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Olshey spent most of his time with a sweet-shooting Artesia forward named Jason Kapono, and when Kapono moved on to UCLA in 1999, Olshey trained him at night for free. Two years later agent Arn Tellem hired Olshey to conduct larger workouts at St. Monica High, attached to Olshey's church, and the Santa Monica gym became a haven for NBA players in the summer. One was Mike Dunleavy Jr., whose father was coach of the Clippers. After several trips to St. Monica's, Dunleavy Sr. offered Olshey a spot on his staff in 2003. As director of player development he observed players' work habits. A lot of them fattened up over the off-season and didn't arrive until two days before training camp. "Their goal was to come [to the Clippers], produce and move on," Olshey says.
At the time, the Clippers practiced at the Spectrum Club in Manhattan Beach, next to housewives on treadmills. But in the summer of 2008 they moved into a $50 million basketball Taj Mahal a mile from the beach, with 42,500 square feet of courts, weights, saunas and film rooms. The facility was open to opposing teams, so prospective free agents would check it out and wonder why the lowly Clippers had the plushest digs in the league. It made no sense, unless the club was suddenly more committed than anyone thought, and perception just trailed reality.
In 2009, when the Clippers won the NBA lottery, the facility echoed with the cheers of long-suffering staffers. Olshey, having become assistant G.M. in '08, called Dunleavy in Barcelona, where he was scouting. "Come home," Olshey said. "We got Blake Griffin." The G.M. still remembers what Griffin's mother, Gail, said the first time she came to visit: "Now I know my son will be in a good place."
The Clippers were selling more than bricks and mortar when their top executives flew to Cleveland in the summer of 2010 to meet with free agent LeBron James. Olshey, who had been G.M. for all of five months, pitched James on Griffin and what they could accomplish together. But Griffin had never played in an NBA game, having undergone knee surgery in his first season, and James could not gamble on a wild card when a sure thing was waiting in Miami. The trip was no bust, though, because it provided Olshey an audience with James's agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports. CAA had plenty of premier clients. Maybe Olshey could score another one.
Olshey met with New Orleans general manager Dell Demps at the Chicago predraft camp last May and again at the Las Vegas Invitational in November, while former players and G.M.'s were lobbying for Olshey's job. Clippers owner Donald Sterling let Olshey's contract expire in the fall of 2011, a death knell for executives in most organizations. But not this one. Sterling's disdain for long-term contracts is surpassed only by his aversion to pink slips. President Andy Roeser has been with the team 27 years, all without a contract, and several vice presidents have been in place nearly as long. Iconic play-by-play man Ralph Lawler started in San Diego, where he doubled as the team's real estate agent.
In this case Sterling's loyalty, often part of the Clippers' problem, was part of the solution. After the lockout, Demps let Olshey and his lieutenants call Paul. A free agent after this season, Paul had made it clear he would leave the Hornets, but there was no reason to believe he'd sign long-term with the Clippers. Olshey, director of player personnel Gary Sacks and coach Vinny Del Negro were astonished when Paul picked up the phone and rattled off minute details about their roster, draft picks and salary cap. "I get it," Paul said in the middle of the two-hour conversation. "There are a lot of places I can go where they've won and I can help them win again. But building our own tradition and our own history would be huge." He thought of the Clippers as Wake Forest, his alma mater, forever in the shadows of North Carolina and Duke.
The Clippers knew they would have to surrender two of three major assets—Jordan, shooting guard Eric Gordon and the Timberwolves' 2012 first-round draft choice, which they had obtained in a trade. Paul said he needed them to keep Jordan, who reminded him of Tyson Chandler, his old pick-and-roll partner in New Orleans. The Clippers also asked Paul to rank three small forwards on the free-agent market, and he picked Butler first. On Dec. 8, Butler agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract, choosing the Clippers over the Bulls, Spurs and Nets. "[Butler] wanted to be here," Olshey says. "That was inspiring for us." But hours later Demps informed the G.M. that Paul was being traded elsewhere.
Stern's intervention was the kind of big break that happens in Hollywood, but never to the Clippers. While Paul threatened a lawsuit against the NBA, Rose encouraged Olshey to reengage the Hornets. Paul would not immediately sign a long-term contract with the Clippers, but he would guarantee that he'd stay with them for two years, exercising his option for 2012--13. The Clippers negotiated with New Orleans deep into the night on Dec. 11, and when Olshey woke up the next morning, he had 17 text messages congratulating him. But the trade dissolved again. Olshey and Del Negro told players it was dead, and the Clippers won a waiver bid for Billups—who had no interest in joining them. "I wouldn't have done this three years ago," Olshey told Billups on the phone. "I wouldn't have hijacked you and brought you somewhere dysfunctional. But it's different now. Give us a chance."
With a deep tan and a quick smile Olshey retains an actor's charm. He was with Billups at the orthopedist's office the next morning, for a physical, when Demps called to renew talks. Two hours later a deal was done: Paul was coming for Gordon, center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu and the Minnesota draft choice. Players were on buses at the time, completing a community relations tour, and when they returned to the practice facility, Griffin and Jordan shoulder-bumped in the parking lot. "Lob City!" Griffin blurted, spawning a cottage industry of message tees.
Del Negro had two weeks to integrate three new starters. "What's your favorite play set?" he asked them when camp opened. The Clippers were assembled faster than the 2010--11 Heat, and they adapted faster too. Through Sunday, Griffin was averaging 21.1 points and 11.4 rebounds, Paul 18.0 points and 8.4 assists, but that was expected from two probable All-Star starters. The defense has stiffened, Jordan has emerged, and Billups sank a game-winning jumper against the Mavericks on Jan. 18. Olshey, who also added rebounding savant Reggie Evans, is the front-runner for executive of the year. He lives in Manhattan Beach, just a few blocks from Kapono, a reserve with the Lakers, who are jostling with the Clippers for control of Los Angeles and the Pacific Division. "I was skeptical of all this," says Billups. "But you look at the facility, the coach, the guys on the team, they're serious. They don't want to be the same old Clippers anymore."