bathroom for a gallon of ammo and, as he exited, was ambushed by Richardson, who pumped a half-dozen rounds into his chest. Q took off and ducked behind a trash can to wait for the kill. But Miles is a wise 19. He knows all of Q's hiding spaces. He tip-toed up to the can and unloaded his gun like Jesse The Body in Predator.

"These guys are refreshing," says Eric Piatkowski, the Clips' seven-year swingman. "They get fired up for anything." A new PlayStation, a new pair of shoes, even a new CD. "Their energy level is unbelievable," adds newly acquired center Cherokee Parks. "In warmups, they're going one-on-one or throwing it off the board and dunking. It's like being on an AAU team."

The locker room is like a classroom. When you venture into the corners, you've got to keep your eyes peeled for paper airplanes and spitballs. On the team bus, the fellas shift from comedy to rap. "Sorry Ms. Jackson/I am for reeeaall," squeals Miles, trying to sound like Big Boi from Outkast. There are running jokes about Michael Olowokandi's body odor (he refuses to use deodorant) and Piatkowski's reluctance to shower with the brothers (don't ask). Nothing is sacred.

The fellas now define Clipper style: white headbands with matching wristbands at home; red wristbands for the road; red and blue rubber bands inscribed with family names on the wrists; red or blue ankle tape, black ankle socks and the pièce de résistance -- a fresh pair of Air Jordans or Nike Shox. "No team looks like we do," says Odom. "It's cool to be a Clipper."

Cool to be a Clipper? That's what happens when you have a bunch of kids who are oblivious to the team's pathetic past. "What does the past have to do with us?" asks Q. "This is Clippers 2001," says the 21-year-old Maggette. "We all have a chance to put our stamp on it."

***

After a 30-minute drive north to the Valley, Miles pulls up to the steel gates and presses the button on the call box. "Yo Q, it's me," he says. In a few seconds, the gates swing open and a spacious, five-bedroom house appears on the horizon.

"Q lives where the rich people live," says Miles, with no trace of irony. This is the young Clips' headquarters, the crib where they hang out when they're not balling. Former Laker guard Larry Drew used to call it home. Now Richardson shares the place with his 26-year-old brother, Lee.

Miles plops down on an L-shaped couch in the living room. Video game discs and remote controls are scattered everywhere. A Dreamcast sits on the floor in front of a 71-inch TV. The controllers are unraveled in preparation for the next showdown.

When Dooling pulls up in his new Escalade, the gloves come off. "We don't play music when we play Dreamcast," Richardson explains, "because we like to hear each other talk noise."

First up, NBA 2K1.

"Q used to be the best, but I blew him out the other day," woofs Miles.

Not this time. With Zo as his go-to guy and the Heat as his team, Q runs the table. "They know they can't mess with me," he says. Richardson is the Bobby Fischer of video games. His Dreamcast travels with the team. Dooling's no slouch with NFL 2K, and Miles is the man in Ultimate Fighting Championship. "I be makin' everybody tap out," he boasts. "I am the king. I cannot be beat." This goes on and on for hours. From time to time, the players pause for food or to watch SportsCenter, then it's back to combat.

"This is the best time of my life," says Miles. "But it wouldn't be if my boys weren't here."

They found out early that dealing with losses is easier as a group. Good thing -- though much improved, the Clips have already had losing streaks of five and nine games. They talk things out instead of going home and brooding in the dark. "We're in this together," says Richardson. After a dreaded DNP-CD, there's always an arm around a shoulder or a "keep ya head up" before they part ways. They don't need coach's tricks or locker room speeches to build team chemistry. Their love is real. It comes from the heart. Imagine that.

Coach Alvin Gentry made Odom the youngest captain in league history. Odom's job: make sure his peers remain positive. "These are my guys," he says. And his guys look up to him. In many ways, Odom has more credibility with the newcomers than any coach ever could. When they look in the mirror, they see someone who looks just like them: young, talented, ambitious and expected to fail because he's a Clipper.

"If the Clippers keep Lamar Odom, they'll keep all of us," says Miles.

Does Jonathan Bender feel that way about Reggie Miller? Would DeShawn Stevenson say the same thing about Karl Malone? Gentry's cool, but it would take him a decade to earn props like that. Lamar had 'em from Day One. After a year under the Old Clipper regime, he understands that attitude -- good or bad -- is highly contagious.

Success won't be measured in wins or losses this season. And it won't have much to do with scoring averages -- not yet at least. It's all about education. How much can they absorb? How quickly can they use it? "They're smart kids so they learn fast," says Gentry. "But they're still rookies."

***

All five guys play multiple positions. All but Odom boast 40-inch verts. At 6'6", 225, Richardson rips down rebounds like a young Sir Charles. He can two-hand tomahawk jam from a standstill under the basket. The 6'6" Maggette drains pull-up J's and flashes his forehead above the rim on acrobatic drives. Dooling, a 6'5" point guard, can blow by you with his explosive first step. Against Washington, he surprised Rod Strickland by taking him off the dribble for easy assists and layups. "He can really move," says Sonics scout Gene Littles.

Then there is the 6'9" Miles, the league's youngest player. Lithe, sleek and cornrowed, he still doesn't know how to knot a tie. There are moments when he toys with the competition, when the league is no different from his PlayStation 2. Eight blocks against Charlotte, seven against Seattle. Rebounds above the box. Explosions along the baseline. Flights to the rim that take off outside the lane. His fearlessness is eerie. Early in his first meeting with the Lakers, he was assigned to double down on Shaq every time he got the ball.

"Hey rook, why you keep doubling? I'm just gonna pass it," Shaq said.

"The one time I don't, you'll shoot it," replied Miles.

"You must not know my game," said Shaq.

Next time downcourt, Miles doubled down and, true to his word, Shaq passed the ball. He did it again and again and again. Finally, the big man caught it with no double and wheeled inside the lane for a gimme. But not before Miles noticed. He flew in and let loose with a monster spike. The ball ricocheted off the floor -- 15 feet into the air. Jogging back downcourt, Miles shot O'Neal an icy stare. 'Sup, Shaq? Welcome to Darius Miles.

The fellas went bonkers, as they often do when one of their pals goes SportsCenter on somebody. When Dooling dunked on Dikembe Mutombo and got T'd for wagging his finger in the center's face, the bench exploded. "You're supposed to get a tech if you dunk on Mutombo," says Maggette. "I'll pay that fine myself if I have to."

Not every moment makes "Plays of the Week." Not the 28-point loss to the Knicks, when the Clippers had just seven assists, or Odom's 2-for-12 with five turnovers in a 20-point loss to the lowly Hawks. And don't try to get Miles to recount his four turnovers in eight scoreless minutes against the Nets, either. Or his MIA jumper. The Clips are 26th in the league in turnovers. But they have a handle on it. "We're gonna make mistakes," says Q. "That's a given because we're still learning."

***

Two hours before tip-off against the Wizards, Richardson and Miles are sitting on the scorer's table at the MCI Center, killing time as Washington guard Richard Hamilton walks out to shoot free throws. "Man, I used to idolize him," says Miles. Funny how things change. Or do they? Miles, who blocked MJ's shot twice in a pickup game last spring, is pumped at the prospect of once again seeing Michael in the flesh. "There he is," shouts Q, pointing to the luxury boxes. Miles surveys the heavens for 10 seconds before he gets the joke. Made you look. But that's life as Q's best pal.

Things like that aren't happening out in Utah to the league's other prep rook, Stevenson. D Miles has known D Steve since ninth grade. The two keep in touch by phone. When the Jazz came to L.A., the other young Clips adopted Stevenson as one of their own. After a Dreamcast fest at Q's, they hit a release party for Jay-Z's new album, The Dynasty. They met Puff Daddy and drooled over Jennifer Lopez and Carmen Electra. In Utah a week later, the crew got together over baby back ribs at Chili's. They talked and laughed and joked with one another like teenagers do. "Those guys have a lot of fun together," says Stevenson. "It would be great to be with them all the time."

Doesn't Darius know it. At his age, he doesn't think much about spring break or job prospects. He doesn't know when the Clips will start winning. Heck, he doesn't even know how to seal off the baseline yet. But there's one thing he's sure of.

"As long as my boys are with me," he says, "things will be just fine."

This article appears in the February 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.