Slingshot: Poor Clippers, So Far From God, So Close to the Lakers
Late one night in 1992, I watched a glowing television as a bespectacled Larry Brown coached the Los Angeles Clippers all the way to a best-of-five playoff series against John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz. Danny Manning, a long-armed small forward, led the Clippers on the court and out of a 16-year exile from the postseason.
A collegiate champion at Kansas and a first pick overall in the 1988 draft, Manning accomplished the feat despite having suffered a torn ACL knee injury during his rookie season, a fabled genesis of the never-ending Clipper curse.
As an Orange County elementary school kid, I didn't know much about the storylines nor possessed the insights of an analyst; I just knew that I loved to spend recess playing five-on-five on the basketball court until my hands were as black as tar.
Before heading back to class, I washed them until the asphalt vanished from my fingers and palms like disappearing ink circling the drains of drinking fountains. After school, I turned on the television in my bedroom and rooted for Manning and the Clippers.
Being the seventh-seed, they pushed the Jazz to a decisive game 5 and even won a game at the Anaheim Convention Center on account of the LA Riots. But Stockton and Malone proved too much. Call me a fair-weather fan, but the lousy clouds of losing seasons rolled in afterward and provided many lessons much like my once beloved Angels.
Suffering builds character.
Patience is a virtue.
My teenage years that followed could be best summed up as one long devotion to the sport. I played for National Junior Basketball teams, made good friends out of teammates and collected trophies at pizza parlors after successful tournaments. My fandom belonged to the Clippers and the Lakers, as it does today. But in the 90s, Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel had the purple and gold back in the playoffs while the Clippers only mustered two more winless appearances that decade after losing to the Jazz.
Those were the shit times shouldered by the likes of Lamond Murray, Bo Outlaw, Pooh Richardson, Eric Piatkowski, Loy Vaught, Brent Barry, Michael Olowakandi and Keith Closs.
Only the voice of legendary broadcaster Ralph Lawler and all his "Lawlerisms" could make those seasons palatable, especially with the comical Bill Walton by his side in the booth!
Meanwhile, the Lakers' dominance continued with Shaquille O'Neal signing as a free agent in 1996 and a teenager named Kobe Bryant being acquired that same year in a trade. The late 90s and the aughts belonged to the Lake Show as I sprouted to 6'1'' as a freshman but lacked the athleticism to advance my limited skill set of mid-range jumpers and drop-step post moves in high school competitions.
I also carried in my chest a heart condition that's since been corrected but sent me to the the Emergency Room on occasion whether playing the game I loved in a gym, at a park or at my old elementary school.
Suffering builds character.
Patience is a virtue.
The Clippers bounced back and assembled their best team yet in 2006 with Cuttino Mobley and Sam Cassell in the backcourt. Elton Brand carried the front court at power forward. That squad won a first-round playoff series for the first time since 1976! But it became a one-off experience, nothing dynastic like what Bryant was creating with Pau Gasol and former Clipper Lamar Odom by his side.
A change in Clipper culture wouldn't arrive until the "Lob City" era of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan gave Los Angeles its most dazzling displays on the court since Showtime. But even then, a purge of Donald Sterling, one of the most racist and vile sports owners around, was still needed and finally happened in 2014 only to be followed by untimely injuries and early exits from the playoffs.
Hexes or not, more people became Clipper fans during Lob City, especially with the role reversal of the post-Bryant Lakers suffering through hapless seasons of rebuilding through high draft picks and cheap veteran signings. Carlos Boozer, anyone? Gone were the days of the Clippers being the butt of late night show opening routines or players like Shaq treating themselves to career nights in scoring at their expense.
After billionaire Steve Ballmer bought the team, the Clippers would never turn back to an era when their best sales pitch was coming to games to see an opposing team's star players.
That became even truer still as I snoozed on the couch two summers ago only to awaken to late night reporting that the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George. The two superstars hailed from Palmdale and Moreno Valley--both cities of Black migration in the aftermath of the LA Riots--before making their Clipper homecoming.
As the Clippers marched into the playoffs with their new dynamic duo this year, a sizable share of Laker fans threw constant shade on their success. It's a glaring insecurity on display and outlined by LA Times' Bill Plaschke in his recent column. The haters are sure to celebrate if the Clips fail to rally against their steepest deficit yet as the Phoenix Suns now hold a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Sure, the Clippers haven't won a championship, much less 17. But they've given their fans the greatest season in half-a-century, even if it falls short of a chip.
Sports is entertainment and a form of escapism. In a city of lost causes, the Clippers offered only more of the same while the Lakers gave the toiling masses something to cheer about in the summer streets, away from the daily grind of their lives.
Only now, the story of the Clippers is an unfolding tale of resiliency over ridicule in the shadow of royalty; a hopeful sermon in song that should be a familiar chorus for the damned of Southern California.
"Our Day Will Come."
- Gabriel San Román
Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
Before the pandemic lorded over our lives last year, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana welcomed the "Inside the Disney Archives" exhibit. But just like the Mouse House in neighboring Anaheim, the collection from Walt's Vault shuttered in March 2020.
Originally intended to be on display through August 2020, the exhibit extended its lifeline until last weekend, opening intermittently through the pandemic's ebbs and flows of infection.
I visited the Bower's Museum during the rush of closing weekend amid a half-masked crowd of Disnerds. The exhibit's best displays also served as their most Instagram-worthy: Dumbo perched above the entrance, a replica of Walt's desk from the film Saving Mr. Banks, a trio of hitchhiking ghosts from the Haunted Mansion.
Even still. One child was overheard complaining to their mother that "Inside the Disney Archives" wasn't what was promised. The exhibit was no World of Disney store with everything encased in glass!
But the archival material on display wowed others. It ranged from the nerdy and historical like the nearly century-old founding contract for the Walt Disney Co. to produce the "Alice Comedies" to costumes used in the production of later films like Maleficent.
Closing weekend proved to be a Disney adjacent experience in more ways than one. The tickets were pricey, even for students. The exhibit halls were thick with people. The gift shop featured Mouse swag. The Tangata Restaurant on museum grounds even served up Dole whips with rum!
Hopefully, in the years to come, I'll do my own archival Disney digging away from a museum day.
In the meantime, the extended run of "Inside the Disney Archives" at Bowers showed that experiences postponed by the pandemic still awaited us upon return.
Lead photo: Let's Go Clippers! Photo by Amin Eshaiker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons