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The Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.
Imagine this: Irv Levin, once the owner of the Boston Celtics, wanted to own an NBA franchise in San Diego. The year was 1978, and the Celtics had won 13 NBA championships in the past two decades, yet Levin had his sights set on owning a team in his home state of California and he was eager to fill the empty San Diego Sports Arena (which had been built for the San Diego Rockets, who left for Houston in 1971) with an NBA franchise before someone else beat him to the punch. This eventually led to Levin trading NBA franchises with Buffalo Braves owner John Y. Brown, with the intention of moving the Braves from upper New York to Southern California.
The name “Clippers” was chosen for the new NBA franchise in San Diego in a contest, and was supposed to represent the sailing ships that passed through San Diego Bay. Don’t let the old logo, which looks a lot like the electric clippers barbers used to shave the head of Marines, throw you off. Those are supposed to be the sails of a ship with a big sun in the background.
A franchise with roots in, and a name tied to, San Diego? It’s true, and it makes the Clippers one of only three professional sports franchises to hold that distinction (along with the aforementioned Rockets and the Padres). You’ll recall that the Chargers were the Los Angeles Chargers before relocating to San Diego. This is one of several reasons that San Diego’s NBA fans should choose the Clippers when trying to decide which team to root for.
The move to Los Angeles/The owner
Levin ended up owning the San Diego Clippers for three seasons, failing miserably to build a winning franchise around San Diego native and former MVP Bill Walton. Walton’s foot injuries led to him playing in just 14 games in four years, making it impossible for him to be the Clippers’ star player. Walton wouldn’t get back on the court regularly until after Levinsold the team to Los Angeles native Donald Sterling, who had his sights on moving to team north, and did, after the 1983-84 season.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Sterling, including the fact that for years he seemed to copy his methods for running the organization from Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, but I’m giving the man a second chance as an NBA owner. He appears to be learning from his mistakes, he’s started to promote from within the organization and has been doling out the money to keep star players with the team long-term. Also, in a move that nobody ever thought they would see, Sterling now trusts his basketball people more than he does his own instincts. Those small changes have taken the Clippers from laughingstock of the league to perennial championship contender seemingly overnight.
The trade/The star player
Before you can talk about the trade that happened, you need to understand the trade that didn’t happen.
Chris Paul wanted off of the New Orleans Hornets, a franchise owned by the NBA while searching for a new owner, and the team wanted to trade him before his contract expired. Paul demanded a trade to the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers. The specifics were worked out and it looked like “CP3″ would be at the next Lakers championship next to Kobe Bryant. That, of course, was before NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade. The league commissioner doesn’t usually veto trades, but he was also acting in the interest of the team owner. He didn’t believe that the Hornets (now the New Orleans Pelicans) were receiving equal value in the trade. He told the team’s general manager to look for a better trade package.
Eventually, Paul landed on the Clippers in exchange for all of the young talent the Clippers had besides Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Those were the young players, drafted by the franchise, that Sterling would not part ways with. In one fell swoop, the franchise now had the young foundation to win games and the veteran leadership to get them there, not to mention a ton of star power. Sterling spent millions marketing the team, and has continued that spending in the two-plus years since the deal. Paul, true to his word, signed a five-year contract extension with the Clippers this offseason that keeps him in blue-and-red through his prime years.
The lovable kids
Griffin and Jordan, paired with Paul, make up “Lob City.” Paul, one of the best pure passers to ever play, is often looking to throw alley-oop passes to his two big men. As such, the Clippers have led the league in alley-oop dunks since trading for CP3. It’s an incredibly exciting brand of basketball that is also fundamentally sound and helped the team win the Pacific Division last season.
If you’ve watched any NBA games in the last two seasons, you’ve seen a commercial with Griffin in it. His wide smile and goofy nature have made him the most likable, and marketable, player in the league. It’s his hard work, though, that has helped him improve as a player in each of his three seasons with the Clippers. Although the NBA season just started, Griffin’s name is getting buzz as an early MVP candidate because analysts know how important he is to the Clips’ success.
Jordan has always been a big ball of potential, a 6-foot-11 player with 250 pounds of muscle who can jump through the gym. The trouble has been harnessing that potential. He apparently didn’t get along well with former Head Coach Vinny Del Negro, and didn’t fit well into Del Negro’s system. He has made great strides in 2013.
The star coach
Perhaps as important as the trade for Paul was this offseason’s trade for Doc Rivers, formerly coach of the Boston Celtics. It was the first time in the NBA that a team had traded for a coach, and it was only made because Sterling believes that Rivers can take this team to a championship.
Rivers began his 15th year as head coach by making news and shaking up the culture of the Clippers. His decision to cover the Lakers championship banners with pictures of the Clippers’ star players during Clippers home games angered the Lakers, but it created a new identity for the Clippers: Fearless. No longer are they the little brother to the Lakers, they are ready to take their turn as the kings of Southern California basketball.
Could they return home?
I started rooting for the Clippers long before Paul came to town, and long before they started winning games.
The Clippers are the only NBA game that I could, as a San Diegan, attend. Even after a significant bump in ticket prices before this season, the average ticket price to see a Clippers game at the Staples Center is $63.10. The average ticket price to see a Lakers game in the same arena is $100.25 — for a team that’s not expected to make the playoffs this season. The Clippers and Lakers are the only two NBA teams that play within driving distance, so I chose to root for the team whose games I could actually afford to see.
If San Diego is ever going to get another NBA team, my money is on the Clippers. The recent banner snafu led a lot of fans to wonder why the Clippers don’t have their own arena (or their own city). Until the Clippers manage to win 16 championships like the Lakers have, they will never be the beloved NBA team in L.A. If a nearby city, say San Diego or Anaheim, were to shower them in love and offer a very profitable deal on a new arena — one where they wouldn’t have to share allegiances — I could see Sterling taking an opportunity to be a king instead of a mere prince.
Let’s earn a team
February through April are very sad months in San Diego. Those are the months between the end of the NFL season and the start of the MLB season. Most major cities have an NBA or NHL teams (or both) to tide them over.
Now, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. The Clippers haven’t won a championship yet. They haven’t even made it to the NBA Finals yet. If you jump on board now, you can hope to someday bask in the celebration. If you wait until after it happens, your NBA-watching friends will look at you in shame.
Let’s go out there and earn our city a professional franchise. Let us throw our support behind the former San Diego Clippers, with their games being broadcast on Fox Sports San Diego, and be so loud that Sterling hears us. If we show them that they have a welcome home down here, maybe they’ll listen. If not, at least the games will be fun to watch.
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