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Friday, February 24, 2006

CLIPPERS NATION

About 6 years ago, I bought a Los Angeles Clippers hat. I made this provocative purchase for several reasons.

1. I needed a way to hide my hair when I didn’t shower in the mornings.

2. I lived in Los Angeles at the time

3. I didn’t like the Lakers (mostly the gold and purple colors)

4. The hat had a very cool, simple, classical design (black hat, white “LA,” with a larger red “C” on it)

Notice that nowhere in that list was “I’m a fan of the Los Angeles Clippers.” It’s nothing personal, really. I like underdogs, and I lived in LA, so I guess I was sort of a Clippers fan when I bought the hat. But it would be overreaching to say that I’m a fan of any sport. I’ve never really gotten into sports.

The most obvious reason is that I suck at sports, probably because I’m the biggest klutz on earth. I do not move with grace and majesty through this world. Instead, I go through life with a gait one would usually associate with a boy in early pubescence. But I’m 36 now. I was supposed to outgrow that, right?

So it goes without saying that I didn’t go in the early rounds of the kickball draft in the 6th grade. Likewise, my services weren’t usually called for when lacrosse season rolled around each spring.

Now that I think of it, I wasn’t all that great a student back in those days, so I couldn’t even take comfort in thinking I was smarter than those jocks. Not an athlete, or a mathlete. Rather a pathetic state of affairs, I think. But it has nothing to do with the subject of this post which is, if I recall my Clippers hat.

So I got this Clippers hat, and I started wearing it around LA. And pretty soon I learned that I would have to become a Clippers fan, or at least be able to speak about the team and not sound retarded. By donning this simple headgear, I had inadvertently entered a secret society, a society of misfits.

The Clippers fan is a rare creature, even in Los Angeles. So if one detects another, they can behave like old friends. I had my first experience with this when I walked into a bakery wearing my Clippers hat.

Bakery Guy: “Maggette showed the Pistons a thing or two last night.”

Me: Uh… he sure did. I… you know… it’s about time someone showed the Pistons something.

After that less-than-convincing exchange, I figured I had better at least glance at the sports page before putting that hat on again.

So I did, and not a moment too soon. Those Clippers fans, they’ll walk up to you right on the street.

Guy on Street: “Were they on last night or what?”

Me: “I’m telling you, Brand is a bulldozer.”

I’m still not exactly sure what that sentence means, but it was enough to get me through short exchanges.

Then I moved to Texarkana, and nobody cared about the hat at all, except to say, “That hat is for the Louisiana what?”

But now I’m back on the west coast, and there are all sorts of closet Clippers fans here. And I know who they are, because they walk up to me and say the same thing.

“This could be the year.”

Then they give me a serious, knowing, look.

And they may be on to something. The Clippers are actually having a good season. They’re second in their division now, and they may actually make the playoffs for the first time in recent memory. (I know this because I looked it up online after several “this could be the year” encounters.)

So when I get that comment and the serious look, I give them the serious look right back, then arch an eyebrow and give them a thumbs up. I’ve done this enough times that I’m almost not a fraud. Sure, I’ve only seen one Clippers game in my life, and that’s only because a friend bought me a ticket. But I’ve spent so much time dishing out vague complements to the team, that I actually may be a fan… in an odd sort of way.

Fact is, I do hope they go to the playoffs this year. Heck, I hope they sweep the finals. How can they not? Brand is a bulldozer.

Note: My Clippers hat is quickly fading, and will one day have to be retired. I’ve already purchased a Giant Robot hat as a backup. I still have to do more research before I’m able to knowingly converse with the Asian hipsters that are likely to confront me once I start wearing it.

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2 Comments:

At 4:04 pm, Blogger Darrell said...

The Past Is History
Forget every nasty crack you've ever heard about the Clippers. Led by All-Star forward Elton Brand, the team once known as the worst franchise in sports is erasing decades of futility


After years of hard times in Chicago and L.A., Brand finally has reasons for optimism with the Clips this season.
Greg Nelson/SI



By Chris Ballard

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.

In 2004 Brand's woes appeared to have ended when, as a restricted free agent, he signed a six-year, $82.2 million offer sheet with the Heat. But, shockingly, Sterling matched the deal. (Says Clippers forward Corey Maggette, in something of an understatement, "At the time the Clippers weren't known for, you know, paying people.") Dunleavy, who'd just been hired, broke the news to Brand. "I talked with him on the phone and said, 'Just get over it. You're not going anywhere. You're the anchor for this team in the future. Someday you'll thank me.'"

That day has come. But then again, that day is every day with Brand, who may dole out more pleasantries than any other professional athlete. He greets reporters by name, holds open the locker room door for security staff, jokes with ushers. Team vice president Elgin Baylor calls him "a perfect gentleman," and Cassell says he's "a hell of a good guy." For Mobley, Brand wasn't merely one of the reasons he came to L.A.: "He was the reason." Brand has a charitable foundation in his name and has started a learning center for at-risk teens in his hometown of Peekskill, N.Y., that's run by his old high school coach, Lou Panzanaro, who once said, "One day I'd like to be as mature as Elton was when he was 14."

It was that good-guy persona that gave shock value to a story that has bounced around the Internet for years about an e-mail exchange between Brand and a Duke grad. Upset that Brand had left the school early for the NBA, a female Blue Devils fan sent him an outraged e-mail expressing "disgust" at his decision and telling him, "You will not be considered part of the Duke family.... You have by no means proved yourself worthy of that title." Brand's purported response: "Thank you very much, for reminding me of the reason why I left Duke. People like you cannot and will not ever understand my situation. I'm sure Daddy worked very hard to send your rich self to college. While real people struggle.... Never being considered a part of your posh group of yuppies really hurts me to the heart...."

When the exchange surfaced on the Web in 1999, Brand denied that he'd been involved. Now, handed a copy of the exchange, he admits, "Yeah, it's real. But [my response] got changed up a bit over the years. It was funny, though -- half the people who read it hated it, and half said, 'Yeah, you tell her.'"

The Clippers' black hole of defeat [creates] ... a despair that is unrelenting, quite possibly life-changing. -- April 17, 2000

These days Brand lives in the Hollywood Hills with his fiancée, Shahara Simmons, a New Jersey native whom he met at Duke. He lives 10 minutes from his mother, Daisy, who raised him in Peekskill after his father left when he was a child. Mother and son have an exceptional bond. She attends every Clippers game, even going on the road when Elton is on the sidelines with an injury to "support the guys." Occasionally she tries to give him advice, to little avail. "He's a coach person," she says. "Whenever I say something, he goes, 'Well, Coach says to do this.'"

She relates this while sitting behind the bench in Oakland -- she'd flown up from L.A. that afternoon to watch her son play the Warriors. She points out something about her son that only a longtime observer would notice. "I see some happiness in his stride," she says. "C'mon, he's human. The losing would get to all of us."

She points to her son on the court. "Doesn't he look happy?"

[The Clippers are] a red, white and blue emblem of defeat and disaster. -- March 9, 1992

Brand is warming up for the game against Golden State, flipping in 15-footers. This is a new element of his game, along with a slimmer frame -- at Dunleavy's request, he lost 18 pounds last summer and is noticeably quicker. On this night he struggles, shooting 5 of 18 from the field, but he still pulls down 15 rebounds, employing all the tricks that have allowed him to excel against bigger players. He uses his legs to create space, tips the ball to himself, dives for loose balls. He leads a late rally, but the Clippers fall 88-81. Regardless, Brand is, as always, professional and approachable in the locker room afterward. Kaman, the team's blond goofball center, asks how Brand plans to travel to Houston, where Brand will play in his second All-Star Game.

Kaman: "You flying private?"

Brand: "No, commercial."

Kaman (stops tying his shoes, looks up, dumbfounded): "You're kidding. You're not really flying commercial?"

Brand (shrugs): "Yeah, what can I say?"

Kaman shakes his head. A Clipper finally becomes a star, but he won't act like one? But this gets at the essence of Elton Brand. He doesn't act like he's better than anyone else, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly better than most.

If there is a lesson in this turnaround, just as SI suggested six years ago that there was meaning in the team's failure, perhaps it is this: These Clippers are winning because hard work and good character are rewarded, and redemption is possible, but not always easy. So yes, Clips fans, there is a next year. And, right over there -- can you see it? -- that glimmer might indeed be the light at the end of a long, long tunnel.

Then again, it might just be James Singleton with a flashlight, looking for his game shorts.

Issue date: March 6, 2006

 
At 10:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO THE QUESTION OF WHO IS SHAHARA SIMMONS: SHE IS MY FIRST COUSIN,WHOSE REAL NAME IS SENACA SHAHARA SIMMONS. BORN AND RAISED IN NEWARK NEW JERSEY. STRAIGHT A STUDENT AND ALUM OF DUKE. SHE HAS A SISTER NAME ASHLEY. SHAHARA IS JUST A BEAUTIFUL DOWN TO EARTH YOUNG WOMAN WHO LOVES HER FAMILY. ELTON COULD NOT HAVE PICKED A BETTER CHOICE FOR A WIFE AND PARTNER. THOSE TWO WILL GO FAR AND PROSPER IN LIFE. I LOVE YOU "SENNIE"

 

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