The trouble with the Los Angeles Clippers is, they don't live down to your expectations. You want to paint them as ridiculous, a burlesque of a professional basketball team. But then forward Loy Vaught introduces himself, the picture of professional dignity, and he says to you sincerely, "Be kind."
The trouble with that is, the Clippers were 0-15 after losing 103-95 to the 3-13 Minnesota Timberwolves last Saturday night, and you have all these jokes prewritten, like how Clipper guard Pooh Richardson should be called Losie the Pooh. But then you speak to Timberwolf center Sean Rooks, a member of the 13-69 Dallas Mavericks last season, and he shakes his head and says of human nature, "It's amazing how people want to kick you when you're down." Suddenly you feel smaller than Tiny Archibald.
The trouble with the NBA standings is, they don't make a critical distinction. "These players are losing," Clipper coach Bill Fitch says of his roster, which reads like a Who's He? of pro hoops, "but they are not losers."
The Clippers have historically been a laugh riot, an organization famously described as having "big ears and a girlfriend named Minnie." So you ask Billy Crystal why he's a Clipper season-ticket holder, and Mr. Saturday Night considers the query as if for the first time. (This'll be good.) A giant question mark hangs in a cartoon balloon above his head before he finally answers with upturned palms. (Here it comes.) "I don't know," says Crystal, a reflective smile giving way to a grimace that hints at something darker. "I...I don't want to talk about it."
If he doesn't want to talk about it, imagine how chatty the Clippers themselves must feel. "People think they can say anything to you in public," says starting forward Tony Massenburg, a journeyman who played in Barcelona last year. "In restaurants they'll ask, 'When are you gonna win a game?' What are you supposed to say? You can't go off; you can't get an attitude." So the Clippers beat on (and get beat upon), boats against the tide.
It is Friday, Dec. 2, 29 days into the season, and the Clippers are practicing at their facility in Carson, Calif. "I have yet to experience winning in the NBA," says rookie Eric Piatkowski, as if confessing some transgression during a 12-step program. (Piatkowski actually was drafted No. 1 by the Indiana Pacers and 15th overall, but then was traded to the Clippers in a deal that also brought Richardson and Malik Sealy to L.A. in return for guards Mark Jackson and Greg Minor.) "But if our center was healthy," Piatkowski adds, "we'd be a .500 team. I really believe that."
Seven-foot, 300-pound center Stanley Roberts ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the Clippers' final home exhibition game, one year after rupturing his right Achilles tendon. In addition, point guard Gary Grant will be out until at least late this month with a mangled left knee. It is precisely such luck that may aid the Clippers in breaking the league's alltime-worst season record of 9-73, established by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. The Miami Heat holds the record for most consecutive losses to start a season, with 17 in 1988-89, the team's first year in the league. The Clippers' 16th and 17th games were at home on Monday against the Charlotte Hornets and on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Perversely, their 18th—the possible record breaker—is on Friday against the crosstown Lakers in their storied Forum. In L.A. the Lakers are Gallant, the Clippers are Goofus.
Nonetheless, a funny thing is happening on the way to the Forum. The popular tide may be shifting, all but imperceptibly, in favor of this Clipper ship. Among the 6,685 fans allegedly in attendance at the Clip Joint last Thursday night to see loss number 14 (93-84 to the Pacers), 2,000 were invisible, while another five supporters bagged their heads like grocery produce. However, the rest of the demicrowd was wildly enthusiastic, especially when starting center Matt Fish was on the floor. "The fans here yell, 'Feed the Fish!' " says the piscatorial pivotman, an NBA rookie (averaging 5.7 points and 4.1 rebounds at week's end) but a veteran of "four or five" CBA teams. "I have a hook shot that they're calling the Fish Hook."
Fish is the proto-Clip, a 6'11" lefthander and accomplished pianist from Washington, Iowa, who accepted a Division I basketball scholarship before ever starting a high school game. A North Carolina-Wilmington recruiter saw Fish at a clinic before his senior season, flew him down and signed him on the spot. "I'd never seen a beach before that," says Fish. "I never went to an NBA game until I played in one in the preseason."
At various times last season the Clippers had, in addition to Jackson, NBA stars Ron Harper, Danny Manning and Dominique Wilkins, none of whom cared to stay. Only two seasons ago, under coach Larry Brown (now with Indiana), the Clippers won 41 games and made the playoffs. But for the better part of 14 years now, skinflint owner Donald T. Sterling has imbued his Clippers with all the dignity of those rotary nose-hair clippers. Yet with this current team he has unwittingly assembled a club to love: The Fish That Saved Los Angeles.