On Monday, March 2, The Los Angeles Clippers embarked on a road trip that would take them through the Midwest and on to the East Coast, four games in six days. The Clippers knew that there was very little they could learn from this trip that they really wanted to know, but they took it just the same. At 11-51 they are the worst team in the NBA this season; on a given night they may be the worst NBA team ever to play the game. If the Clippers had a credo—which they don't—it would probably be the one expressed by point guard Darnell Valentine: "You have to do as much as you can, as best you can, even if you can't."
The Clippers left town on a hot streak, which is to say they had actually won a game the previous Saturday night, and in the process had avoided tying the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in NBA history. That Sixers team had set some fairly imposing standards, finishing with a 9-73 record while losing games in 22 American cities, a remarkable feat considering they were playing in what was then a 17-team league. (In those days more games were played at neutral sites.) The Clippers have put together losing streaks of 12 and 16 games this season, but on that Saturday night—Feb. 28—they were able to pull out a 111-106 nail-biter over the Sacramento Kings at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena for their 10th victory of the year.
There were indications long before the season began that the Clippers were on the verge of becoming a low-end sideshow, the kind of grotesque curiosity you might find in a jar of brine next to the three-headed goat embryo. In July starting guard Norm Nixon fell down a hole in New York's Central Park and was lost for the season. Not lost in the sense that they couldn't find him, of course—but lost. Nixon had been playing the outfield for his actress-wife Debbie Allen's Sweet Charity Softball team and was chasing a fly ball when he ruptured a tendon in his left knee while tumbling down a hole leading to that strange place called Clipperland, where nothing is ever quite what it seems to be.
With Nixon out, the Clippers were obliged to rely more heavily on second-year center Benoit Benjamin, and more heavily is precisely how he showed up for training camp. Big Ben arrived at camp 27 pounds overweight and waddled onto the floor for his first practice looking as if he were carrying a small condo development on his seven-foot frame. But he pronounced himself unconcerned by the extra weight. "Most of my weight is liquid," he said. During the exhibition season, Benjamin's thighs had to be lubed with Vaseline to prevent chafing. "He definitely ain't something sculpted like a Greek god," said Cedric Maxwell, then a Clipper forward. "If Benoit hadn't eaten in two days and he was thrown into a cage with a grizzly, you can rest assured somebody would get a fur coat."
The Clippers were 3-3 two weeks into the season, when things began to get curiouser and curiouser. All-Star forward Marques Johnson brought down a rebound in a game against Dallas, turned his head into Benjamin's ponderous belly, and suffered a ruptured cervical disc that will require surgery if Johnson is ever to play again. "Without Marques we were a leaderless team," says head coach Don Chaney. "I'll bet we've lost 15 games in the fourth quarter because nobody wanted the ball."
If the Clippers are shut out on their upcoming road trip, they will have lost in all 23 NBA cities this season, eclipsing the 76ers' mark for futility on the road. They have not been much better at home. On Feb. 20, a rousing crowd of 8,247 turned up in the Sports Arena for something called Gospel Night, at which an old-fashioned revival meeting was conducted on the court following the game. Though Chaney and several players got up to testify, the Clippers remain a team in need of prayer.
The Clippers even have their own celebrity fan at courtside, a virtual must for any team playing in L.A. Just as the Lakers are rarely without the leering presence of Jack Nicholson, star of major motion pictures, the Clippers have Roberta Leighton, who plays Casey Reed, the "virgin doctor" on daytime TV's The Young and the Restless. Leigh-ton gets her Clippers tickets from her plastic surgeon, who also gives her collagen shots in the face. She doesn't say which is more painful, although the combined effect of the two seems to have made her slightly delirious. "I was attacked by my father in childhood, but it's O.K. because I killed him with a lamp," she says. "My sister is dying of a lingering disease, but actually, she can't the because she's married to the producer." Even some people who don't get shots in the face begin to talk like that after tumbling down that hole into Clipperland, where truth is often stranger than fiction.
MONDAY, MARCH 2
While the team stands around the baggage claim area at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, a woman who has been watching the players carefully for several minutes finally approaches a photographer who is taking their pictures and asks, "Are they the Flippers?" The correct answer, of course, is no, they were never called the Flippers, even when they played near Sea World in San Diego, before owner Donald Sterling moved the franchise north and turned them into the L.A. (Coupon) Clippers, the cheapest team in pro basketball.
When the team bus arrives at the Hyatt Regency it is greeted by a woman standing alone on the sidewalk, holding a sign that says WELCOME CUPPERS, and below that MOM DAILEY. This is the doting mother-in-law of guard Quintin Dailey, who joined the team two months ago. In February 1986, Dailey was suspended by the Chicago Bulls when he made his second visit to a rehab center under the terms of the NBA's drug policy (it was his fourth visit overall). When the Bulls didn't re-sign him at the end of the season, Dailey wound up with the Jacksonville Jets of the CBA, where Clippers scouts saw him and signed him. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was 25 pounds overweight, and Vaseline futures shot up on the commodities markets. Though he is considered one of the most likable players on the team, Dailey has had difficulty carrying the extra weight and is shooting only 38%.