Fitch wishes the Clippers had a center. What they have is 6'11" rookie Lorenzen Wright, a power forward who has to play center because Brian Williams, last year's starter, wanted more money than the Clippers were willing to pay. Another pivotman, 7-footer Stanley Roberts, has missed most of the season with an injured back. "We have one rule," says Fitch, "don't tell [Wright] that he's not a center."
Wright is often replaced by Charles Outlaw, he of the ugliest shooting form in the league. Outlaw, who is righthanded, shoots the ball from the left side of his head. On release, his right wrist is curled instead of flat, and his right elbow is crooked, instead of straight. The 6'8" Outlaw is a career 48% free throw shooter, but he's shooting 55% from the line this season. He can play all three frontcourt positions, and he's an active rebounder, a tenacious defender and a relentless runner. "If I had to have a heart transplant, I'd want his heart," says Fitch.
"I don't know how many wins we'd have without him," Piatkowski says. "Everyone on this team wants to be on the floor when he is."
The Clippers' most skilled player, swingman Brent Barry, would love to be on the floor more than 16 minutes per game. He's one of the few Clippers who can shoot the jumper on the break or take the ball to the hoop and slam, but Fitch uses him sparingly. Barry played 10 minutes last Friday in the victory over Toronto and not at all in Sunday's 109-107 overtime loss to the Nuggets.
Wright, on the other hand, saved the Toronto game by blocking Damon Stoudamire's shot in the final seconds, thrilling his father, Herb, who moved to L.A. from Memphis after Lorenzen signed with the Clippers last year. Herb is paralyzed from the waist down, the result of being shot, in 1983, by a youth whom he had kicked out of a Memphis recreation center where Herb was running a summer basketball program. He attends every Clippers home game. "I have to give him pointers," Herb says of Lorenzen. "We take care of each other."
The players' fathers are an interesting mix. Two-guard Malik Sealy's dad, Sidney, was a bodyguard for Malcolm X. Piatkowski's father, Walt, played for Fitch at Bowling Green. "That was 1917, right after the war," Fitch says. Barry's father, Rick, is one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
Despite their improved play, the Clippers are averaging 8,799 fans at the Sports Arena (lowest in the league). Of course, making the playoffs for the first time since the 1992-93 season could help create interest in the team.
"That's our goal, the playoffs," says Martin. "When we play in pickup games at UCLA in the summer, guys from around the league tell us, 'Oh, you should feel what the electricity is like in the playoffs.' Well, we want to know that. We want to say, 'We've been there, too.' "