Baron Davis says he will lead Clippers next season
It is hard to say how we got into one of the most revealing interviews Baron Davis has given since joining the Clippers two seasons ago.
One minute we were chatting about his summer vacation plans to travel to China and Africa and get more involved in his charity work here in Los Angeles, the next he was finally giving voice to how frustrated and embarrassed he's been by what's gone on here since he signed as a free agent in the summer of 2008.
I believe the question that led to him opening up was something along the lines of, "I remember you talked about getting more involved in the community at your first press conference here. Have you gotten to do as much of that as you'd like?''
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I think for the most part it's just been trying to fix this."
This, in this case, is the perpetually enigmatic and generally accursed NBA franchise known as the Clippers; the franchise he has ostensibly been the face of the last couple of years, but is still looking to make his mark on.
Davis came here two summers ago with what he thought were eyes wide open. He grew up just a few miles from the Sports Arena and knew all about guys like Benoit Benjamin and Loy Vaught and Charles Smith. He knew what part of the sports universe the Clippers occupied in Los Angeles.
The problem is, he'd also come to Los Angeles with a reputation as a complainer, and didn't want to reprise that role right off the bat. So he stayed relatively silent about the obvious differences he had with then-coach Mike Dunleavy about the style of basketball the team would play.
"The younger Baron would've definitely said something," Davis admitted Wednesday night. "I probably would've asked for a way out, I would've looked for the easiest way out."
Unfortunately, by avoiding confrontation he seemed to lose interest in the season and focus on his game. It did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
"Last year, he never was focused. I'm just going to say it," Clippers guard Eric Gordon said back in December, after Davis hit a buzzer-beater to beat the Celtics.
This season he came back in better shape and with renewed focus. Things got better for a while, but crumbled again midway through the season.
Which is how we ended up chatting before the game Wednesday about how it all went so wrong again, what he thinks can be done to fix it, and why it's taken him so long to speak out about what ails the Clippers.
I'll admit, there was a part of me that rolled my eyes as he was talking. He talked about changing the culture of the Clippers back when he first signed a contract in 2008. He's admitted to not being himself last season. Over the two years I've covered him in Los Angeles, he's made these kind of general statements on several occasions. It always sounds good and like he means it, which I think he does, but never translates into much on the court for any extended period of time.
But then he started giving it some teeth.
"I've just been kind of waiting patiently," he said. "Last year was kind of Dunleavy's thing. This year it's kind of [Chris] Kaman's team. So hopefully next year they'll give me a chance to put my full thing on display."
There are some who will read these quotes and think Davis is making excuses. That's certainly a valid point. But there's some guts behind Davis' decision to vent in the way he did Wednesday. A form of leadership assistant coach John Lucas says he's been waiting to hear from Davis for a while.
"He likes the 'we concept' and I want him to take on more of the 'I concept.' He's always saying 'Let's do it together,' " Lucas said. "And I'm like, 'You're the one getting the big bucks, boss.' "
Lucas thinks Davis has slowly been rebuilding his cachet in the locker room this season by being more consistent in his work ethic, but still has room to grow.
"I think what Baron has done by working this year is he has regained so much credibility in the locker room," Lucas said. "The guys are so much more willing to follow."
Now that Davis has publicly declared his desire to lead, and is on record saying he hasn't been "allowed to lead" in the past, he has to consistently meet that standard and not check out or lose focus if things don't go the way he wants them to.
That part isn't easy, especially in a town like Los Angeles, where franchises get typecast as quickly as child actors.
Earlier in the day, former Clipper Marcus Camby floated an idea about why his new team, the Portland Trail Blazers, had been able to weather the injuries that have struck it this season, while the Clippers have not.
Camby said there was more riding on things for the Blazers, who are such a focal point for the city of Portland, and players there can sense it.
Davis didn't argue with that idea, but said he hoped to change it someday.
"He [Marcus] is right. Being in Portland, everything is riding on you. There's one thing in Portland,'' Davis said. "Sometimes [here] you can become complacent, since there are no expectations, or very low expectations.
"You can accept your place in society. I think a lot of times, just being here you accept the fact that you're second fiddle. You accept the fact that you're almost third, fourth, fifth fiddle, fifth on the totem pole in this city. But you can't do that, because you can make an imprint at any time."
Davis has yet to make his imprint in two seasons with the Clippers and you always sort of wondered how much he cared.
Now he's not only saying he does, but asking for the whole box of Crayolas to start redrawing the team's image. If it doesn't work, the crayon melts on him. But at least he's not in a self-imposed timeout anymore.
Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com