If you were one of the precious few who watched the Clippers lose at home to the gutted Bulls on Feb. 7, you probably concluded that everything is "same as it ever was" on the bad ship Clipper. L.A.'s other franchise stumbled out of the blocks with an 0-5 record, but a closer look at the league's most maligned franchise reveals a novel sentiment: hope.
The inexperience of the Clippers' (and the '98 draft's) No. 1 pick, center Michael Olowokandi, is apparent, but so is his aggressiveness in games and in practice. Teammates say the Candy Man is fiercely determined to prove his standing as the top pick, even if it takes some time.
It will. The fundamentals of basketball are still a mystery, at times, to Olowokandi, who had played only 77 games in his life before being drafted. In a recent game two Clippers had an opponent double-teamed in the post. Olowokandi was so intent on getting a blocked shot that he moved over for the triple team, leaving his own man wide open on the weak side. It was a fundamental error that could have been disastrous late in a tight game. Such mistakes are easily corrected by instruction—and expedience. Meanwhile the rookie has surprised new coach Chris Ford with his exceptional quickness and agility around the basket, which Olowokandi attributes to his years of slaying soccer in his naive Nigeria and in England, where he went to boarding school.
Ford is even more impressed with Olowokandi's steep learning curve. At practice one day Ford noticed that Olowokandi, who shot .466 from the line in college, had a hitch in his motion, so he pulled the rookie aside and worked with him for 10 minutes. Ford says he then stood there amazed as Olowokandi made the adjustment and knocked down eight free throws in a row.
The challenge, of course, is to keep all the Clippers—especially Olowokandi—upbeat until their hard work translates into wins. Veteran point guard Sherman Douglas should make a big contribution when he gets himself into game shape, and Ford plans on doing his part by taking a kinder, gentler approach with his new team. "I find myself teaching more than I ever have," he says. "These guys are willing to say they don't have all the answers. They want help. That is refreshing."
Olowokandi has taken his time adapting to Los Angeles. He still doesn't have his driver's license but plans to get one soon. Teammate Darrick Martin serves as his chauffeur to and from practices and games, an arrangement that has worked out well for both. Most of the time. As the Clippers gathered at the airport to embark on their first road trip, a head count confirmed that one guy was missing. "Coach!" screamed Martin, jumping up suddenly. "I forgot Michael!"
No matter. The rookie, ever the quick study, had wedged himself into a cab and arrived with two minutes to spare.
Caution: Snapping Ligaments
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Hurt
After scrutinizing the preseason workouts of small forward Jamal Mashburn, any thoughts Miami president and coach Pat Riley had entertained of trading Mashburn vaporized. "I was going to ride him like a horse," Riley says. "I had him down for 40 minutes a night."
Instead Mashburn hyper-extended his left knee on Feb. 9 and is out for four to six weeks. To compound Miami's misfortune, shooting guard Voshon Lenard underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg on Feb. 12 and is likely gone for the year.