A Trip to Clipperville

Has the Other Staples Center been that transformed?
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It’s a Wednesday afternoon at a shithole Korean takeout counter in Westwood. The man next to me is in O.R. scrubs and Crocs, chain-smoking an electric butt and drinking beer out of a chrome can. He's talking about somebody’s wife.

The Clippers had played the week earlier on Friday, to a packed house and much fanfare, to a bubbly press box and a full assortment of storylines. In short, circumstances which, when applied to the Clippers in any other calendar year, would easily out-weird any of the above-mentioned Croc-rocking, ultra-Angeleno weirdness. The chance that the Clippers may yet outpace the Lakers—they were three ahead in the loss column as of Monday—is even weirder.

Since moving from San Diego in 1984, Los Angeles’ red and blue have racked up as many winning seasons as playoff games postponed by the L.A. riots. Towards the end of their tenure at the city’s Sports Arena, they averaged four-figure attendance, a dubious feat for a team that plays in a city with an international airport. Owner Donald Sterling hemorrhaged $6 million annually for the privilege of hosting annual Hollywood-purgatorio draft-night parties—yes, that is Pia Zadora by the bar—and calling himself the owner of the NBA's most ridiculous team. The less said about Sterling the better—that’s not his real name, which is somehow the least unpleasant thing about him—but his worst qualities have remained discomifittingly constant with the Clippers. If a profitable, multi-million dollar enterprise can be both obsolete and invisible, then the Clippers have spent most of their history flirting with that possibility.

That’s why it’s initially strange the team is playing to a Friday night sellout in Staples Center. The organization’s aesthetic, which has historically ranged from early sex-club Rick Owens to late/bloated Suicidal Tendencies to Avis Rent-a-Car, is L.A.’s other side; they deserve, in a deep and profound way, to be playing on Mondays. But all the trappings of legitimacy are here to be found in the Staples Center pressbox: a hot buffet, Walkie-Talkies, interns in pressed pants delivering photocopies. Such professionalism seems tied to Staples, the Clips' home of a dozen years, but is still jarring considering that the organization itself hasn’t much changed in some fundamental and unflattering ways.  

But, that Friday, the current Clippers iteration—a good, (mostly) young dozen, built under unusual circumstances even by Clippers standards—was now under the house lights. More than that, they were getting slightly better at team basketball, despite putting four point guards on the court at once and limiting their talented young power forward to the high wing.

On the 100 level, it was close to business as usual: Kids in Pop Warner uniforms circled the concourse and tour-group retirees clutched hard leather camera cases and looked puzzlingly at the press elevator. There were families in matching tracksuits—some red and blue, some just stained—and all manner of carb-rich snacks bought and sold. A disproportionately high number of patrons were wearing leather—or it might have been disproportionately low, I’m not from L.A.—and, UCLA's hometown privilege notwithstanding, the number of outdated Baron Davis jerseys was perilously high. The upper levels featured more of the same, though with fewer tourists. Up there, the leather was cheaper. There was not one Michael Cage jersey to be found on either level, though he may have been in the press box.

It remains early enough in the season that things don't quite matter. It was a Clippers game to be sure—the announcer mixed up Mo Williams with Chauncey Billups during the intros, and ten minutes later gave out Keith Sweat tickets to a lucky fan—and a loss for the record, though it was close for a while. The business at the team store was brisk and chaotic, with foam fingers and child elbows in every direction all borne aloft on a general surge of fans (or at the very least, patrons) and team spirit.

For those working, the buffet and Diet Cokes helped—I stuck to D.C.—and the third-quarter books came late, arriving via khaki'ed-messenger with the cheerleaders in the elevator. The outcome was apparent, and it was off to the business of early files and interviews.

It doesn’t take more than a win or two in a row to get people writing about a Clippers resurgence, and while not all of it is hyperbole, the bar’s been so low for so long that it will be tough to know when or if it begins to mean anything. The team has provided the occasional basketball moment—Blake Griffin’s 2011 and all of 2006 come to mind—and the good times are trippy-good, which doesn’t happen much in sports. Either Staples or competency has blanched out the old Clipper weirdness, to an extent. It was just a local trip on Friday, and has been: a good many of the arena seats are purple, as are the concourse artifacts; the security sticker applied to my laptop bag had the Lakers logo.

But these are small indecencies, and the balm is in the balance sheet. The current Staples lease is incredibly gentle on the Clippers, and seems to have been negotiated under the thrall of either pity or drunkenness. The team's $1.5 million annual rent is nothing, and makes even the most skinflint brand of basketball pretty enough for the city of ugly buildings. Indeed, the profitability bar has been set low enough that Sterling’s team holds no debt. The Clippers’ status as renter/purgatory dweller is either a distinction or a reason for rage, depending how you feel about terrible teams and sucker fans.

The business of sports is, of course, no meritocracy. In any number of industries a franchise like the Clippers, which has yet to field three good teams in a row since the Ford administration, would have been taken over, stripped for parts or worse. Under Sterling, bad business—bad basketball and bad basketball business—was rewarded more than it was punished. At its worst, the club was a parasitic aggregator, taking gate from visits by Hakeem Olajuwon, Oliver Miller and Gary Payton, stars and geniuses all, in a venue which amounted to little more than a loading dock.

Did the Clippers even exist? Were they a legal loophole in the CBA? The team could not be taken away—the NBA had fined Sterling when he moved the club to L.A.; he countersued, they blinked—and could not be improved upon by force. They were, in a way, the most unsightly of the NBA’s growths: hidden across town behind the sport’s biggest jewel, working—or hardly working—under as sprawling a cloak of inscrutability as can exist in the world of nationally-televised what-have-you. Theirs has been a special, uneasy kind of privacy.

Little of this matters in the Chick Hearn Press Room, however, and the cold-flowing Coke and meatloaf, trainers, wealthy gents and beat guys sharing moments together imply that times have changed. It’s the same pressroom the Lakers and Kings reporters use, and the one where Ralph Lawler takes a wiz and a gruff man in his 50’s, who may be a TV grip, makes fun of my outfit (which, admittedly, includes a duck camo baseball hat) to his friends, who also seem sort of like TV grips. Someone leads a tour group outside Hearn through what is mostly a gray basement, the kind athletes need earphones to protect themselves from, and the crowd mostly stares at their phones.

The game is over and steaming, and interns honeybee at the info table with the game books, upcoming schedules and corrected errata, all of which disappear faster than they can be photocopied. It’s a bit of a blur for a while, and the ticking of keyboards in the work bay drowns out most of the chatter from the lunch room and video guys packing up.

By this point it’s mostly newspaper guys. The trainers have left and they’ve stopped serving food. I see Sterling, some intensely pretty older women and another rich-looking man hold court by intern central. Tax Bracket comforts Sterling—they’ll win soon enough, and it’s early enough in the season. The women and Sterling nod. He seems agitated, and one worries what might happen if they don’t. In the halls, the crew begins setting up the ice for the next day’s game. The Kings have scheduling priorities. There is not a suit to be seen.

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