Clippers fan, owner have different dreams

Originally Published: November 11, 2004
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

Carl Cook, 44, is back to pedalling his beach cruiser the 30-mile round trip from Marina del Rey to the Staples Center whenever he can snag a free Clippers' ticket. Cook has been to one game this season, an exhibition against the Suns. It's a far cry from when he held season tickets two years ago, but that was before the accident.

A more cautious man wouldn't be pedalling anywhere. Twenty-one months ago, Cook was riding the straight shot home on Venice Ave. in the dark after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks and got knocked off his bike by a hit-and-run driver. Paramedics had to cut off his beloved Lamar Odom Clippers' jersey to get him breathing again. They rushed him to the hospital, where he lay unconscious for a week. He lost his laundromat job because his boss didn't know where he'd gone or what had happened. He had to couch-surf with friends because he'd sold his houseboat and bought season tickets with the windfall.

Why am I telling you this? Because Donald Sterling as an NBA owner is once again a point of discussion, and I can't help but think about Carl when I think about Donald.

Sterling, according to a recent survey of NBA front-office personnel, is considered the league's worst owner. This is not news. Sterling has been a piñada for decades now. I had no problem being part of the mob until a few years ago, when I learned how much Sterling routinely makes off the Clippers. Now I think he's a genius.

Donald Sterling
Donald Sterling scored Elton Brand and gave Clips' fans a glimmer of hope.
Since moving into the Staples Center four years ago, the estimates have him clearing $30 million to $40 million. Annually. With a Clippers' team whose playoff history takes up a half page in the media guide. With a team overshadowed in its own town by one of the most storied and successful franchises in league history. With a team that hasn't sniffed the postseason in seven years. Three first-round appearances since Sterling bought them in 1981, nothing more, and he's raking in a fortune, thereby laying waste to the conventional notion that you have to win to make money. In essence, he's created a cash cow without taking his prized heifer to the fair, collecting any blue ribbons or even spending more than the minimum on feed or fresh hay.

VP Elgin Baylor is unfairly maligned as well, since Sterling's strategy depends, in part, on Baylor's ability to keep putting together interesting teams. So the man consistently drafts exciting young talent, thereby consistently rekindling hope among Clippers' fans, only to watch the bulk of that talent move on when it comes time for his boss to pay for it. It takes a special kind of contractor to replace cornerstones every few years, perpetually remodeling the ground floor while colleagues are adding stories.

If you want to talk about bad ownership, look at George Shinn and Co. operating the New Orleans Hornets. Shinn made himself persona non grata in the league's best market, Charlotte, and is quickly wearing out his welcome in New Orleans. Despite all sorts of artificial concessions by the local government, he's apparently not clearing the kind of profit Sterling is. All with a team, up until this season, anyway, that has made perennial playoff appearances.

Besides, if Sterling really is that bad, why are other NBA teams adopting his methods? Nets' owner Bruce Ratner surely has. He knows if he lowers payroll far enough, he can still make a profit no matter how many fans show up in the Meadowlands. The Bulls, Suns and Sonics all have put the bottom line, at one time or another, ahead of being competitive in recent years. More and more teams are waiting until the All-Star break to see where they are and, if their teams don't have a strong shot at making the playoffs, are looking to dump contracts. Part of that is driven by the noncompetitive attitude inspired by the luxury tax; but I've been told that another part is the envy owners of mediocre teams hold for Sterling's silver.

None of that bothered me until I heard about Carl. Sterling does what he does by taking advantage of a guy who:

Leaves no later than 3 for a 7:30 tipoff so he can make the one-hour ride and be there when the players first take the floor to warm up;

Says the length of the trip depends on "traffic and which way the wind is blowing;"

Doesn't collect autographs or memorabilia other than the gear he wears;

Misses the Los Angeles Sports Arena;

Can still recite his old season-ticket location: Section 117, Row 3, Seat 16;

Once made the 2½-hour bike ride down to Long Beach to watch the Clippers' summer-league squad;

Dyed his hair Clippers' blue and red for a Thanksgiving game vs. the Nets;

Remembers Feb. 4, 1992, as the day the Clippers played the Mavericks and he got called down for a halftime shootout and won a trip to New York by making a three-pointer;

Never has attended a Lakers' game, other than when they were playing the Clippers;

Remembers March 22, 2002, as the day he presented the game ball to the officials and had a chance to chat with referee Joey Crawford. "It was like standing with my dad out there," he says;

Would've been upset if the team moved to Anaheim but says, "I would've found a way down there;"

Holds no ill will toward Sterling.

"Donald is Donald," he says. "He's always extended his hand to me when he walked by."

Which is what a good owner does -- he makes a customer feel welcome, thereby improving the chance that he'll come back again and drop a little more coin in the owner's pocket. Or maybe Sterling isn't that mercenary. Maybe he believes Clippers fans are in on the joke with him. Maybe he doesn't believe anyone -- much less the thousands of anyones who continue to follow the Clippers -- could be stupid enough to continue to dream that their team eventually will be more than a form of entertainment and evolve into a point of pride after so many years of repeatedly running the same cycle from bad to promising to bad again.

"I hang in there with them," Carl says. "That's just the way it is."

Maybe that's why my admiration for Sterling isn't quite what it might have been before. A good owner takes advantage of that attitude. A good person finds a way to reward it.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer