And now the Clippers are also a global phenomenon, whistled for hanging on the Pacific Rim. They opened this regular season with a pair of games against the Portland Trail Blazers in Yokohama, Japan, after a pair of exhibitions in Mexico City. On an all-Asian L.A. radio station this season, seven Clipper games will be broadcast in Mandarin Chinese. (Significantly, there are no L's in that language.) In the Clipper front office Andrew Gonzalez answers the main switchboard. "Where is the Los Angeles Sports Arena?" the unruffled Gonzalez says, politely repeating the caller's question. "It's in...Los Angeles." The caller is phoning from Australia, where it is 3:15 in the morning. He wants to purchase Clipper tickets.
Which brings us to Saturday night at the Sports Arena, the NBA's own Land Down Under, and a tilt between the league's two worst teams. The Timberwolves won one game during the first month of this season, providing new coach Bill Blair with some faux-positive thoughts. "We try to get them to play on an even keel," says the blameless Blair, a respected 13-year NBA assistant. "In November there weren't a lot of peaks and valleys: It was valleyin' every night."
How brown was his valley? The Wolves lost by 30 points to the Houston Rockets in the home opener, by 33 to the Cavaliers in Cleveland and by a landmark 38 points in Minneapolis to the struggling 76ers, the most lopsided loss in Minnesota's six-year existence. A local columnist who refers to the Wolves as the Trembling Timber-chihuahuas received an indignant letter from the owner. Of a Chihuahua.
Still, the Wolves, behind 19 points each from Christian Laettner, Isaiah Rider and Doug West, and nine assists by Winston Garland, led the Clippers by as many as 20 points before handily winning. It was a game widely regarded as the Clippers' last, best hope for a victory before they would break the record. Which, make no mistake, it was. "Otherwise," Fitch acknowledged afterward, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and ESPN wouldn't be here, as if this were a Game 7."
"Absolutely no one," says Vaught candidly, "wants to be the first team to lose to the Clippers."
In Saturday's ticket-holding crowd of what—3,500, maybe, out of in announced figure of 6,196?—was star-crossed sports agent Arn Tellem. He has only 12 NBA clients, but half of them are Timberwolves or Clippers. Among these are West, the losingest NBA player of the last five-plus seasons, and Rooks, the losingest NBA player of he last two-plus seasons. Then there is Richardson, the former Timberwolf and current Clip. "Pooh has been on a long and winding road through the underbelly of he NBA," says Tellem, who is a former general counsel for the Clippers. "Right now, he's passing through the...."
Let's just say that the agent makes an unpleasant anatomical analogy. Still, it is one that suggests light at the end of a tunnel. Richardson, who attended UCLA, co-owns a deli in the Valley ("The hot pastrami, man—it's sweet!" he says) and has long aspired to play professionally in Los Angeles. "My friends are here," he says. "I know they'll show up through thick and thin. They were telling me yesterday, we gotta switch to black shoes to break the streak. But we just gotta keep playing through it."
In the meantime life doesn't necessarily have to be something that rhymes with Fitch. Twenty-four years ago Fitch endured a similarly epic season-starting 15-game losing streak as coach of the Cavaliers. "Neither streak was fun," says Fitch, who only regrets that basketball hasn't kept pace with developments in medical science. "At least now, when you go to the dentist, that's painless."
Yet the 60-year-old Fitch, the fifth winningest coach (844 victories) in NBA history, came out of retirement for this team. He won a title with Larry Bird in Boston, still has not won a game with Matt Fish in L.A., but, admirably, professes no preference, neither Fish nor fowl. "I missed the teaching," says Fitch, when pressed to explain himself. "I missed the camaraderie and the competition. Playing the games. All of it. Coaching can be like teaching a subject. At the end of the season we'll know which of these guys can play."
Until then, as the Minnesota game made clear, the Clippers may make any number of records go timmm-berrr. "If somebody had told me I'd have to go through what I did in 1970 again, would I have taken the job?" says Fitch. "No. But if somebody told me I'd lose 82 games this season and make the playoffs next year, then I could stand it."