The Los Angeles Clippers are, without any possible argument, the losingest team in history. We've crunched the numbers, we've colored the bar graphs, we've drawn the pie charts. Everybody suspected all along that the Clippers were the worst team—whom are we kidding?—but nobody, until now, had ever bothered to certify their chronic incompetence with actual arithmetic. So taking what was long just a kind of folklore of futility, we've done the dispiriting dirty work and can now confirm it: Among franchises in the four major professional sports, the Clippers are the most inept ever.
Agreed, this is a horrible thing to announce—as if the Clippers, and whoever their fans might be, need to be discouraged any further. We like to accentuate the positive in pro sports, when court records permit, but there is no longer any overlooking this magnitude of unrelieved desperation. In their 22 seasons in Southern California the Clippers have won barely one third of their games (chart, page 58). Since leaving Buffalo in 1978 (where, as the Braves, they were pretty bad too), the Clippers, either in San Diego or Los Angeles, have had just two winning seasons. They've been to the playoffs only three times. They've had 13 coaching changes. A dozen last-place finishes in the Pacific Division. A brief flirtation, in 1997-98, at the Philadelphia 76ers' record-low nine wins in a season. ( L.A. finished 17-65.)
When it comes to protracted prostration, there's never been anything like it. Other franchises have endured disastrous spells, have even become catchphrases for failure. The NFL's New Orleans Saints come to mind, a team that slogged through 12 consecutive losing seasons in the 1960s and '70s, its fans wearing paper bags over their heads in shame. But even the Ain'ts won a division title, in 1991. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a nice (bad) stretch, but they still reached a pair of NFC championship games. The Minnesota Timberwolves seemed capable of challenging the Clippers, but back-to-back playoff appearances—and Kevin Garnett—effectively removed them from the noncompetition.
Even franchises that played so badly as to conjure embarrassment at their very mentions have all gained redemption, the Clippers excepted. For sports fans of a certain age, the New York Mets will always signify comic incapacity. Their first seasons, to this day, remain a cautionary tale for any expansion team owner. Yet the Mets overcame that floundering and bumbling beginning to become a championship team, and in relatively short order. If you recall, they were amazin'.
Really, scant few teams haven't enjoyed at least a dead-cat bounce after alarming declines. The Denver Nuggets kept the Clippers out of Jay Leno's monologues in 1997-98, when they too chased the 76ers' nine-victory mark. But the Nuggets didn't make it either and, worse for the Clippers, have since rebounded to respectability. The Clippers, after that brief respite from ridicule, rebounded in reverse: The very next season they almost broke the Nuggets' and Vancouver Grizzlies' mark of 23 consecutive losses, dropping their first 17 games, and, in a nice bit of self-mockery, appeared on Leno to celebrate their near-epic failure.
There are other cities where the fans like to characterize themselves as "long suffering," but none can bemoan a losing lineage as extensive as L.A's. A ground ball through Bill Buckner's legs may indeed be the work of the gods. Where the Clippers come from, however, it's just an E-3. Fate might define a team in some instances, but only in those in which a grounder through the legs (or its basketball equivalent) is not an everyday occurrence. In any case, Buckner's Boston Red Sox were in a World Series in 1986 when destiny reared its ugly head. The World Series! Against the Mets!
The Clippers, with their sustained flair for failure, are obviously beyond the grasp of fate. Their helplessness, so practiced and so dependable, is clearly the work of man, possibly the work of just one man—we're thinking of Donald Sterling here (page 60)—although surely no owner could weave a web of defeat like this all by himself. It's more probably a team effort, each man doing his worst, nobody's hand really on the wheel.
Their winning percentage drifts ever lower, no redemption in sight. They win 20% of their games in one season ('97-98), 18% the next. Lottery picks every year and the ineptitude continues, virtually uninterrupted. And somehow the team continues to exist. There normally is this refuge in seasonal sports: the idea that there is always next year. But the Clippers seem to refute the notion that there is always reason to hope, always a possibility of success. Having earned only nine victories in last year's strike-shortened season, the team was nevertheless optimistic about its chances this year. Really. And yet, after a season-opening burst, the Clippers have reverted to form, with all that entails (a coaching change, players' promising defections, a secure hold on last place), oddly at peace with their destiny.
Part of the problem is that as awful as they may be, they are not especially clownish. They might reasonably have almost the same expectation of victory as, say, the Washington Generals, yet they are unmistakably playing professional basketball. Often with genuine professional basketball players. Pretty often, anyway. On a recent night one Clipper, inbounding the ball, absentmindedly began dribbling up-court from his sideline position, cutting out the middle man. But such comical gaffes are rare. The Clippers' record might be easier to take (certainly easier to explain) if they really were clowns, performing one pratfall after another. But watching them play, you are struck with the indescribably sad thought: They really are trying!
It can get a little poignant, too, when you realize that a college player who's known nothing but the highest level of success (in fact, because he's known it) will be plunged into the Clippers' black hole of defeat, sucked into a despair that is unrelenting, quite possibly life-changing. There's karmic comedy for you—a player becomes the best in the nation just so that he might play for the worst in the world. Sometimes it's not so funny, though. Bo Kimble, the Clippers' No. 1 draft choice in 1990, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he was nearly driven to suicide by the team's habitual underachieving. (To be fair, the executives who signed off on his selection and watched him flop still have to rush past open windows themselves.)