Well, here’s an absurd thought: The Los Angeles Clippers can take over the top spot as the alpha NBA team in Los Angeles over the Lakers. Yeah, I know too. What the hell are people smoking and where can I get some? But it’s an idea that’s been floated recently, and with the hell the Lakers have endured for the past few years, you can’t blame hopeful fans for thinking it, even though they’re always and forever going to be wrong.
Thing was, for a few years upon the team’s founding, it didn’t look like it was going to be that way. In fact, the Clippers were downright good during a window back in the 70’s, and they also looked like they were destined to forge their identity as a strong team that was less the beta team in America’s second-largest city and more like the love of basketball life in the city they were created in: Buffalo, New York.
Yes, that’s right. The Clippers were formed in one of the major US cities furthest away from Los Angeles with a totally different name. They were one of three teams created by the NBA for the 1970 season, the other two being the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers. Unfortunately, the Braves’ choice of venues happened to be Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Now, there was nothing wrong with the venue itself; the problem began because another team started up in 1970 that also played at the Aud and got first dibs at all the cool scheduling dates. That team was the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, and they went on to become a mainstay of both their league and their city, having recently celebrated their 45th year in business. And come to think of it, the Braves didn’t even get second choice of good dates. In Buffalo, college basketball’s popularity supercedes that of professional basketball, so the second choice of prime schedule dates belonged to the Canisius Golden Griffins, one of the two top-tier college basketball teams in Buffalo. (The other is the University at Buffalo Bulls.) That didn’t leave the Braves with as much space as they would have liked, so in their first five years, they were forced to play the occasional “home” game in nearby Toronto.
The first coach of the Braves was Dolph Schayes, one of the era’s legends as a player and also a former Coach of the Year for the Philadelphia 76ers. That also gave him a local connection, because his playing career went from 1948 to 1964 and he spent all of it with the Sixers. The team’s chronology being the way it is, that meant he was a player for the Syracuse Nationals, who moved to Philadelphia and became the Sixers in the mid-50’s. Anyway, the Braves were dismal for their first couple of years, finishing 22-60 both years. Schayes was quickly ejected and replaced by Dr. Jack Ramsay. Under Ramsay, the Braves spent the following year being even worse – they went 21-63. On October 20, 1972, the Braves showed the planet how amusingly hapless they really were when they set the still-standing record for points scored in a single quarter with 58 and lost the game anyway. So yeah, the record wasn’t what everyone wanted it to be, but the Braves were starting to find talent. They signed Elmore Smith and Randy Smith, who had been a local college basketball favorite at one of Buffalo’s colleges. While those two didn’t get the Braves up any in the standings, they did play an entertaining, exciting game of basketball which many of today’s older NBA fans liken to today’s Golden State Warriors. Minus the winning, of course.
In 1972, the Braves made the offseason move which is still considered arguably the biggest in their history: They drafted Bob McAdoo. McAdoo posted averages of 30 points and 15 rebounds per game almost immediately. The next year, the Braves drafted Ernie DeGregorio, who won Rookie of the Year and he, Smith, and McAdoo powered the Braves to the playoffs for the following few seasons. Now, the Braves back then weren’t GREAT, but they did have the best years of their history in any of their incarnations until recently. McAdoo was the league MVP in 1975, and in 1976 the Braves won their first playoff series against the Sixers. Unfortunately, by then the team was outright fighting with everyone. The Little Three college basketball rivalry – a feud between Canisius College, Niagara University, and St. Bonaventure University – wasn’t keen on the Braves. And the Braves had a very public and very brutal spat with the Sabres. The team was sold, and the new ownership ripped them apart. Between the team being bad again and trying to get out of its lease with Memorial Auditorium, attendance started to drop, and owner John Brown finally met with Boston Celtics owner Irv Levin. Levin was a California boy who wanted a team in his native state. He wanted to take the Celtics there, but there was a problem with that: The Celtics had won 13 titles at the time, which made them by far the most successful team in the NBA. That also meant they had generations of attached fans in Boston as well as a huge national following among fans of the sport. That meant the NBA tapped into this plan and said, “The Celtics ain’t goin’ nowhere.” So what Irvin and Brown did was switch teams. Brown got to own the greatest team in basketball and Levin got the Braves, as well as the sought-after permission he needed to take them to San Diego.
The Braves changed their name to the Clippers, but they didn’t find the renewed life they sought. Sure, they went 43-39 for a starter year and only missed the playoffs by two wins, but that was the last time they would be anything resembling competitive for the next 13 years. The only real highlights of the Clippers’ time in San Diego was the hiring of Ralph Lawler, the announcer who became associated with the team, and World B. Free coming in second in the league scoring race. In 1979, the Clippers brought Bill Walton to the team, two years removed from his NBA title in Portland. Unfortunately, Walton spent most of his first three years in San Diego nursing a foot injury. And while he had an NBA career which ran from 1974 to 1987 and got him a retired number and a couple of All-Star appearances, pretty much all of his acclaim was in those first few years in Portland, save a Sixth Man Award he received playing for the Celtics later. Free was eventually traded to the Warriors, Walton never reached his potential, the Clippers sucked to the seas and averaged a little over 4000 fans per game, and Levin sold the team to a real estate developer named Donald Sterling during the 1982 season. Sterling was from Los Angeles and he immediately started looking for approval to move the Clippers there. That may be the least assholish thing Sterling ever did.
Sterling never got that approval, but he took the Clippers to Los Angeles anyway and got fined for $250 million. The league reduced the fine to $6 million after Sterling sued it for $100 million. The earliest Los Angeles Clippers teams had casts of talented veterans who kept disappearing in the Clipper Triangle; that was a term sportswriters used to describe the weird phenomenon of all the team’s good players getting hurt. Derek Smith and Norm Nixon both went down due to knee injuries. Marques Johnson hurt his spine. The Clippers just couldn’t stop sucking, no matter what they tried, and so they were quickly relegated to beta team status while the Lakers used the star power of Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to pull the entire NBA into the mainstream. 1987 ended with a particularly bad contrast between the two: The Lakers ended that season by establishing one of the great teams in NBA history, a team which beat the Celtics to win the Championship. The Clippers went 12-70. No, that’s not a typo. In fact, it was the second-worst finish in league history, behind only the 1973 Sixers team that went 9-73. It remains the third-worst finish in the history of the league; or the fourth-worst if we include the strike season where the Charlotte Bobcats finished 7-59.
With a disaster like that, what can you do other than look for help from the best? Laker legend Elgin Baylor was hired after that season as general manager. One of Baylor’s first moves was to trade away the rights to Danny Ferry and Reggie Williams for Ron Harper. Around the halfway point, the Clippers were in an unusual spot: They were being seen as a possible playoff contender by merit of a 19-19 record. The team also picked up Ken Norman, Danny Manning, Charles Smith, and Loy Vaught in ensuing drafts. This turned the Clippers around… By their standards! Well, I mean, you can’t say they became a serious threat. They couldn’t even be considered a real contender. But they were doing SOMETHING decently. The late 80’s introduced the best teams the Clippers fielded since its days as the Braves. Hiring coach Larry Brown in 1992 looked like it might be a completion step – Brown was able to get everything to gel, and he got the Clippers into the playoffs. The team finished with a 45-37 record and had the better record of the two Los Angeles teams for the first time. They also got waxed in the first round of the playoffs by Utah. The next year, the Clippers returned to the playoffs with a 41-41 record and lost in the first round again, this time to the Houston Rockets.
Larry Brown walked off after that season. (He tends to do that.) Bob Weiss, his replacement, wasn’t able to stay with Brown’s plan. In 1994, Manning was traded to the Hawks for Dominique Wilkins, who proved to be a spectacular pickup. Wilkins averaged 29 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks assists per game over the course of the 25 games he played for the Clippers. Also, Weiss was fired after one year. The new coach became Bill Fitch, who was given a roster featuring Vaught and a bunch of underdeveloped youngsters and journeymen. I can’t say Fitch worked any miracles. He did manage to get this team to the playoffs in 1997, but with the Clippers having a 36-46 record, that had little to do with his basketball acumen and more to do with the Western Conference not having anyone to act as anything other than a sacrificial lamb to Michael and the Jordanaires. The Clippers were swept by the Jazz. If you’re looking for bonus bad luck, well, four players on that team are now dead: Malik Sealy was killed in a car accident in 2000, Kevin Duckworth died of heart disease in 2008, Lorenzen Wright was murdered in 2010, and Dwayne Schintzius went down from cancer complications in 2012. Furthermore, Brian Williams’s fate isn’t known, but it’s believed that he was murdered by his brother while on vacation in 2002. Rodney Rogers was hurt in a dirt bike crash in 2008. He’s still alive, but he’s also paralyzed.
The Clippers won the Draft Lottery in 1998 and selected Michael Olowokandi. Not that he did them any good, because in the ensuing strike season, they started 0-17 and won just nine games.
It was time for the team to endure the first year of its annual five-year rebuild again by 2001. In other words, it was a Clipper year like any other. But the team did have a great big overhaul. A lot of their previous regulars were sent packing, and over the next few years, they found guys like Elton Brand, Andre Miller, and Bobby Simmons. The rebuild started to pay off in 2005, when the Clippers finished with a better record than the Lakers for the first time since 1993. Then in 2006, they had a breakout year. They stormed out, beat several of the best teams in the NBA, went on a bunch of winning streaks, and finished the year at 47-35, which was their best record since their days in Buffalo. Going into the playoffs, they won their first playoff game – yes, I said GAME, not SERIES – since 1993 against the Denver Nuggets. They followed that up by winning three of the next four games for their first playoff series victory since the Braves beat the 76ers in 1976. In the second round, the Clippers pushed the Phoenix Suns the distance. The two teams played seven games, including a double overtime thriller, but the series went Phoenix’s way. Baylor was declared the league’s Executive of the Year.
2006 started differently for the Clippers; there were expectations on them. Being the Clippers, though, you can probably guess how this went. Yeah, the team took a step back, went 40-42, and proceeded to return to their accustomed place at the back of the line. Elton Brand was out by 2008. The Clippers were in dire need of a groundbreaking superstar in the mold of Bob McAdoo – and actually, now that I think of it, they probably needed one ever since leaving Buffalo. And with the first overall pick in the 2009 Draft, they finally found him. Of course, the Clippers being the Clippers, their shiny new prize, Blake Griffin, ended up missing his entire first season with a knee that was acting up. So, with Griffin having not seen any action in his proper first season, he was still considered a rookie in his second season, which is when he broke out, dominated, and walked off with the Rookie of the Year Award.
With Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Baron Davis, and a group of players with real depth, the Clippers ran out of the gate and promptly lost 10 of their first 11 games. But this was a different Clippers team than anyone had ever seen before, and that start was treated like an insignificant little hiccup. When the team finally started winning games that year, three of its first four wins were against the top teams in the Western Conference. Griffin became the first rookie chosen to be a Western Conference Reserve player on the All-Star team since Tim Duncan – a rare honor which put him in good company. He also won the Slam Dunk Contest. Davis was traded soon after and the Clippers finished with another losing record, but it was clear to everyone that they finally turned a corner. Every year since then, the Clippers have been doing more and more to establish themselves as more than The Other Los Angeles Team That Sucked Since Leaving Buffalo. They’ve been posting at least 50 wins every season, which has been setting the highest bar they’ve set since – everyone say it with me – leaving Buffalo. Chris Paul joined the team, and they’ve latched onto the moniker Lob City, after an offhand comment Griffin made in jubilation.
The Clippers for now have become the legitimate provider of exciting basketball for Los Angeles fans with the mighty Lakers enduring a down period. In 2012, the Clippers lost 12 of 19 games after Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending injury. But the team regrouped and ripped through the rest of the year, winning 12 of 14 to enter the playoffs. Facing the Grizzlies, the Clippers rallied from a 27-point deficit in game one to win 99-98. At one point, they led the series 3-1, but the Grizzlies forced a seventh game – you know, the kind of game the Clippers usually lose. Not these Clippers, though. They prevailed 82-72, winning only their third playoff series ever, and just their second since moving out of Buffalo. Unfortunately, San Antonio swept them in the next round. Ensuing seasons saw dramatic first round game seven victories over the Spurs and Warriors, only to be dispatched in the second round. Sadly, that remains the unfortunate problem with the Clippers. Yes, they’re legitimately good, and consistent. But just when we think they’re on the verge of a breakthrough which will allow them equal footing with the Lakers, there always seems to be a better team in the way.
If you ever go to visit the Clippers’ home arena, you’ll be struck by something: All the retired numbers there belong to the Lakers. The Clippers don’t have any of their own, and it’s tough to think of any players who are worthy of the honor. Sure, there’s Bob McAdoo, but he’s from the Buffalo days and many NBA boosters in Buffalo think his number needs to be honored THERE. McAdoo was the only MVP the Clippers had, though Griffin is making a strong case to be one one of these days. They’ve had five Rookies of the Year, and three of them are from Buffalo: McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio, and Adrian Dantley. The other two are Terry Cummings and Blake Griffin. The team’s top scorer is Randy Smith, from… You guessed it! Buffalo! Griffin is second, and McAdoo is third. Elton Brand and Chris Paul have helped define the team recently as well.
There’s a reason I’ve been harkening back to Buffalo a lot in this piece, and it has little to do with the fact that I’m from Buffalo: It’s because so much of what the Clippers have done that’s noteworthy happened back there. To hear old school fans tell the tale, the Buffalo Braves played a fast style not unlike today’s Golden State Warriors, and they got sold just when they were starting to gel as a team and form an identity and connection with the city. After leaving Buffalo, they had six forgotten years in San Diego before going on to infamy in Los Angeles as the worst-run franchise in sports. And no matter how good the Clippers get, they’re firmly established as the beta team there. Hell, they’re one of the few beta teams that was never able to reward its fans; the Mets, White Sox, Angels, and Athletics have all won the World Series. The Nets were better than the Knicks for most of this century. The Jets are credited with changing the course of the NFL. The Islanders and Ducks outright stole glory from their alpha teams for extended periods. The Clippers have a whole lot of nothing. The Braves still hold the imaginations of fans in Buffalo who wonder what could have been, but even that’s tempered when the Clippers enter the timeline. A popular preservation site for the Braves wants to look into the team’s history based on an offhand comment about tax forms. The gyst of this idea is that ownership was never fully transferred, so Buffalo’s sports heritage is the storied Celtics and not the pathetic Clippers. Of course, that one comment from an eyewitness who said he saw one person sign tax forms but not the other is something Buffalo’s conspiracy-oriented fans latched onto in the hope that their team is the Celtics. It’s wishful thinking, of course, but it adds to the list of people who want nothing to do with the Clippers. (It also makes Buffalo fans look like horrible bandwagoners; anyone in the entire state of New York knows you NEVER root for a Boston team!)
It seems to be Buffalo that’s trying the hardest to preserve the history of this team. Fans in Buffalo want to raise Bob McAdoo’s number from the rafters of the Sabres’ arena, and the building and team owners both seem to be good with the idea. They also want to see the Clippers at least play the occasional preseason game in Buffalo decked out in the old Braves uniforms. Despite all the disadvantages the Braves had in Buffalo, it seems that at some point, the Braves and Sabres were neck and neck for The Nickel City’s affections and that Buffalo was a hair away from being a full-fledged NBA city. It didn’t pan out, of course, and now it’s the Sabres that remain as a civic icon. It seems pretty funny now because Buffalo, between its weather and location right on the border to Canada, is a natural place for a hockey team and the people enthusiastically embrace the Sabres.
Aside from being consistently terrible, the Clippers were known for another thing until a few years ago: Having one of the biggest sports ownership shitbags on the planet. You knew the Clippers couldn’t be written about without bringing Donald Sterling into the conversation. Sterling bought the Clippers while they were still in San Diego, promising to use limitless funds to build them into a contender. That promise came to fruition in one of the weirdest possible ways just a few years after he bought the team: In 1982, he was given the largest fine in NBA history at the time for saying he’d be happy if his team finished if it meant drafting an impact player like Ralph Sampson. Then he moved the Clippers to Los Angeles without approval from the league. The Clippers had only a few winning seasons with Sterling as the owner, and they’ve had a revolving door of coaches. Of all the coaches the team has had, only Mike Dunleavy and Bill Fitch lasted for five years or more while Sterling ran it. (Current coach Doc Rivers and Jack Ramsay also lasted this long, but Rivers started post-Sterling and Ramsay coached in Buffalo.) He was sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination after making racist comments about blacks and hispanics. Elgin Baylor sued him for employment discrimination based on race. A property supervisor who used to work for Sterling sued him for sexual harassment after Sterling allegedly kept offering her money for sex. Sterling has also been known to heckle players on his own team. Sterling was finally forced out as owner when he was caught on a recording telling his mistress not to bring black people to his games – the NBA forced him out and banned him for life. Now, it seems easy to praise the NBA for putting its foot down in such a way, but you have to remember something: Sterling came in while the Clippers were still in San Diego. He was showing signs of this behavior even back then, right out in public, and the league decided he was an okay guy anyway.
Here is what you need to know about the Los Angeles Clippers: They were ranked the worst sports franchise in America not too long ago. Not just for their performance, but for the way they treated their fans and community. Although their new owner is clearly trying to change the team’s operative ethos, he has one hell of an uphill climb.
Are recently freed of one of the worst owners ever; are at least trying nowadays; have one of the league’s most marketable players
You’ll never win a bar argument against Lakers fans; most of the team’s iconic players and moments happened 40 years ago in a whole other home city; still reeling from Donald Sterling; have brought chronic losing to levels you didn’t know existed
Should you be a fan?
Well, you won’t be a bandwagoner, ever. Just don’t expect a whole lot of payoff. And with the Lakers there, being a Clippers fan is one of the most thankless tasks in sports. Perhaps the better question is whether or not you like underdogs, because dogs don’t come any more under than this.