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Among franchises in the four major professional sports, the Clippers are the most inept ever.... There's got to be meaning to a failure of such immensity. So, consider this: The Clippers must lose so we can be reminded that there isn't always a light at the end of the tunnel, there isn't necessarily redemption and there might not be a next year. - SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 17, 2000
As you can see, SI has not always been kind to the Los Angeles Clippers. Then again, kindness is not necessarily warranted when a franchise has had just one winning season in more than a quarter century and its employees liken playing for it to incarceration, as Ron Harper once did. But now it's time to say nice things about the Clippers, a good young team led by a good-hearted young power forward, Elton Brand, who has suffered long enough. So the moment has come to give Brand his due and, in the process, exorcise a few of the Clippers' demons, as recorded in these pages.
... [the Clippers are] 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. -March 23, 1987
See? It began early. In 1981 Beverly Hills real estate mogul Donald Sterling bought the team (which was then located in San Diego) at the suggestion of his buddy Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss. At his first home game, in October 1981, Sterling sat courtside, shirt unbuttoned to his navel. As the clock ran out on a 125-110 victory over the Houston Rockets, he sprinted across the hardwood with a glass of wine in hand and leaped into coach Paul Silas's arms. That would be the high point for a while. With the exception of a brief respite during Larry Brown's tenure in the early 1990s, the Clippers suffered one woeful season after another. A move up the coast to Los Angeles in '84, to compete head-to-head with the Lakers for fans and media attention, hardly helped. It was ugly.
Until this season. Aided by the off-season trade for confident, playoff-tested point guard Sam Cassell and the signing of free-agent shooting guard Cuttino Mobley, the Clippers are at long last contenders. At week's end they were 31-23, the franchise's best start since 1976, when it was the Buffalo Braves. Most important, the Clippers have Brand. The 6'8", 254-pound All-Star is having a revelatory season. At week's end he was averaging a career-high 25.5 points and 2.6 blocks, along with 10.3 rebounds. His 52.4% shooting from the field is all the more impressive considering that 70% of Brand's shots this season have been jumpers, often against double-teaming defenses. "He's one of the top three players in the league, especially now that he can knock down that jumper," says Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mario Elie. "I get mad when they don't talk about him for MVP."
Despite their own success and the Lakers' recent struggles-the Clips were four games better in the standings through Sunday-the Clippers have yet to supplant the Lakers as L.A.'s team. They're still deficient in star power, for instance; the Clippers' most famous fans, in precipitously descending Q rating order, are Billy Crystal, Penny Marshall and Frankie Muniz. And though their average attendance of 17,120 is up more than 7,000 since 1996, enough vestiges of the old Clips remain to keep Angelenos from fully investing themselves emotionally. In a recent game against Golden State, Cassell drove the lane and lobbed a pass to center Chris Kaman that bounced off Kaman's forehead. Later coach Mike Dunleavy turned to his bench, intending to insert reserve forward James Singleton, but ended up sending in Vladimir Radmanovic, who'd joined the team just that afternoon in a trade with Seattle. "James didn't have the right shorts on," Dunleavy said. "He wore his practice shorts instead of his game shorts, so I had to put Vladdy in. It was good for Vladdy, I guess."
You want to paint them as ridiculous, a burlesque of a professional basketball team.
-Dec. 12, 1994
Ridiculous? Brand remembers when he would pull up to a restaurant and be asked by the parking attendant if he was a Laker. When he'd identify himself as a Clipper, the attendant would tell him there was no valet parking. "Those articles about [us] being the worst organization ever, it was like a joke," Brand says. "People would say to me, 'Why do you want to play with the Clippers?' As if the team wasn't an NBA franchise, and in L.A. Why wouldn't you want to play here?"
The 26-year-old Brand has endured more than his share of grief as a pro. After two fabulous years at Duke he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as an undersized power forward. He excelled in two seasons with a team that went a combined 32-132 before being traded to the Clippers for the rights to Tyson Chandler, plus Brian Skinner. In Brand's first four seasons in L.A., the Clippers were 131-197.