For a long time, the Los Angeles Clippers ranked as the NBA’s most befuddled franchise. The sun rose in the East, and the Clippers lost in the West. That was life as we knew it.
Strange, then, to see the Clippers preparing for a playoff clash with the Denver Nuggets starting Saturday. Strange to see them playing in front of sold-out crowds at Staples Center. Strange to see Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman join longtime Clippers season-ticket holder Billy Crystal in the stands. This hasn’t been the norm for a franchise that was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and transferred to San Diego before settling in Los Angeles, home to millions of Lakers fans and just as many who couldn’t care less about the Clippers. But that was yesterday. Today, the Clippers boast power forward Elton Brand, one of the NBA’s electric young stars, and point guard Sam Cassell, one of the sneaky old craftsmen. They won 47 games, claimed home-court advantage over the Nuggets and march boldly toward a bright future. It’s understandable if they choose to ignore a gruesome past. “The Clippers?” Dolph Schayes said from his home in Syracuse, N.Y. “They were just another name for futility.” Schayes laughed as he thought back to his role in the birth of the Clippers. Schayes is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, a power forward who carried the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) to the 1955 NBA crown. He led the NBA in rebounding in 1951. He was Coach of the Year in 1966, when he directed the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA’s best record that season. And, alas, he served as first coach of the team that eventually became the Clippers. In 1970-71, Schayes and the expansion Buffalo Braves stumbled to a 22-60 record. Schayes knew it would take years for his young team to climb in the standings. Owner Paul Snyder had a different view. A few hours after the Seattle SuperSonics clobbered the Braves in the 1971-72 season opener, he summoned Schayes to his office. You’re fired, Snyder announced. Schayes shrugged. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think we’ve got much of a team, anyhow.” Schayes was left unemployed, which was bad. Snyder was left with the Braves, which was worse. The Braves lost 120 of their next 163 games. “You might say I put a curse on the team,” Schayes said. Over the decades, the losses kept piling up. Before this season, the Clippers had collected five winning records in 34 seasons and only one in the past 24, a 45-37 finish in 1991-92. The franchise rampaged through 21 coaches and repeatedly squandered draft picks. In the 1985 draft, the Clippers selected Benoit Benjamin, a sulking center destined for a journeyman’s career, and passed on Karl Malone, destined to become a superstar for the Utah Jazz. But the Clippers began to become, well, unlike the Clippers in 2003. Owner Donald Sterling had long been better known for his thrifty ways than his commitment to winning, but he finally opened his wallet to build a winner. He signed coach Mike Dunleavy to a four-season, $10 million contract. He handed $82 million to Brand, matching the Miami Heat’s offer, and $45 million to Corey Maggette, matching the Jazz. Sterling swam against the tide of basketball history and changed the Clippers from losers to victors. It remains difficult to believe. The Hollywood stars. The big crowds. The expectations. “This,” Schayes said of the Clippers’ recent success, “is kind of weird.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org